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A look at the post-modern face of late 20th-century classicism

By Mary Warner Marien / February 22, 1988

Post-Modernism: The New Classicism in Art and Architecture, by Charles Jencks. New York: Rizzoli. 360 pp. $60. To hear Charles Jencks tell it, Post-Modernism is as welcome as the roses in June. Not the thorny wilderness described in Sunday book review jeremiads nor the augur of cultural decline, Jencks's Post-Modernism is a renaissance, a vigorous classicism that weaves together neglected strands of Western humanism.

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Jencks, a genial and persuasive cicerone, has penned nearly two dozen books unraveling the complex relationship between architecture and society. He is generally credited with defining post-modern architecture, which accelerated the use of the concept in the other arts and sped the strained, ubiquitous chic of the term now used to label everything from ice cream to teapots. Even those who will not forgive him this admit that Jencks has the enviable ability to popularize arcane cultural matters without trivializing them. Like those other valued English guides, Alastair Cooke and Kenneth Clark, Jencks combines wit, erudition, and intellectual autonomy. At 49, he is one of our best, if least visible, public intellectuals.

In this book, he draws together contemporary painting, sculpture, and architecture, making a glancing indictment of the lazy and overspecialized orthodoxy that sanctions ``books devoted solely to either art or architecture.'' Jencks's scope is international. He is able to make confident excursions into contemporary literature and philosophy, convincing the reader of the breadth of his subject.

Early in his presentation, Jencks enlarges an important distinction between late modernism and Post-Modernism. Late modernism plays out the ideas of the early 20th century. It values originality, makes aesthetic rules, prefers abstraction, and thinks in terms of high-tech buildings. Post-Modernism is highly pluralistic in its visual sources. It freely combines painting styles or architectural details from the past. Post-modern work dwells on the human figure and deliberates situational ethics rather than absolute values.

The classicism of Jencks's title is the third and ongoing phase of the larger movement, whose concepts and language Jencks distills from an array of handsomely produced illustrations. (General readers will want to skip over Jencks's trademark charts, which are, in this instance, as confusing as his writing is vivid.) A first-rate teacher, Jencks proceeds like Socrates, not forcing the argument, but directing and augmenting it. When he concludes that Post-Modernism exhibits a ``dissonant beauty or disharmonious harmony,'' ``radical eclecticism,'' ``suggestive narrative,'' or ``urbane urbanism,'' we are not overwhelmed by the din of buzzwords but ready to acknowledge those qualities in the painting of Stone Roberts, the sculpture of Robert Longo, or the architecture of James Stirling and Michael Wilford.