Say No Mo To Po-Mo

PRUDENCIO IRAZABAL, 40, IS A SPANISH ARTIST WITH a studio in New York's Chinatown -- a postmodern situation if there ever was one. But Irazabal paints small, abstract, subtly colored canvases that attempt to discover the absolute bedrock of painting. "I'm interested in what painting was in the beginning," he says, "when it was concerned with feeling." This is a modernist enterprise if there ever was one. Not too far away, sculptor Carol Ross, 49, creates austerely geometric panels whose intersections of unadorned wood grain lend a new organic beauty to minimalism, "I like art that aims to be perfect, please the eye, feed the brain, not art that's easy, cute or superficial," she says. "So at last postmodernism is losing its cachet. What a relief. I thought the art world had gone mad."

Wait a minute. Wasn't it just yesterday we welcomed the collapse of Ross's kind of modernism? Weren't we overjoyed to be finally getting out from under modern art's worship of industrial technology, its cold, reductive abstraction and its insufferable elitism? Down with all those boring Don Judd metal boxes calling themselves sculpture, we said. Up with wacky David Sadie paintings that combine pulp illustration, girlie photos and ironic allusions to other people's art-all on the same canvas! Hello, postmodernism.

Actually, that was about 15 years ago--much more than a generation in art-world time. The term "postmodernism" likely entered the lexicon in 1960, in Daniel Bell's book, "The End of Ideology." Soon it was applied to the architecture of Robert Venturi, whose 1966 treatise, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," celebrated what he saw as the demise of the austere, modernist glass box and the advent of buildings that cheerfully quote from a mix of historical styles. By the late 1970s the art world was following (yes, following) suit, feverishly rummaging in the granny's attic of art history for stylistic bric-a-brac to glue together into fashionable po-mo goods. Julian Sehnabel's big 1980 painting "Exile," for example, sports not only images of a young guy out of Caravaggio and a folk doll but real antlers as well. French intellectuals (who love American vulgarity) supplied the theoretical justification, and young American artists (who love French intellectuals) ate it up. When radical sociologist Jean Baudrillard announced in 1988 that we were all living in a boundless Disneyland he called a "simulaentm," where everything is an imitation of something else, postmodernism's triumph seemed complete.

One reason postmodernism swept the field was that everyone was sick of modernism--its insistence on a pseudoscientific "progress" in which art gradually reduced itself to a few, tasteful elements, like the single flat color of an Ellsworth Kelly painting, or a skeletal cube of a Sol LeWitt sculpture. Show after show of minimalism was like a diet of vitamin pills: nutritionally correct, but missing the greasy satisfaction of a hot plate of french fries. But in the 1970s the whole culture--elite and pop--went retro. Where no self-respecting teenager in the 1960s listened to Vaughn Monroe, kids in the '70s couldn't get enough Buddy Holly. Kids in the '90s wear tie-dye, watch "The Brady Bunch" reruns and listen to Tony Bennett. And their parents read vampire novels written in Victorianese and listen to Nat King Cole's posthumous duets with his daughter.

But mix-and-match gets tiring, too. Now the art audience is exhausted from decoding complicated works of art that seem, in the end, to say only, "Been there, borrowed that." They're tired of slogging through jargon-filled criticism only to be told that all texts are about other texts (which are about other texts, and so on) and that all readings of them are "misreadings" anyway. Postmodernism aims everywhere at once, sees the future as an endless flea market and wants to be more startling than beautiful. Good old modernism at least aimed high, had a vision for the future and tried, in its own way, to be good-looking. Which is exactly the point of the work of artists like Irazabal and Ross. As we reach the end of an otherwise unfortunate era, they give us some reason to hope.