Posts Tagged ‘Zombie Formalism’
… Or, Attack of the Giant Killer Robots!
As Forever Now has engaged the critical debate around painting through the lens of technology and science fiction, and if our current context or the paintings themselves (see Part 1 and Part 2) don’t support this argument, there may still be a way to map contemporary fictions onto the landscape of painting. Popular criticism of the show has been unable to avoid discussion of the current art market and its influences, and most of what has been written certainly has a dystopian flavor. So if the Postmodern landscape of the art world is a “Desert of the Real” and artists are working inside of this new (or really not so new) reality, then we must also consider that the structures that surround and support that art have also changed, perhaps without us knowing, perhaps irrevocably. The issue at hand in any contested environment is not only what can be done to right the mistakes that brought us to this place, but what unintended consequences we might visit on the future.
Painting functions as a barometer in the nexus of art and market. Painting’s deaths have coincided with economic downturns, and when things pick back up there is usually a resurgence of interest in colored mud hung on the wall. However these shifts are more a matter of narrative for critics and historians; it is safe to say that the best artists continue to make the work they want regardless of fashion, even pushing at boundaries further when they are out of the spotlight. The continuing upward trend in the market, whether bull run or bubble, is unnerving, and leading to art being assessed differently. Aesthetics and criticism are intertwined with economics and influence in a way that if not really any different than in past generations, is more apparent in our networked era of information wanting to be free. If Forever Now exemplifies our current condition, it is in the implication that the transition to Postmodernism has finally caught up with not only what art is being made, but how it is being talked about, exhibited and sold. As artists and dealers are being forced to adjust to a Postmodern art market, critics and historians are functioning more and more as market analysts, intertwining aesthetics and economics, and perhaps privileging the concerns of the latter more than they should. As the narrative threads are tied together, there is a real danger that art may eventually lose the individual spark that makes it more than mere commodity.
The painting being labeled as zombie formalism makes the workings of the market easy to criticize, but the lesson to be learned is that what will come next isn’t going to be a return to what we used to have. Writing in the Brooklyn Rail about the less heralded Whitney Museum exhibition Remote Viewing a decade ago, Stephen Maine derided the trend of “vernacular abstraction” as
“…the order of the day, with formalists scarce among younger painters … In part, this is a response to pressures of an expanding market, wherein collectors with deep pockets but little taste for art history, impatient with the linguistic indifference of high abstraction, are provided some anecdotal avenues of approach to the work.”
It is troubling for the discourse of art that who buys the work, for whatever reason (real or imagined) affects the criticism of it. Certainly great works have had ignominious beginnings, and while charges of philistinism are routinely leveled at new money forcing its way into any rarefied market, such criticism can be just as much about reinforcing a status quo of back channel exclusivity and power as lamenting the passing of connoisseurship.
The work in Remote Viewing exhibited a strong trend towards the idiosyncratic and handmade; towards uneven surfaces that did not compromise their facture for easy decoration and did not skimp on authorial labor. These qualities are not really less evident in Forever Now but they have become far less emphasized as personal expression through the manipulation of materials has come to be seen as historical redundant; if any mark that can be made has already been made, how can it be a vehicle for unique personal expression? Over the last decade painting has absorbed the values of a market that embraced artists like Jeff Koons, whose legacy and practice espouses commodification and production above all else. In “Zombie Formalism” this legacy has trickled down to young artists who emulate the slick look and easy production from the top of a flush market. There are consequences to removing the artist’s hand and head from making art. Previously every artist that turned the studio into a production line first had to figure out how to make the thing themselves; the vacuousness of the worst contemporary painting is the result of short cuts and shoddy effort, of time not spent on the work.
Likewise there are consequences to the shift to an economic Postmodernism. The rise of “art” within Western European society as something for the individual was tied to the rise of the middle class. The art of the academy mirrored the ossification of a society that eventually birthed not only Marxism, but also Modernism; avante garde art ceased to be made for the middle (i.e. merchant) class as evidenced by the title “bourgeois” descending into deprecating slur. Modernism also saw popular culture embrace different media than high art, furthering the divide. With the shift to Postmodernism all but complete, we are faced with the demise of the middle class’s relevance to art portending the demise of the middle class itself. As more wealth accumulates to the top 1% and the middle class shrinks, collecting art has come to be seen as a game for oligarchs and the super-rich. This perception is reinforced every time the art press puts sales figures ahead of aesthetic content, and it ultimately only serves those wielding money in the art market like a weapon.
There has been money and influence behind the form and content of art from the beginning, but the opinion of artists, critics and connoisseurs carries less and less weight. We’re nearly 30 years removed from Robert Hughes’ essay Requiem for a Featherweight. His critique of Basquait included coupling the Whitney Museum’s interest with the economic drive for a retrospective, but instead of destroying Basquait’s reputation, in the intervening years all we’ve seen is his continued canonization and an increase in his resale prices. Setting aside the validity of Hughes’ critique, it is evident that economic interests trump the critic as lone curmudgeon. Instead of tilting at windmills of artistic reputation propped up as an asset class, we would do better to provide an alternate narrative of art grounded in what we are for, not against. We do not all have to agree (indeed, we should expect to vehemently disagree at times), but we do have to make a story for contemporary art that allows the thinking and making of the work, not its price, to be paramount.
 Which I’ve been teasing here in the notes since Part 1; that’s why you read the notes, people.
 We’ve all read enough pithy references about the Medici and their influence on the art of the residence, so let’s just pretend I put one here.
 It’s a label that seems very dependent on current popular culture and its fixation on Zombies (for example, with the Walking Dead). If this work had come to prominence even 5 years ago when vampires and the Twilight movies were all the rage, I’m sure we would’ve been hearing about “vampire formalism” and paintings that looked good (and even sparkled) on the wall, but were devoid of any reflection of substance or deeper content, and were ultimately sucking the life out of painting.
