Wednesday, 15 April 2015

ZOMBIE FORMALISM: Abstraction Revisited

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Zombie Formalism is the name given by New York critic Walter Robinson to a recent trend in abstract painting. The trend has been eagerly embraced by the market since around 2010 but is notably lacking in critical approval; a curious reversal for abstraction. For Robinson, the trend merely recapitulates exhausted issues from the sixties and Minimalism – hence the allusion to the un-dead. The trend has acquired many other amusing and derogatory names, as condemnation swept across the web in 2014, but Zombie Formalism seems to be the label that will stick. Fellow New York critics Jerry Saltz and Christian Viveros-Fauné have been equally dismissive, although allowing a somewhat broader perspective, noting derivation from later developments. What is striking is that in all cases rejection is accompanied by accusations of market cynicism or exploitation. Where once the critic might simply have pointed out why a work fails to earn distinction over its influences, fails to add anything worthwhile to tradition, censure now runs to the work’s supporters, as if brooking no dissent. It adds a troubling stridency to criticism, even where criticism is noted for forthright verdicts. It unmistakably signals anxiety, perhaps in senior critics not quite ‘getting’ a younger generation, perhaps a critical vocabulary now stretched beyond effectiveness or atrophied under waves of knowing eclecticism and topical iconography.

It has been a long time since abstraction held centre stage in painting and the struggle to refocus, to understand what is being said or done with it, is surely part of the excitement for artists, dealers and collectors. The fact that dealers and collectors now freely exchange roles with prompt re-selling, known as ‘flipping’, is of little consequence. Flipping has been a feature of the art market since at least the 80s, and in no way impugns or is inconsistent with sincere appreciation. It is just what many collectors do now. They loved to buy it and they love to sell it. Charles Saatchi was once reviled as one such cynical investor - and in theory ought to have retired on his profits by now. Today, Stefan Simchowitz is accused of the same thing, but his collecting neither started with Zombie Formalism nor extends to all of its practitioners nor is likely to end with them. Saltz’s persistent attention to the gentleman is no substitute for a more substantial engagement with the work. The fact is; any broad trend will now attract the hyperactive art speculator. This has to do with volatility over investment generally, in greatly accelerated trading practices. But there is no reason to believe that it encourages a shallower, more transient artist.

All the same, the conflation of market tastes with critical standards is understandable given the prevailing critical climate, measured in academic and specialist publications, where discourse is largely devoted to sociological analysis and political projects, shunning an internal or technical analysis of pictorial qualities. This cripples not only critical standards but any useful account of recent art history. In this respect, Robinson’s choice of ‘formalism’ in the name rather than abstraction is surprisingly astute, given his deliberately crass conclusions. Actually, formalism is not necessarily confined to abstraction (as the example of earlier critics and historians such as Clive Bell and Heinrich Wölfflin demonstrates) nor abstraction exclusively formalist (allowing as it does expressive and metaphoric avenues of reference) not to mention levels or degrees of abstraction. Still, Robinson’s thumbnail guide does capture the crucial shift in criticism at the end of the seventies, not just away from Clement Greenberg’s version of formalism for abstract painting but from painting generally, to other branches of the fine arts and to broader concerns with iconography (revisited as semiotics) and a more political agenda. Formalism of any kind is abandoned, and with it, unfortunately painting of any kind. Essentially, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

The whole project is written off as a dead end or the death of painting, pretty much In order to promote developments in photography, video and installations. However, without some foundation, loftier matters soon founder. Even an iconographer at some point confronts stylistic differences that appeal to formal options. We cannot always know what is pictured without considering how the picture is made. Formal matters cannot be avoided without sooner or later compromising the critic’s discernment and sophistication. Meaning in a work is then reduced to doctrinaire slogans; indeed, art history is soon paralysed for a flight from form, an embrace of cultural studies that can only recognise an endless recycling of past styles for painting. No wonder it is hard to discern development in abstract painting since the seventies. So much discourages the very idea! Yet painters of abstraction have hardly played along. The issues in the studio have been ever-shifting, always tinged with sentiment and subtle allusion, open to experiment. Very few ever shared Greenberg’s idealist quest for absolutes. What follows is a slightly bigger thumbnail guide to abstraction in the second half of the twentieth century, hopefully allowing a little more informed judgement.

