In the Manner of the Modern: From Utopia to Style

by on Apr.01, 2012

On my visit to the MoMA PS1 gallery last spring, I had a chance to see the work of the Berlin-based Danish artist Sergej Jensen.

Here’s an excerpt from the gallery’s description of his work:

Constructed from a wide range of found textiles, Jensen’s paintings recall elements of classic modern abstraction. The linens, silks, cashmeres, burlaps, wools and canvases that he employs have all been exposed to a range of conditions, activities and owners, and Jensen—who once described his work as ‘painting without paint’—often adopts as pictorial elements the traces of wear and prior use that mark his fabrics. … Combining the purposeful with the accidental, Jensen’s work gives shape to recent reconsiderations of modernism’s utopias; his paintings remind us that those myths survive today only as style.

I wonder what “recent reconsiderations of modernism’s utopias” the curator had in mind. I also wonder how Jensen’s work relates to those utopian “myths.” Jensen’s refashioning of “classic modern abstraction” using the detritus of the global commodity trade strikes me as explicitly political. I sense a critique of “classic” modernism but not at all of the sort the curator suggested.

It’s the last phrase that really caught my eye, though. What does it mean for an art movement to “survive today only as style”? Not as period style, one to be studied as a testament to the culture, society, and politics of a bygone era, but as style that “survives:” a surreptitiously pervasive presence. Moreover, a style that survives “only as style:” a corrupted, self-absorbed version of its former, loftier self.

Style: a way of doing things. “A manner of expression,” as one contested but popular definition goes. Thence, mannerism: more of manner and less of expression; “only … style,” nothing but style, too much style. An excess and a lack, decadence and deformity, ornament.

Ironically, the baroque, typically characterized in the above terms, is really a moment of consolidation in which rampant “style” is once again coupled with a purpose, a drive toward some sort of conversion or transformation.

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