Magazine article Artforum International

"Postmodernism Style and Subversion, 1970-1990": VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

Magazine article Artforum International

"Postmodernism Style and Subversion, 1970-1990": VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

Article excerpt

DOES POSTMODERNISM BEGIN with the teapot? The question is prompted by the V&A's design survey "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990," where the vessels appear with bewildering frequency. On view are Adrian Saxe's Ampersand teapot (1988), Richard Notion's Double Cooling Towers teapot (1984), Matteo Thun's Pontifex teapot (1983), and so on, ad infinitum. The best of the bunch is Marco Zanini's weirdly brilliant Colorado teapot (1983), a truly original example of the form that simultaneously evokes a pacifier, a pop-up chicken thermometer, and the red-nippled breast of a Tom Wesselmann nude. This profoundly Oedipal object appears to lie on its side, lolling disreputably next to another teapot, Peter Shire's Stacked Donut (1982), which looks like the offspring of a caterpillar and a Morris Lapidus hotel.

There's also a little green wooden teapot prototype dated 1972 in the small gallery that introduces the exhibition, but few visitors are likely to linger over it. In this space, curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt have installed other works that might be seen as antecedents to postmodernism proper. Stealing the show is a slide projection documenting Alessandro Mendini's destruction of one of his own designs, the abstracted, severely rectilinear, Lassu chair (1974). Set brilliantly aflame, the object appears not only to immolate Euclidean modernism but to incarnate postmodernism itself as a perpetual inferno of signs and experiences. But by the time one arrives, several galleries later, at the display case housing Michael Graves's epoch-capping Mickey Mouse teapot (1991), the little green prototype has swelled with a retroactive significance that all but eclipses the flaming Lassu. If the progenitor of postmodern design is to be found in this gallery, it is apparently not the destroyer of the Lassu but the maker of this unassuming little tchotchke, this ur-teapot. But we knew that already, for the prototype was designed by Ettore Sottsass.

Sottsass, of course, was the paterfamilias of the Milan-based design collective the Memphis Group and had been actively violating the norms of modernism since the 1960s. Founded in 1981, Memphis pioneered the idiom most of us think of when we think of "postmodern design": graphic patterns and faux finishes; garish colors; exaggerated, often cartoonish forms; declasse materials; and simu-lacral references to a vaguely Deco alternate universe. At the V&A, a dense, jostling display of the Italian firm's objects was one of the high points. Memphis products tend to look far less ingratiating in person than they do in photographs, because the camera doesn't capture their surprising opulence--these people really knew how to make chipboard look good--or the almost hostile intensity of their colors, two qualities essential to balancing out the zaniness. But encountered in the gallery, designs like Nathalie du Pasquier's Gracieux accueil (Gracious Reception, 1983)--a small black, red, and white box that seems to vibrate with energy, as if it's full of kryptonite--will likely convince doubters that Memphis is not the design world's equivalent of stirrup pants. Beyond Sottsass's studio, the exhibition is replete with objects and furnishings in a similar vein. Some (like Michele De Lucchi's pastel hair dryer [1979]) will likely remain permanently mired in the slough of '80s kitsch, while others--like Shiro Kuramata's Cabinet of Curiosities (1989), a spindly tower of rainbow-colored acrylic that should be tacky but somehow isn't--seem to have transcended it.

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The show is not just a survey of Memphis and its fellow travelers, however. In their catalogue foreword, Adamson and Pavitt explain that the exhibition is intended as a provisional history of postmodernism, which they define as a "set of intentional design strategies," i.e., a style. They emphasize that postmodernism in this unconventionally narrow sense, and not postmodernity, is their subject. …

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