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Modern Art

Enrique Norten, Portland Building, Peter Eisenman, Wexner Center, Carlos Jimenez

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But even as postmodernism thrived, modernism did not disappear. The dramatic and elegantly understated Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) by American architect Maya Lin dates from the same year as Gravesís Portland Building. Another premier example of modernism, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, by American architect Richard Meier, was completed the following year. Meier went on to design the Getty Center for the Arts and Humanities (1997, Los Angeles, California), a paragon of elegantly spare modernist design. Indeed, variety is the most consistent characteristic of the architecture built since the emergence of postmodernism in the 1970s.

In the 1980s a variation on postmodernism emerged, known as deconstruction, which sought to demonstrate the arbitrariness of all previous cultural assumptions. Deconstructivist architects applied these analytical, abstract ideas to the design of buildings. Leading practitioners included Zaha Hadid of England, Peter Eisenman of the United States, and Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi. In Eisenmanís design for the Wexner Center for the Arts (1989) in Columbus, Ohio, the architect used local conditions in generating a seemingly arbitrary mechanism to govern his design. One wall of the art center is aligned with an adjacent building, another wall with a nearby football gridiron, and a third with the flight path of planes that regularly pass overhead. After a brief flurry of interest in the late 1980s, interest in deconstruction faded, and only a handful of buildings were ever constructed to represent it.

Much more significant, in the United States and in the rest of the world, was a resurgence of interest in regional traditions and materials, and a greater willingness to meld features of rationalist modernism with elements from many other traditions, especially vernacular architecture. Emblematic of this is the work of Antoine Predock in the American Southwest. In his Nelson Fine Arts Center (1989) in Tempe, Arizona, Predock presents a modern vision inspired by the warm colors, stucco surfaces, and square cutout windows of local Spanish and Native American traditions. Others who approach architecture with a comparable openness to historical and local practices and produce designs of extraordinary sensitivity include Sam Mockbee in Alabama; Carlos Jimenez, a Costa Rican architect based in Texas; Enrique Norten in Mexico; Liangyong Wu in Beijing, China; and Ada Karmi-Melamede in Israel. Their work points toward an architecture that focuses less on debates among competing movements and more on buildings that are economical, environmentally responsible, and beautiful.

Thus 20th-century art displays more than stylistic diversity. It is in the modern period that artists have made paintings not only of traditional materials such as oil on canvas, but of any material available to them. This innovation led to developments that were even more radical, such as conceptual art and performance artómovements that expanded the definition of art to include not just physical objects but ideas and actions as well.


Cernuschi, Claude, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Boston College; Author of "Jackson Pollock: Meaning and Significance", "Not an Illustration", "But the Equivalent: A Cognitive Approach to Abstract Expressionism", and other books.

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