In the fifties, matters of colour identity or integrity were tested against scale, shape, support or surface, application and pigment for a nagging equivocation, sometimes compounded by cues or concessions to figuration. In the main, the colour of a shape or the shape of a colour, its size, consistency and constituency fuse into one irreducible instance – the sign of itself. Painting as picture can be reduced to this much. With Minimalism, by the sixties, shape is confined to stricter symmetries, initially, stripes, monochromes and grids, which soon suggest the frame itself participate, by thickness to sides and as novel ‘shaped canvases’. Elsewhere, shape and colour are determined by more radical pouring to application, suitable support and these in turn prompt novel pigment concoctions although severely limit shape options and rapidly acquire a three-dimensional or sculptural project. Scale as a factor soon suggests an architectural dimension which confines application, support and pigment in some ways, while elegantly declaring stripe, grid or monochrome in complimentary setting. You cannot have it all in one go, is the message eventually. Minimalism, as a quest for a fixed foundation expires in myriad factors, combinations and variation, finally proves chimerical. Greenberg’s decline in influence has as much to do with growing factions within the ranks of abstraction as it has with factions outside of it. It is a familiar pattern to domination.

Frank Stella, championed more by Michael Fried than Greenberg, at one point allows his stripes to overlap, introducing an elementary interweaving and summoning ancient ornament with a seed of the concrete or figurative. This inspires others to use traditional decorative motifs and becomes the Pattern and Decoration movement (P&D) by the mid-seventies. This then permits more figurative motifs to pattern or repeating pictures as modules and finds Minimalism steadily expanded or maximalised. It encompasses silk-screening and supports such as domestic textiles or fabrics (at times denotes a distinctly feminine domain) and now properly addresses stylisation or semi-abstraction to motif. By the end of the seventies it converges with the concerns of New Image Painting, with its predominately singular or centred icons. In the eighties developments such as Jonathan Lasker’s striking linear abstractions, which derive from something like New Image interests, soon announce a complex set of linear relations for colour (or fill) outline and plain line (or an open path, to borrow a little more from digital terminology). These works receive recognition, but as little more than curiosities and remain isolated within a broader critical discourse. At best, Lasker is seen as an ironic revisionist. Similarly, Brice Marden’s later work introduces subtle relations for width and curvature to line, but is scarcely acknowledged as an achievement for abstraction, simply because painting’s death certificate has been signed. There are others from the decade similarly underrated, but the object here is just to trace continuity to abstraction after Minimalism.

Where abstract painting receives more recognition by the end of the eighties is with German painting, in particular the work of Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Albert Oehlen. Significantly, Germany scarcely participated in Minimalism, its painting drawn to Pop Art and later Neo-Expressionism. A different abstraction arises as Richter and Polke expand their print sources and painterly treatments, both acknowledge Minimalist modularities in passing – in Richter’s gridded colour charts and Polke’s Delft bathroom tiles dedicated to Carl Andre. But for Richter, his distinctive lateral blurring to photographic sources in the seventies becomes an end-in-itself, in rampant roving brushstrokes in his Grey series. In the eighties, these resolve into massive drags or scrapes by squeegee or sometimes just a plank, delivering and removing uneven deposits in an emphatically layered approach. Abstraction here acquires an implicit derivation from blurring and photography rather than some more elemental scheme. It finds favour partly because it plainly lacks any real Greenbergian baggage, partly because it reduces abstraction to a fairly mechanical set of steps and partly because it is a project that freely moves between abstraction and figuration, treating them equally as fact and opinion, a crucial tenet to critical theory for the period.

