BY Amy Sherlock in Opinion | 24 APR 19
Featured in
Issue 203

Is Pattern Back In Fashion?

After years in the critical wilderness, Pattern and Decoration, the first postmodern art movement, is being reassessed by a number of exhibitions in Europe and the US 

BY Amy Sherlock in Opinion | 24 APR 19

‘But anyone who goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down and designs a wallpaper pattern is either a confidence trickster or a degenerate.’

Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908)

I can think of few surer ways to lose artist friends than by describing their work as either ‘pattern’ or ‘decoration’. Today, a work’s content (perceived intellectually) is often prioritized over its formal qualities (perceived sensibly). Put another way: artworks can be ‘good’ even if they are badly realized, but never, ever, if the ideas behind them are bad or deemed insubstantial. The ubiquity of ‘interesting’ as a critical accolade attests to this. On the whole, I’m glad to have ‘interesting’ as a way out of the binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art that is culturally relative while pretending to be absolute; I’m also a believer that, while beauty shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘good’, it need not always be sacrificed on the altar of intellectual complexity. (A common reflex, I think, and an unhelpful one.) Pattern and decoration read as pejoratives because they refer to surfaces, arousing an Emperor’s-new-clothes anxiety that all art might be empty underneath. They are words to be preceded by ‘mere’.

Not much has changed, in this respect, since Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff printed their ‘Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture’ in a 1978 issue of the feminist journal Heresies, which they published in New York as part of a collective from 1977 to 1993. Both Jaudon and Kozloff were part of the pattern and decoration (P&D) movement: a group of artists that coalesced through a series of meetings and conversations in the lofts and artist-run spaces of downtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s. As their self-designation suggests, P&D artists were interested in the expressive and conceptual possi­bilities of ornamental forms, borrowing heavily from folk and artisanal traditions in the US and further afield.

Kim MacConnel, Slide Out, 1980. Courtesy: the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Jaudon and Kozloff’s article begins: ‘As feminists and artists exploring the decorative in our own paintings, we were curious about the pejorative use of the word “decorative” in the contemporary art world.’ What follows is a compendium of quotations from various art-historical sources – from Le Corbusier and Clement Greenberg to Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera and, of course, Adolf Loos – in which, over and again, the decorative, the ornamental (both explicitly feminized) and the ‘primitive’ are denigrated in contrast to pure, great, true (implicitly masculine) art. One choice excerpt reads: ‘Real art, like the wife of an affectionate husband, needs no ornaments. But counterfeit art, like a prostitute, must always be decked out.’ This is Leo Tolstoy, in his 1898 essay ‘What Is Art?’, but a similar moral sentiment informs references from the 1970s.

P&D’s origin myth begins with a meeting in the loft of painter Robert Zakanitch in January 1975. In attendance, amongst others, were Jaudon and Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Miriam Schapiro and the art historian Amy Goldin, who would become the movement’s most important critical voice. (A generation older than most of the artists, Goldin had taught Kushner and fellow P&D artist Kim MacConnel at the University of California, San Diego, in the late 1960s.) Zakanitch’s loft was on Warren Street in what, in 1975, was just becoming known as TriBeCa; it was roughly ten blocks south of Spring Street, where Donald Judd had transformed five storeys of a former garment factory into his home and studio in 1968. The New York art world of the time was under the sway of minimalism, which, by the mid-1970s, was an established critical and commercial force (if not a doctrine; the box-like wooden beds designed by Judd for his young children at 101 Spring Street represent a zenith of sorts). P&D grew alongside and in response to both minimalism’s less-is-more aesthetic (with its moralizing overtones) and the conceptual, performative and site-specific postminimal practices that followed in its wake.

