• Déjà Vu: Contemporary Art about Modernist Architecture
    Claire Bishop
    Thomas Hirschhorn
    Koenig Books, 2020
    Claire Bishop

Thomas Hirschhorn, Poor Iconology (6), 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the most understated yet persistent tropes in contemporary art since the early 1990s has been the referencing of modernist architects and designers. Names like Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Mies van der Rohe, and Luis Barragán appear repeatedly as the starting point for works of art that purport to be “about Modernism.” Yet modernism appears in these works in a somewhat paradoxical fashion: intellectually it is framed as “modern ruins” or “failed utopias,” yet more often than not it is presented in a cool and clean aesthetic that is far from evoking failure. The longevity of this trope, and its global spread, raises a question: why, at a cultural moment that defines itself as “contemporary,” do we find an effusion of references back to the modern? What does this repetition tell us about the relationship of the present to the past, and of art to social change? This essay aims to do several things. Firstly, it charts the rise of modernist architecture as a presence in contemporary art from East and West Europe, North and South America, and uses this work to index a set of changing attitudes towards modernity as both style and periodization. Secondly, it presents this work as a symptom of contemporary historicity, manifesting a problematic relationship to the past at a moment of digital presentism. Thirdly, it attempts to show how this art de-ideologizes modernism in order to become palatable for the collecting classes. In its place I propose work that eschews nostalgia for elite icons in favour of reimagining a modernism for the many—rather than a post-human panorama of pristine empty spaces. This agenda is inseparable from art historical method: letting problems in the present determine a rereading of the past, with the goal of shifting our imaginary of the future.

Claire Bishop is an art historian and critic, and professor in the PhD Program in Art History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her publications include Installation Art: A Critical History (Tate, 2005); Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (Verso, 2012), which won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism; and Radical Museology, or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? (Koenig, 2013). She is a regular contributor to Artforum and her books and articles have been translated into eighteen languages. She has received an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and research fellowships from the Clark Art Institute, New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts, and the New York Public Library.