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Who Has the Cure for “Zombie Formalism”?

Zombie formalism panel at SVA (all images courtesy Amy Wilson/SVA)
The December 10 “Zombie Formalism” panel at SVA featuring, from left: Amy Wilson, Walter Robinson, Todd Levin, and Ryan Steadman (all images courtesy Amy Wilson/SVA)

Since the artist and critic Walter Robinson wrote his now-(in)famous post “Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism” in Artspace this past April, there has been an outpouring of writers, bloggers, and Facebook comment jockeys who have opined on the subject. Last Wednesday, December 10, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) hosted a discussion on the subject between Walter Robinson, art adviser Todd Levin, and artist, critic, and curator Ryan Steadman moderated by artist and SVA faculty member Amy Wilson.

Robinson originally wrote his piece to put into context the recent attention that self-promoting speculators have gotten. His point that opportunists like Stefan Simchwitz are hardly new — he points to Mary Boone in the 1980s and Charles Saatchi in the 1990s — is well taken, and his dig is laced with humor:

One thing I’m hearing these days, loud and clear, is the hum of an art style that I like to call Zombie Formalism. “Formalism” because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting (yes, I admit it, I’m hung up on painting), and “Zombie” because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.

Robinson points to artists like Jacob Kassay and Lucien Smith — known mostly for their headline grabbing success at auction — as the prime examples of the trend. Works by such artists are exemplified by a vague sense of commentary on the history of painting and a clever ability to fetishize process in order to manufacture some simulacrum of originality.

ZFP1-e1418422890316In his opening remarks at the SVA panel, Robinson painted himself as the humorous troublemaker. Within the first minute he seemed to apologize for striking such a nerve but continued onward, ultimately describing with genuine amusement the myriad of young artists using any number of contrived process-fetish approaches. Robinson laughed out loud as he described Ryan Estep — who numbs his hands with anesthetic before finger painting. What I didn’t necessarily understand on the page but was eminently clear watching him on stage was Robinson’s sense of absurdity. He at least pretends not to care but takes great pleasure in pointing out the silliness of it all.

All of the panelists seemed to agree on their general disinterest in the “zombie artists.” Todd Levin seemed sensitive to his position as the art advisor on the panel and admitted that in many ways money is part of the problem. He then proceeded to pin the outgrowth of young “flip artists” on the online viewing habits of younger generations. Levin has a major problem with the censorship policies of Instagram: he pointed out that Instagram’s terms of use stipulate that all posted materials must be appropriate for viewing by minors as young as 13. This, he argued, gives artists making inoffensive abstraction paintings an edge over those making political, or visually difficult works. As if to make his point, Levin displayed a mostly white Dan Colen painting speckled with brightly colored dots on the overhead projector while he pulls out a box of pop tarts, placing them on the table in front of him. The comparison between the two sugary, empty calorie substances was striking.

While Robinson took credit for sparking the flame, he pointed out that it was Jerry Saltz who weaponized it with his article “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much Abstraction Look the Same?” In his piece, Saltz points out that for the past 150 years art movements have been driven by most compelling talents and that each subsequent movement’s dilution by lesser — one might say mannerist — talents lead to its dissipation. His claim:

Now something’s gone terribly awry with that artistic morphology. An inversion has occurred. In today’s greatly expanded art world and art market, artists making diluted art have the upper hand.

Saltz’s offensive against the zombies identifies other handles such as “Crapstraction” New Casualism” and “Provisionalism.” He further elaborates on the work formally:

Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary of smudges, stains, spray paint, flecks, spills, splotches, almost-monochromatic fields, silk-screening, or stenciling. Edge-to-edge, geometric, or biomorphic composition is de rigueur, as are irregular grids, lattice and moiré patterns, ovular shapes, and stripes, with maybe some collage. Many times, stretcher bars play a part.

I’ve always been torn about how to feel about the “Zombie Formalism” debate. On the one hand, I’m an out-of-the closet, admitted, and passionate abstract-painting fanboy. On the other, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I have no problem with the idea that it takes years, possibly decades for an artist to mature, and that it’s impossible to make every painting successful. I love that abstract painting has continued to thrive, and that renewed recent interest has expanded the field. But it sucks that a bunch of painters that have always seemed half-hearted at best are benefiting from the renewed interest in painting.

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I’ve always been annoyed by Lucien Smith; he simply doesn’t have the chops. Every time I see one of his paintings I am struck by how little seems to be happening inside each picture. This is not to say he hasn’t covered the whole damn surface with whatever material he is using at the time, but that the formal constraints of his work are so strictly governed that they don’t allow much room for the painting itself to happen. It isn’t so much that his paintings have failed the test but rather that they play hooky and never show up to take it.

That being said, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt vindicated by the Saltz article, it does venture into the realm of overgeneralization and hysteria. In his description of the dominant formal aspects of the so-called zombies, it seems as if Saltz is describing every trend in abstract painting in the last 60 years in one shot. Is it possible to escape this critique? Are all young abstract painters zombies? At the end of his article he writes:

The saddest part of this trend is that even better artists who paint this way are getting lost in the onslaught of copycat mediocrity and mechanical art.

Is it not equally dangerous to despair so deeply that we stop looking for those artists? In one respect some young painters seem to be getting it from both ends — struggling as always to make ends meat while facing the risk of being lumped in with a bunch of contemporaries simply because they share paint as a medium.

I take great issue with the idea that “casualist” or “provisional” has become synonymous with “Zombie Formalism.” In Sharon Butler’s original Brooklyn Rail article she identifies a number of young, talented, artists, such as Amy Feldman — there is nothing zombified about her work! Rather, it’s possible to make work that feels experimental and that resists finality but is still accomplished. To me it seems to be the difference between asking a question and just making up an answer without necessarily knowing what that question is.

In his final remarks on the SVA panel, Ryan Steadman explained that while the art world has expanded exponentially, so has the population of the planet, and more people means more art students. There are any number of professors (he used Robert Morris and Jessica Stockholder as examples) in schools around the country that make formalist work. Assuming they influence their students (an assumption I am fine making) this means more and more artists making formally concerned work. Steadman explained:

The point of this exercise is to explain that there is no secret cabal of art market maestros gerrymandering today’s tastes. Very naturally, abstract artists with a variety of notions — some intelligent, some less so — have popped up seemingly all over the place, particularly in the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism that is New York City. Some are just better at making their art than others, while some are better at marketing their art than others.

There will always be overrated artists who take advantage of their 15 minutes in the spotlight. Now there are just more people in the game — more collectors, advisors, and artists. I won’t be the first person to point out that if you open a copy of Artforum from the 1980s, there are any number of artists that are relatively unknown with full-page adds. Many of the newly minted art stars will inevitably fade from view as fast as they appeared. In the end, I don’t know that I care. Shitty paintings are shitty paintings are shitty paintings; it doesn’t matter how much they are worth. The same goes for ambitious, accomplished works. I imagine the early days of 10th Street in the 1940s and early 1950s: artists made work regardless of the fact that there was almost no money in the art world. Artists of that generation flourished in a drought, in many ways ignoring the market all together. Perhaps young painters today might do well to use a similar strategy to navigate this great flood.

The panel discussion “‘Zombie Formalism’ and Other Recent Speculations in Abstraction” took place at the School of Visual Arts Theater (333 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on December 10.

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