To Judd’s industrially fabricated units, artists such as Tina Girouard offer equally rectilinear strips of commercially available wallpaper, floral-printed and pastel-hued, mounted on muslin as a kind of incidental painting (Walls Wallpaper III, 1974). (An important figure on the downtown scene, Girouard was involved with the artist-run space 112 Greene Street and co-founded, with Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden, the restaurant-cum-meeting place-cum-relational artwork FOOD.) As a counterpoint to Carl Andre’s machine-cut steel floors, we have the hundreds of cookie-cuttered, hand-painted ceramic tiles in Kozloff’s striking An Interior Decorated (1978–79): a room-sized installation in thrall to Islamic ornamental geometries and architectural forms. And, to the reduced forms of a painter like Frank Stella at his most minimal, Jaudon presents equally crisp geometric monochromes, densely allusive to gothic church architecture and latticework. Pattern is, of course, nothing if not a question of repetition and order; or, as Zakanitch astutely observed, in a panel discussion at the opening of ‘Ornament as Promise’, an expansive survey of P&D work currently on view at mumok in Vienna: ‘[By the mid-1970s,] minimalism itself had become no more than pattern.’

Everywhere in P&D there is colour, texture, motif and stylized form: these are works under the spell of late Henri Matisse, the Riviera-drunk scenes of Raoul Dufy, Léon Bakst’s stage reveries for the Ballets Russes. Collage, in various forms, recurs; clashing materials and motifs sit next to one another in riotous, joyful combinations that make a fair claim for P&D as the first properly postmodern artistic movement. Schapiro – already well known as the co-founder, with Judy Chicago, of CalArts’ revolutionary Feminist Art Program by the time she came to P&D – described her work in terms of ‘femmage’: feminist collage referencing the domestic and the handmade, which resonated with the women’s lib notion that the personal is the political. Was P&D feminist? Many of its chief practitioners – not least Jaudon, Kozloff, Schapiro – were active in the women’s movement; and the men, if not directly involved, wanted to challenge the idea that materials and techniques were inherently masculine or feminine. Kushner – who sometimes staged his early canvases as costumes in performances such as The Persian Line, 1975 – had learned to crochet from his grandmother. (He recalls being both heckled by feminist artists about his appropriation of textiles as medium and being told to stop crocheting at men’s consciousness-raising meetings, as one subversion too far.)

Tina Girouard, Walls Wallpaper III, 1974. Courtesy: Ludwig Forum für Internationale Aachen © Tina Girouard; photograph: Carl Brunn 

In direct opposition to the formalist self-sufficiency of the minimalist object, collage is a means of bringing the world into a work – in its sensuousness, abundance and contradiction. However, this proto-postmodern borrowing – from Islamic tiling, East Asian fans and kimonos, Indonesian batiks – might be one reason why the movement largely disappeared from view after 1985. In an incidental rather than directly causal way, you could bracket P&D between two major developments in the New York institutional world. First, the opening of the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975; second, the Museum of Modern Art’s significant 1984 exhibition, ‘“Primitivism” in Twentieth-Century Art: The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’. The former brought an unprecedented variety of Islamic art to the general public for the first time; critical reviews of the latter, notably by Thomas McEvilley in  ArtForum, marked a milestone in the rethinking of Western art’s engagement with and co-option of the art and objects of non-Western cultures. (In the meantime, in 1978, Edward Said had published Orientalism, and a Persian rug would never again be just a Persian rug.)

So, why the renewed interest in P&D today, at our moment of heightened sensitivity to cultural appropriation and when the subversive edge of the movement’s politics has dated and staled? One answer can be found in the work of many contemporary artists – Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Eric N. Mack, Lucy McKenzie and Laura Owens, to name just a few – applying P&D tradition with varying means and to various ends. And, of course, the question of high and low art has never gone away.

An alternate answer lies in the title of a P&D survey that will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in October: ‘With Pleasure’. At a moment in which culture is freighted with the pervasive heaviness of politics, can beauty be its own form of radicalism? Call me an escapist – or, worse, an aesthete – but there is joy and sensuousness and openness to these works that deserve acknowledgment, even where homage blurs uncomfortably with appropriation. As Kushner puts it in an interview in the mumok catalogue: ‘We were motivated by wanting to make a kind of painting that had never been seen before. Something New. Bright, Brassy. Positive. Life-affirming. Dare I say, fun?’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Dare I Say, Fun?’

‘Pattern and Decoration: Ornament as Promise’ is on view at mumok, Vienna, Austria, until 8 September. The exhibition is a collaboration with Ludwig Forum Aachen, Germany, where it was on view from September 2018 to January.

Main image: Robert Kushner, Rivals, 1978. Courtesy: mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wein © Tina Girouard; photograph: Carl Brunn  

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.