The Myth of the Avant Garde: American Styles at the End of the Century

May 10, 2013 - February 17, 2014

The idea of the “avant garde” was rooted in the linear trend that dominated the visual arts for many years in which a “new style” would emerge in reaction to the “old style” and, ultimately, replace it. Even before the term “avant garde” was used, the process of artists working in one style at a time seemed to be the logical way for the art world to operate.  Fueled both by advances in materials and changes in thinking, the visual arts chugged diligently down the tracks as each generation was followed by another.  The Roman emphasis on reality replaced the Greek emphasis on idealism.  Later, the secular classicism of the Renaissance replaced the earlier Medieval period’s focus on religious passions.  This kind of progression went on continuously , right on through the Modern period, in which we saw a parade of now familiar styles: Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and, finally Minimalism.

At that point in the mid-60s, the chain of styles was broken. The Minimalists claimed to have brought the progression of all styles to a halt with the honesty of their basic equation: a plain red painting is simply a plain red painting. From their perspective, the question was: is there really any need to take things further?

Philosophically, that question launched art theorists into a debate that continues to the present. But, practically, the question was irrelevant to the tens of thousands of up and coming artists who just wanted to paint things and make things and who were looking for a sign from on high that could point them down the right path. But no sign came. The art establishment was in disarray. So the young artists of the 70s and early 80s made what they saw fit.  And a new generation of art theorists, critics, and gallerists cheered them on.  The new “ism” – pluralism – embraced virtually all styles and genres.

Suddenly, Modern Art, the hip, progressive movement that seventy years back had freed artists from the tyranny of Academic Art, was, itself, passé.  The very term, Modernism, connoted imperialism, chauvinism, and, to a considerable degree, aesthetic intolerance.  The idea that the big lugs of the 20th Century – Picasso, Braque, deKooning, and Pollock – had pushed the envelope as the creators of the mythic “avant garde” began to sound, suspiciously, as clever self-promotion. The younger generation of artists looked back at the leaders of the avant garde with the same disdain that the Woodstock generation reserved for Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.

Eager for a label to distinguish the markedly different attitude of this new era in art, critics and theorists agreed on an obvious term: Post Modernism.

This exhibition focuses on several of the most important Post Modern styles and the artists whose work contributed to their development.