 It’s interesting to note that the only artist in both shows, Julie Mehertu, has gone against the grain in both shows; showing more highly polished and produced works in Remote Viewing, and more gestural and seemingly transitional works in Forever Now.
 This only applies to western art out of the Renaissance tradition; Eastern art has followed a slightly different path, although artists were still dependent on an infrastructure provided by the ruling elite. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn comparing working within the free market to academia?
 One of the more interesting implications in Postmodernism is so called “high” art circling back and incorporating these media (photography, film and video, digital and internet practice) into contemporary discourse.
 Everybody wave to the Medici!
 Originally published in the New Criterion, 1988 and collected in Nothing If Not Critical.
 See Dave Hickey as a current example.
Painting has had it rough lately, it’s as if constantly dying and being reborn has really taken something out of the medium. For better or worse it has been yoked to the very definition and expectations of what art is, and painters have become accountable not only on formal but also economic grounds. Hatred of “Provisionalism” has given way to similar reactions about “Zombie Formalism” where a good deal of the criticism hinges not on the work but on how it is being made and just who is buying it. The new crisis of criticism in contemporary painting hinges on just how slippery the medium is and how its relations to the constantly shifting ground of the art worlds have been exposed.
Forever Now, MoMA’s first new painting survey in 30 years, gives critics a good deal to try and grab on to. From the beginning the show stakes a claim on the key feature of our time being an internet derived “atemporality”, with information easily accessible with a few clicks leading to a deluge of historical reference that can effectively remove art from historical place. However, the hip nod to William Gibson and the technological present disguises the broader import of the show; in mapping out a space for painting where the entire wealth of history and aesthetic investigation is open (and constantly re-opened) to use curator Laura Hoptman has marked our present circumstances as unequivocally Postmodern. A better pop cultural reference would be Morpheus stepping back to reveal the desert of the real to Neo at the beginning of “The Matrix.” Coming from the gleaming skyscrapers and clear blue skies of high modernism, the scorched earth and sky of the truth of reality is a foreboding sight. It would seem a landscape of exhausted strategies and unintended consequences where survival will take more work than before, but it also allows for broader interactions and a greater degree of possibility.
For artists this desert is terrain where the hierarchies of how to make art and what to make it out of don’t apply. Freed from the need to worry about pushing forward or heralding an agenda, the artist may make what they want out of whatever material will mesh with their formal, conceptual, political, or aesthetic ends. Simply making something “new” is too transient a glory and no longer laudable; the novelty of invention wears off too quickly and everyone’s sources are easily discovered. This end of progress is also the end of avant garde; one can’t be at the forefront of a movement if there is no front, or if looking backward in reflection can’t be labeled as merely retrograde. This is ultimately disorienting for all involved as the criticism of any given work requires a careful approach on its own terms. The old signposts aren’t necessarily relevant, and the headstrong critic will find themselves revealing more about their own bias than the work’s. Likewise the artist must be acutely aware of what s/he stands for, and how they relate to the shifting context that surrounds their work lest they loose control of it. The lack of supposed progress raises the stakes because responsibility falls on the individual, it can’t be easily deflected to a group or movement. This is the cost of the freedom wished for by artists in bygone eras.
Once we accept that atemporatlity is synonymous with Postmodernism it can bee seen as a crutch to lay responsibility at the feet of the internet. Digital technologies have rapidly increased the flow of information, but Postmodernism predates widespread integration of digital networks into the fabric of our culture. The first Postmodernists were analog artists, researching in libraries and archives, and collating physical objects, artifacts, and documents into their work. The inherent speed of all art was the same, but if painting has been slow to accept and accelerate into the new terrain of Postmodernism it is because it is a medium of material and individual gesture it does not lend itself to quick dissemination. Painters are figuring out how to integrate the history of their medium into a continuum that more recent, easily digitized media were born into; but as those media aspire to the status and economic benefits enjoyed by painting more possibilities are opened as the boundaries blur. Postmodern painters are finding their way; the work on view in Forever Now, or any other show of painting being made today, should not be seen as an example of living in the wreckage, but the slow start of a new beginning, of building a new frontier.
 Or “crapstraction” if you’re being kind of rude about it while simultaneously trying to come up with something punchy. This isn’t a label that one would apply if you were also to admit to liking some examples of the work under discussion.
 I subscribe to a “many worlds” view of the art world as a way to simplify our understanding of something that is otherwise too complex to entertain. In short individual interactions overlap with geography and economies so that upon a microscopic view the connections and networks form webs that are too dense to separate, but upon pulling back to an extreme macro view the interactions separate into clusters of mass. How these clusters relate to influence and wealth, and just how shared they are is probably what is leading to a certain amount of critical disgust with painting overall.
 Quoted from the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition.
 The reference to William Gibson seems more like trendy name dropping than anything else
 With that use swinging between stewardship and strip-mining.
 A wide-eyed and well groomed protagonist fresh out of art school with his MFA if ever there was one.
 You just have to look out for the giant killer robots, which we’ll discuss in part three.
 And presumably continuing the modernist drive towards some sort of purity.
 If not advertised as loudly as possible.
 In technical parlance, these circumstances aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.
 Taking the red pill as it were.
 I take my historical cues from Danto, and put the emergence of Postmodernism with Warhol’s Brillo boxes.
 An image of the painting can be shared easily enough, but it is different from an actual painting; the materials must still be reckoned with in a way that is not required to simply print a digital file.
 The specter of the monetary advantage that rides on the definition remains sobering; the economic implications of tearing down boundary walls and opening up art’s discourse is the ground that will pit the upper reaches of the art market against it’s broader population.