Polke by contrast, does not confine his print sources to photography. Graphics of various kinds soon point his work toward abstraction but really it is the adoption of printed textiles as supports (uncannily anticipating P&D) that prompts abstraction. Whatever painting he places upon the patterned support necessarily generates a singular instance (constitutes a painting). This quickly invites unpredictable or chance applications, later experimental pigments. Polke also happily alternates between abstraction and more figurative pictures and it is the co-existence of the two, their sheer promiscuity that allays reservations about a recalcitrant formalism. Oehlen is of a younger generation (briefly a student of Polke in Hamburg) but arrives at abstraction after a Neo-Expressionist phase in the early eighties given to crude parody to illustrational styles or traditional iconography. As reckless simplification grows, by the end of the eighties the work approaches abstraction then launches into a chaotic amalgam of various abstract components, accommodating stripes, biomorphic shapes, ragged gesture and sundry corrections and doodles. Following work includes digital graphics and photography by inkjet printing but this ‘maximising’ encounters the same limitations as Minimalism – no compilation can hold irreconcilable elements, in terms of support, scale, pigment and application. At most it plays off curious convergences or affinities. The work aspires to a kind of meta-abstraction that includes figuration and even text but ends up compromising. There are two aspects that earn critical approval. Firstly, it is the impurity of abstraction, the host of incidental associations formal elements acquire in such compositions that defuse intrinsic values. Secondly, the role of the artist as orchestrator or arranger, rather than inventor or specialist, accords well with a critical programme intent upon more expansive issues.

But collapsing abstraction and figuration into a single project, where effective, still maintains a formalist agenda. For a critical regime committed to ideological principles, it is at best a step in the right direction. The preferred model by the nineties is increasingly the artist straddling any number of disciplines and urging convenient hybrids. Examples include Martin Kippenburger, Franz West, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. The artist supposedly looks to more general matters of presentation and taste, whether in historical, scientific or trade display, to reframe or re-contextualise these as a measure of art. This is pursued mostly in installations, but also prompts elaborate commission and fabrication, so that the artist becomes more of a designer or manager, less concerned with technicalities than demonstrating a formidable institutional reach or power. Examples include Jeff Koons, Damian Hirst and Matthew Barney. The trend is often bracketed with a broader social trend to ‘de-skilling’ or a shift away from specialisation to more flexible and short-term tasks. In this regard the artist is seen to gain in cultural scope what is lost in hands-on experience. But the exchange is really for a general cultural understanding at the expense of fine art. The consequences for both are dire.

The artist as manager is supposed to defer to the specialist in technical matters while pursuing a managerial goal. But the goal itself is misconceived unless the manager has intimate first-hand experience of the options available. It is superficial as insight, stunted as perspective. Once the manager’s goal is steered by the advice of experts at one stage or another, the result is predictably conventional and banal. What works in science or industry does not apply in art, by definition. An artist cannot ask others to be an artist on their behalf. A master may employ apprentices, certainly, but this by way of education and qualification. Outsourcing technical expertise is quite another matter. The results reframe products or process only to the extent of demonstrating an artist’s commissioning power or prestige. It is a sad message all around. Criticism within the regime can scarcely acknowledge it, not because it is deeply embarrassing but because such criticism can scarcely even identify the works, it is so intent upon registering a sophisticated theoretical allegiance. Derision of ‘art speak’ has been widespread for some time but has done little to reduce its currency. To take a fairly mild example, drawn from Art Forum (Summer 2011 pp 386-9), the critic Irene V. Small reviews the work of Brazilian photographer and installationist, Matheus Rocca-Pitta firstly by citing Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx on commodities and exchange of value, and while she can patiently describe the content of the photographs and components of his installation, at a stylistic level, she must vault to hopelessly abstruse terms – ‘Rocha-Pitta works in two registers, a phenomenological mode in which knowledge and narrative are made spatial and visceral, often by way of site-specific interventions and a non-site mode in which images and objects are referential fragments displaced from a larger world. Though conceptually dense, these two modes often operate in tandem within a single project’. What she is really saying of course, is that the installations often contain his photographs, but are not limited to them, nor the photographs limited to his installations. While undoubtedly true, Small’s context is so general it is hardly useful in comparing the artist’s work with that of others, with identifying a signature style or movement, with accurately assessing what is said and its merit. More worryingly, the critic seems untroubled by the failing. She recounts her experience of the work, but without sufficient stylistic framework to distinguish between the two things. We admire her imagination as much as the work. But we really have no clear idea of how the work says what she supposes it to say, beyond her resourceful associations.

