Modernism, if we need a quick and dirty encapsulation of it, can be summed up in Ezra Pound’s declaration “Make it new!” At its most extreme this imperative leads, insofar as visual art is concerned, to the feeling that one could only begin, “so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not only dead but had never existed,” which is how Barnett Newman described his ambitions in 1967. Postmodernism, on the other hand, as we came to know it, and love or hate it, in the 1980s, seemed to say that nothing of the sort was possible, or even all that interesting—and to prove it, artists began to devote themselves to appropriation and pastiche. These practices are still very much with us. The recent court battle over Richard Prince’s reuse of imagery taken from a book by photographer Patrick Cariou testifies to the persistence of appropriation (and the legal risks it may invite), whereas the resurgence of George Condo, widely lauded for his slick, jokey twists on familiar Modernist styles, is a reminder of the endurance of pastiche. And there are plenty of younger artists following in their footsteps.
But there are other possibilities in the air. Just as the idea that art could make a fresh start, unencumbered by the conventions of the past, came to seem paradoxically tired and conventional, so too did the idea of the end of history, and of the artist being condemned to what Fredric Jameson, in his celebrated 1984 essay on postmodernism, described as “the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.” In retrospect, both the Modernist and postmodernist positions, at least at their most doctrinaire, seem like evasions of the historicity of the present. There are no absolute beginnings or endings, just a continuing entanglement, and dialogue, between the present and the past. More persistent than appropriation is the truth of William Faulkner’s famous admonition, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner was suggesting that unacknowledged histories are always latent in the present, that things may not be what they seem. His remark can also be taken to suggest that for new art, art that we hope will tell us something about our present and, perhaps more to the point, show us something of its look, things may be more complicated, more ambiguous, than they used to appear. It has gotten harder to distinguish an art that’s truly of the present from one that is more backward-looking. And when art delves into its past, it can be difficult to tell whether it’s doing so in the spirit of postmodernist pastiche or with a genuine historical sense, by which I mean a sense of the sense of the past, of a spirit that however deeply rooted has not yet been named and is still emerging in the present. Somewhat reluctantly, I’ll borrow a phrase from literary studies and call this a new historicism in art.
That such a thing exists—not a movement but a tendency of the time—has become clear to me only gradually, and my understanding of it crystallized after seeing recent exhibitions in London by two of my favorite younger painters, Silke Otto-Knapp and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. It helped that their shows happened to be in the same building, at the galleries greengrassi and Corvi-Mora, respectively; perhaps it was their proximity that allowed me to sense the curious inner congruence between the two bodies of work, despite the lack of any striking visual resemblance. The two artists’ backgrounds are certainly different. Otto-Knapp was born in Osnabrück, Germany, in 1970. She went to London in 1995 to study at the Chelsea College of Art, and has been living and working there ever since. Yiadom-Boakye is a native Londoner, born in 1977, but of Ghanaian heritage. That both artists work in London doesn’t seem crucial: the roots of their art lie elsewhere. I’d be surprised if Otto-Knapp hadn’t been crucially influenced by Karen Kilimnik, for example, though she hasn’t emulated Kilimnik’s fannishness and whimsy; and Yiadom-Boakye has clearly been marked by John Currin, though Currin is still a pasticheur in a way that she’s not. But their work has ulterior sources. And that both artists are painters may not even be that important. I could point out similar qualities in artists working in other media—such as the sculptor Daniel Silver or the American-born filmmaker Daria Martin, to name a couple of other London-based artists who’ve made a strong impression on me in recent years.