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

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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.

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.

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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.

Unlike many other critics, Jencks hopes to demonstrate that ``Post-Modernism is neither anti-Modernist nor reactionary.'' He realizes that modernism exhausted itself with its very success, and that it is now ``morally weak and aesthetically boring.'' Once in a while, his buoyant advocacy overwhelms the steadiness of his thought, and he credits Post-Modernism with amazing feats, like slowing, if not halting altogether, ``the wanton destruction of cities.'' Still, Jencks is more sure-footed than most writers on the subject. Moreover, his outlook is tempered with the knowledge that all the large cultural movements in the last 200 years have had their ``pretentious nonsense and bad art,'' their precious minor modes, and their blatant careerism.

Jencks convincingly argues that Post-Modernism is anthropomorphic, and, one might add, anthropocentric. It replaces abstraction with the human figure and substitutes a sense of place and history for the twinned modernist notions of pure space and structural honesty. For the postmodern architect, ``Less is not more, less is a bore.'' However human-centered it may be, Post-Modernism is necessarily post-Freudian and post-Einsteinian, reflecting the late 20th-century terrain of relative values and fractured world views. It manifests a sensibility formed by fragmentations and discontinuities. If this is classicism, it is one that has shed ideals, one that wears its lack of innocence on its sleeve. Post-Modernism returns to humanism tentatively and nostalgically, with implicit rather than explicit narratives, catching ideas and ethical considerations sideways with what Jencks calls ``perturbing ambiguity.''

Jencks nearly succeeds in making a clear portrait of Post-Modernism. Likely enough, he dwells on contemporary German and Japanese architecture but seems to all but ignore the painting and sculpture of those nations. For example, Anselm Kiefer, the German artist whose paintings search a lugubrious mixture of history, ritual, and myth for spiritual redemption, gets barely a jot in Jencks's account. Many critics praise Kiefer as the most significant artist of his generation in Europe.

Jencks is not very interested in imagery appropriated from advertising and mass media - a major aspect of American Post-Modernism - and he deals with it tangentially. He makes a minor swipe at the work and character of Julian Schnabel, a gesture that is becoming unnecessarily de rigueur for critics who want to be taken seriously. Most puzzling is the almost total omission of contemporary feminist work as well as the resurgence of political art in the 1980s. These are more than trifling omissions, and their absence is likely to anger some readers.

Still one is tempted to say there isn't a better general primer on Post-Modernism. Jencks presents Post-Modernism as a rich, demanding, exciting, and accessible synthesis that revivifies the Western tradition of humanism. Like Charles Baudelaire, Jencks critically embraces the present, giving it his intellectual allegiance. In Baudelaire's words, Jencks ``makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history.'' That he nearly succeeds in so great a charge is an impressive accomplishment.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the fine arts department at Syracuse University.

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