These two strands, one toward a disconnection of interpretation from the work, and the other, the de-skilling of the artist as manager, actually cast abstraction in a different light for a younger generation of painters. Abstraction becomes a measure of this remoteness from meaning, not by embracing fundamentals with new fervour but on the contrary, by drawing them out into shallow and degraded levels, as technical gimmicks, glib formulae. It becomes the acceptable side-project, a token of painting’s place in the fine arts for the de-skilled multi-tasking manager artist. It is a safe option, relieved of formal rigour or searching interpretation, essentially a hedge against more speculative commitments. Its success in the market is surely in part recognition of this nod to tradition. A more orthodox explanation would probably see the swing to abstraction as concluding the recycling of Pre-Modernist styles, returning to the core of Modernism, this time as farce. In this respect, Zombie Formalism has much in common with Neo-Expressionism, which was less a revival than a savage parody. The difference is that Neo-Expressionism initiated the cycle, intent upon re-introducing a blunt symbolic or metaphorical meaning to figuration, with wrenching it clear of standard print sources, while Zombie Formalism would seem to draw the cycle to a close, hardly need stress metaphor or remote reference, actually is better for not trying. One cannot get enough of remote meaning, the other has too much.

A rare defence of Zombie Formalism was made by Brooklyn Rail critic Alex Bacon in a discussion on the San Francisco Art Quarterly site (11th August 2014), where he confirmed the de-skilling aspect to the movement, and significantly could see no problem. ‘Many of these artists don’t have a background in painting, and nor do they need to; after all a shallow thing that is hung parallel to the wall has as much to do with digital technology—those shallow objects like tablets, smartphones and flat-screen televisions that serve as vehicles for the delivery of any range of content and imagery—today as it does with painting’s art historical legacy’. But ‘a shallow thing’ hung on a wall is not actually distinguishing even pictures, much less the various schemes used to make them and their respective meanings. For one holding a doctorate from Princeton on the work of Frank Stella, it is a little simplistic, even for a Stella scholar. But Bacon is of the generation that buys the managerial model – ‘These artists are more like architects or engineers or managers finding experts to help them realize ideas. The majority of these artists’ time is not spent putting the gesso on a canvas, but organizing the people who can help him or her execute the work to a certain standard’. As noted, the parallel with science and industry is flawed. If the artist does not know about the fundamentals, they cannot even ask the right questions of their experts. The top-down approach inevitably sells the bottom short. That ‘certain standard’ necessarily results in mediocrity by the standards of painting. For Zombie Formalists, this banality is actually turned to their advantage, but essentially it ridicules the model by reducing it to formulaic applications of pigment, second-hand ideas on application, field and colour, reinforcing the sense of closure.

On the other half of the equation, remote meaning also registers throughout Bacon’s conversation with colleague Jarrad Earnest. There is the acknowledgment of a persistent blind spot abstraction has come to occupy even for a generation with ample art education – ‘For a long time people struggled with how to read abstraction: “What is it about? How do I understand it?”’ – More predictably, there is the indifference to form and the flight to social issues, on the work of Oscar Murillo, a Colombian raised and educated in London –

Earnest: I see this as “investor identity politics art”—made for and consumed by a highly toxic financial system that thrives on inequality. It completely neutralizes difference in every conceivable way, in terms of gender, race, and class experience—and the most disturbing example has been in strange discussions of Oscar Murillo’s biography. That chocolate factory at David Zwirner was Murillo’s way of trying to navigate that, which most people saw as a failure.

Bacon: It’s unfortunate that people don’t see the actual geopolitical issues involved in Oscar’s work—that his work comes in part from his nomadic, and transnational background. He is engaged in these systems of circulation and migration, so that there are politics around identity, a post-colonial and transnational identity. Yet the market wants to see him as a neo-Basquiat; it loves the highly problematic fantasy of this guy sweeping offices and becoming an art star—that’s very romantic. What is not romantic are the aspects of Oscar’s work that rigorously deal with the movement of very real geopolitical forces.

Earnest: Are we talking about the paintings or the chocolate factory?

Bacon: I don’t think there is a difference with regards to these issues. The fact is that in many cases the paintings aren’t even hung on walls, as often they are laid on floors where people walk on them, or do yoga. Which raises the larger point that for these artists there is not a sense of “Painting,” capital P; it’s not like neo-expressionism where “Painting” returned in its guise as a high art form to reinstate the humanist values the ’60s neo-avant-garde had supposedly stomped to death. That was a battle of post-modernism. Today painting does not have a privileged, hierarchal value for these artists. With Murillo, for example, you don’t understand the paintings without the larger context of the installation-based work he makes, and the socio-political issues from which it emerges.

