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21 September 2011

Postmodern Follow-up

Thoughts from an old friend

I’ve heard from several people sustaining my piece on the odd notion of Reconsidering Postmodernism; one in particular, artist Anthony Visco, offered a more substantive lament, which I am posting below. Anthony was somebody I mentioned in my piece, and he was an important influence on my work as I struggled toward something more serious and classical. His thoughts may resonate with others as well; please offer any responses to him directly….

Life: Before and After the PoMo Party

When I first received the notice of the conference I thought, how sad, do we have to go back? 

Was PoMo the end of something or the beginning of something? Or, was it simply a bridge for the Decons? It has become more apparent that it is still too soon to know either. If it was anything it was the beginning of the end of trying to fit classicism into modernism, mixing a Mondrian with a Rubens. It didn’t work. 

I sometimes look at our modernism and post modernism as our “mannerism” much like that period between the Renaissance and Baroque, or, Counter Reformation, but with only less bravura in the works.

As a church artist I do not find this ironical or coincidental that this mannerism should parallel Vatican II just as the first mannerism followed the Council of Trent. After all, both were and remain a period of reform. In fact, when we hear Pope Benedict XVI say it is time to “reform the reform” we are hearing the new beginnings of what I see as a counter reformation in art and architecture. We can already see this already in the church architecture of Thomas Gordon Smith, Duncan Stroik, and James Mc Crery. Note bene: remember that modernism was the first time the Church had ever followed a secular movement. Now as it frees itself, it will be much quicker than in the secular world where political correctness continues to shackle and condemn the content and origins of any Western cannons, either in art or architecture. 

I never planned or wanted to be a postmodernist, nor did I consider myself to have ever been one. Coming back from a Fulbright in Florence, I was trying to make the best out of a bad situation.  I was and continue to do the best I could with what I had, which was no classical training whatsoever. So if the work looked “mannerist”, which it was often accused of being, I couldn’t help it. Often it looked awkward and not in sync with the architectural context, as the work was either for a modernist church of drywall and exit signs or renovated post Vatican II 19th century churches that had received a gift and chose not to purchase something from “church depot”, or the catalogue of religious goods stores. My work most times looked inappropriate in both places, as I never worked with the architects living or dead. And so, for the classicists, I wasn’t classical enough; for the modernists, I was a moribund copyist trying to revive the past. 

Things started to change drastically once I met John Blatteau, then President of the Classical America Philadelphia Chapter. Aside from being introduced to other architects and a library of books, like Ware’s American Vignola, and of course, Drafting of the Orders, I learned I was not only not crazy but I wasn’t alone! We would talk about the sisterhood of art and architecture and how wonderful it would be if someday we two could do a church together, something I imagined and drew over and over again. Sadly the PoMo years passed by and church design commissions where all around but none came our way. Still stuck on post Vatican II rhetoric and purposely confusing the word “contemporary” with “modernist,” Philadelphia failed to build any church that would lead us out of the desert. And so for forty years we wandered watching the work given to the “hired hand” again and again. All the while the exit out was right there. I regret for John, and myself, as well as all the others capable of pointing the way out, never having received that opportunity as we watched the Archdiocese of Philadelphia chose one bad architect after another, and over a dozen new churches be built that everybody continues to hate. It all would remind me of what a teacher once warned me that it was “difficult to be talented and desire to make high art in a low art period”. “This”, he added, “is a low art period.”   

During those years I would go to the foundry to work on my reliefs for Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, watching large works be cast for many Pomo buildings around the country Yet the PoMo architects would walk in the foundry to approve another sculptor’s work in progress for one of their buildings, see someone (me) or not see (me) working on a Christ figure or an Assumption relief, and would dismiss it based on narrative content. In fact it was because of this issue of narrative content alone that no Pomo architect ever wanted to include my work (or any else like it). 

After drafting the Orders, I could not take PoMo work too seriously. I knew better. It was like studying anatomy for me, and I took to it instantly. Measuring a column by diameters was no different than measuring a body by its number of heads (the common unit in anatomical cannons of proportions); there was such direct correlation between the measuring of the orders and that of the human figure that it became all the more obvious as to why the Catholic Church would employ this corporeal form of architecture to represent the Body of the Church. I couldn’t wait to show Blatteau my first rendered elevation of a Corinthian capital! 

