One of the most understated yet persistent tropes in contemporary art over the last thirty years 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 a “failed utopia,” yet visually it tends to be presented in a cool and clean aesthetic that is more celebratory than evocative of failure.
The longevity of this trope, and its international popularity, raises the question of why, at a cultural moment that defines itself as “contemporary,” 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 imagination? This essay aims to answer these questions by charting the rise of modernist architecture as a presence in contemporary art from East and West Europe, North and South America. It argues that this work indexes a set of shifting attitudes towards the modern as both style and periodization, while manifesting a troubled relationship to the past (and its political imaginaries) at a moment of digital presentism.
Claire Bishop is a critic and professor in the PhD Program in Art History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her books include Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012), and Radical Museology, or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? (2013). She is a contributing editor of Artforum, and her essays and books have been translated into eighteen languages. She is currently working on two books: a short publication about Merce Cunningham’s Events and a collection of essays about contemporary art and attention. Her most recent publication is a book of conversations with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera (2020).