But the reason people do not see the geo-political issues in Murillo’s work is because they are not there in any explicit or meaningful way. They are not there even remotely. The artist tacitly knows this and has chosen an abstract format for his paintings, and not an especially origin or compelling one, but one heavily derivative of Julian Schnabel in its bold, clumsy script, thin gestural colour on rugged support. Alternatively, one might detect an Antonio Tapies-like attention to graffiti, but here given the thinned, overblown treatment. Nearer to home, an association with Joe Bradley suggests itself. There is nothing amongst these influences that speaks of a post-colonial or migrant identity because stylistic precedent confers upon them other personal, expressive and self-referential meaning (sketched in the above paragraphs). They are owned by other issues. What we are left with is a hollow knock-off, quite deliberately. For, Murillo also knows that critics now scarcely know what is said in a work until they know who has said it, so that identity politics trumps formalism. Bacon’s remarks elsewhere in the article confirm this tendency as well. Regime critics will pretentiously attribute a migrant or refugee identity to his work even when it is manifestly little more than second-rate abstraction that dare not be identified as such without invoking stylistics. But this remote meaning is no more than a mirage, a denial of pictorial meaning in the interests of politics. Saltz and Viveros-Fauné also scorn such interpretation.

The political correctness that hovers over Murillo’s acceptance is not shared with others loosely bracketed as Zombie Formalists. These include Joe Bradley, Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, Dan Colen, Ethan Cook, Petra Cortright, Jeff Elrod, Alex Israel, Parker Ito, Jacob Kassay, Wyatt Kahn, Israel Lund, David Ostrowski, Dan Rees, Lucien Smith and Ryan Sullivan. The sense to each varies with approach. Typically, as the trend has acquired momentum it has tended to disperse across an array of abstract styles. Some are more straightforwardly a revival of Minimalist concerns (hence, accurately Zombies) others more complex or recondite processes, less obviously Zombies (such as Sullivan and Kahn). Whether this interest in the whole array of abstraction will result in some new formal agenda remains to be seen, but the trigger has definitely been the core group of Bradley, Kassay, Lund, Murillo and Smith. The salient characteristics there are thinness to application that unmistakably acquires metaphorical tenor, a preference for field composition of discreet elements (Murillo is the exception) a process entailing random accretion, akin to surface noise in an audio realm and an emphatic formula or seriality, not unlike a production line.

Together these point to abstraction as not just a routine, somewhat detached engagement, but implicitly as an attitude. The work is thin, not just in facture, colour or composition, but emotionally and intellectually. And this is the times as much as the personnel; an uncomfortable message but a frank one. Significantly, matters of composition proceed through a passive accrual to execution. A Kassay acquires a facture through silver plating the canvas that reflects and accents the special acrylic priming beneath, results in a vague reflection indeed. A Murillo or Bradley tends to amass spatters and detritus from working a large raw canvas on the floor. A Smith ‘Rain’ painting spatters the canvas with raindrop-sized droplets in suitable distribution from a prepared fire-extinguisher. The trajectory is implicitly at some distance. A Lund traces the steadily darkening degeneration to a scanned sheet of white paper through digital stages, its transfer to photo-silkscreen, inking and squeegee application. All is in the incidental accumulation of a composition. An abstraction is the dividend the Zombie Formalist idly claims against a dormant heritage.

The real precedent for such work is probably Hirst’s spot and spin paintings, but they flatly refer to graphic design and television. The Zombie Formalists want the detachment of the artist and his versatility, but with a far more respectable pedigree. How much of a purchase they have on that remains to be seen. It may be only a younger generation can find this a bargain, can find their contribution fresh and worthwhile. For an older generation the weight of historical precedent perhaps robs them of some imagination or enterprise. But we do better to look carefully at the works and consider the formal and stylistic issues in assessing meaning than to try and deduce these from the vicissitudes of the market. Whether it turns out to be the end of one period or the start of another obviously only time will tell. Whichever should prove the case it must surely be accompanied by a long overdue change in critical regime.

This article also appears on Worldwidereview.com.