Yes, we saw some figures reintroduced to PoMo architecture; but then again in the 80’s the figure, as long as it lacked content, was making a temporary comeback even in the galleries as well. However just as the figures on or in the PoMo building always seemed to lack content, real narrative content, they did as well in galleries and institutions of painting and sculpture: perhaps because the buildings themselves lacked the true sense of the corporeal so inherent in the proportions of classical orders. The orders for me are akin to anatomy for the figurative artist, indispensable. PoMo did not follow that anatomy; or followed it only in part. It was a stripped classicism, stripped to the bone. Where modernism had thrown it away, Pomo dug it up and had the skeleton rearranged. As for fleshy parts, it gave us eye lashes, teeth, nails and hair, often making a deliberate confusion between inner and outer body parts. Any hierarchy of proportions remained vague at best. 

Should the PoMo Masters think themselves the Forerunners of the “New” Classical Movement, what do we then call those who, like John Blatteau, had been practicing all along? Forerunners to the Forerunners?  Or was Blatteau too old fashioned to have known that one must be modernist first and then convert? As John once said when I complained about how more and more modernist European painters and sculptors were becoming, he noted “Classicism is in exile here and living here in America”. 

What I find sad here is that we hadn’t, and perhaps haven’t yet, accepted the true heart of classicism. Perhaps if there is anything good to come of this conference it will be this one point. As I said above for the Church, we have turned the corner both here and in Europe. I meet architects, painters, and sculptors—both here and abroad—who are either working with classical architects on new churches or embellishing those classical buildings that had been stripped during the modernist renovations.  Yes there still are a few churches to be suffered that will be done in that post Vatican II Pomo gathering space, clam shell pew arrangement with a walk-in baptismal tub all done in the interfaith style, or what I prefer to call “Hagia Ikea”. But their generation of priests and architects are on the way out and will soon join the nether world. As we leave the desert, where we left the garden is where we shall reenter with the most corporeal plan of all, the Cruciform. Gloria tibi Domine

Anthony Visco

08 September 2011

Reconsidering Postmodernism

Glory Days?

There’s something vaguely depressing about the idea of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art staging a conference called Reconsidering Postmodernism:
It sounds a bit like a dreaded high school reunion where the jocks recount their big achievements on a small stage, or the ‘60’s crowd attending a recent Rolling Stones concert. Those days are past and, for whatever their glory, have essentially nothing to offer us today. For classicists like me (and I count myself in that camp as both artist and architect), Postmodernism was a high school we couldn’t wait to graduate from, a way station on the road to something more substantial, richer, more rewarding. Admittedly, I was shaped by a PoMo education that gave me tools–analytical, compositional, conceptual–that I still use; but the architecture that resulted from it was a thin, jokey, naïve, clunky, awkward pastiche of the great architecture of the past, and thanks in no small part to Tom Rajkovich (who saw through it earlier than I did) I moved on to the real thing; and once I had I didn’t spend too much time looking back. That saved me (I vainly hoped) from the withering critiques of the post-Postmodernists by the Decons, et al, who too easily pilloried the PoMo icons for all of their shaky pretense; unfortunately, those who took classical architecture more seriously were lumped in with our less serious “mentors” by the neo-Mods, and classicism in a way has never achieved the status it deserves because of the sins of our fathers. Thanks for that.

Apart from what seems, to me at least, a really bizarre idea for a conference by the ICA&A, one wonders about its content. The age of Postmodernism was also the age of nascent classicism; where, then, are Allan Greenberg and John Blatteau in the program? Having worked for John, who had little patience for Postmodern jokes, I can imagine at least one of those two serious classicists who happened to be practicing during those glory days poking holes in any nostalgia for the brief reign of the jocks. And then, what about the &A part of the organization? What about postmodern painting and sculpture? I remember the work of Carlo Maria Mariani, Edward (Ted) Schmidt, and Tony Visco being legitimate alternatives to Abstraction, Conceptual Art, etc. From what I can tell, there is no place for art at this conference, even though one of Michael Graves’ greatest achievements was reintroducing figurative art into his projects, like his unrealized painted room with Ted Schmidt for the Clos Pegase winery.
I spoke last year in Venice on the 30th anniversary of the Biennale’s Presence of the Past, and I lamented the role of History disappearing from architectural education after Postmodernism; but I didn’t lament the disappearance of Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo.

Sadly, what this seems to be about is an admitting of defeat by the classicists in a world increasingly hostile to what we do, and a longing for a moment in the past when everything seemed a little freer. But it was a sloppy, insubstantial time, and being much of an autodidact I’ve had to struggle for decades to shed the postmodern attitudes that prevented me from doing serious classical work; the idea of turning back the clock, essentially unlearning what I’ve learned in the last quarter century, seems more like a nightmare than a dream.

Reconsidering Postmodernism? No, Thanks. I graduated a long time ago.