Follow by Email

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Show goes on. Schnabel (fils) Walter Robinson and the end of Zombie Formalism

It had all become a wonderfully seamless merger of theory and the art it purported to define. Modernism divided by modernism, became postmodern, became Zombie Formalism. The last remnant of self-consciousness was squeezed out. The image was often produced by machines or was so redundant of past Modernism, any notions of the authority or authenticity of the creator had exited the site of creation. Heidegger’s "monstrous philosophical site", where he crosses out Being (sous rature) bringing an end to ontology or at most establishing a weak ontology, had worked its way into the creative process of contemporary artists. Has Simone Weil’s cyclical trope of history hit the nadir of meaninglessness and instead of bouncing in another direction became an intensification of itself?This aesthetic nothing is not totally nothing as the market gives it significant monetary value. The correlation between such art and an economy built on zero interest rates was hard to ignore. Calculating bankers needed to launder some of their gains from the phony stock market into Culture, but the avant-garde instead of providing the usual opportunity for the bankers to slum or dabble with artists besotted of Freud or Jung was now populated by artists as savvy in their business acumen as the bankers themselves. The artists just printed more paintings on their inkjet printers to be bought up by the stockbrokers who had gotten rich on the Federal Reserve's money printing. The dialectic of history provided no zigzag, no way out just more zombification ad infinitum.
Mark Grotjahn
Frank Stella
This state of affairs was foretold in the early work of Frank Stella. His work was not built out of the cosmic gestures of the Jungian Pollock or the labor of the working class of de Kooning but out of color aid packs and bad geometry. Whereas Stella felt some remorse over putting painting into such a straight jacket and has spent the rest of his career paying homage to the Italian Baroque, the Zombie Formalists, Guyton, Grotjahn, Morris et. alia look like early Stella. They saw the scission his palette provided from flesh, blood and the inner life as a good ground upon which to build their bloodless zombie edifice. It did not refer back to a lived world but to the artifice of graphic design.

Jasper Johns by Karsh
Modernism was the last breath of authoritative self-consciousness grounded in Science, the individual as capable of solid perceptions of the Real. When one reads that Husserl’s eidetic reduction seizes reality as it is captured by the senses, one understands that this is what Rothko did. I was reminded of his spiritual intensity in Paul Rodgers “the Modern Aesthetic” which sees Modernism as an ever-revivified battle against the Prussian state and its reincarnations. For sure the scientific community achieved its goals with a group effort but judging from the mid century portraits of greatness by Yousef Karsh, the consciousness of the truth was a private affair. So here is a definition you can take home: zombie modernism is modernism without the authoritative stance of self-consciousness. There is no one home.
Jennifer Guidi
So when I learned that Grotjahn’s wife, Jennifer Guidi was cranking out sentimental paintings swimming in sunset colors and that the same collectors of Zombie art could not get enough of them, I was startled. Is this the long awaited bounce? Is all the sentiment excised from Zombie Formalism coming back to start the new zag to zombies zig? Granted the “zombie stance” if it were a yoga pose would be an impossible pose to hold. It requires a coolness and poise lest even an iota of emotion leaks in. You would have to stop breathing. Grotjahn started to drip a little paint on his geometry but that may have expressed an indifference to any remnant of authority in his work. But it may have been the crack in the dam. Are the images of Guidi ironic?  Are these just painterly renditions of Koons. 
Walter Robinson
The truth may lie in a show of Walter Robinson‘s painting curated by Vito Schnabel in Switzerland. Vito is the scion of the Schnabel family, founded by papa Julian. Robinson, the presumed inventor of the label of Zombie Formalism (although I came up with the label several months earlier as Zombie abstraction) and a denizen of New York’s art ghetto whom artist/art critic Charles Giuliano described as a “known grifter and blowhard” in an article in “Berkshire Fine Arts”, has produced a body of work which to my eye purports to be a painterly version of Lichtenstein’s pop oeuvre.  An article in Blouin Fine Arts pushes it as the glorification of “appetite” in American culture. I get it: remove the cool veneer of the billboard or the movie poster and replace it with the juicy strokes of Robinson and you reveal the appetitive underbelly of American society. Julian’s work was resurrected as provisional in the new millennium by Raphael Rubinstein from its 80’s identity as neo-expression. Schnabel’s art like Robinson’s always needs some sort of label. The Schnabel label unlike LV won't cut it by itself. Pull off the label and the work looks like shit.

On occasion I come across articles about the New York Federal Reserve’s involvement in money printing or as they call it: quantitative easing. It appears they don’t know what the longterm effect is: they are just winging it. It has created a bubble that is going to burst, that has enriched the 1% at the expense of Main St. I think you could say the same thing about the artistic culture of New York.  If Schnabel pere et fils , Walter Robinson and now Jennifer Guidi are what we must bow down  to as the culture of choice by New York’s collectors then there is no bounce nor an intensification of nihilism, just an untidy, murky pool of schlock. Is this a bubble ready to burst?  Or maybe just a backup of primordial sludge that will give rise to a new art?


  1. Love the range of thinking and the intelligence of the effort. Still worry about writing that sounds fundamentally cranky and bent on rejection. What do you love?
    Also I think Zombie Formalism has always been interesting as an idea/reference but problematic in its ability to find pertinent exemplars. For example, Grotjahn is actually incredibly attentive to the hand made, the work of the hand and the painstaking building of surfaces. Also Zombie Formalism tends to get dumped by the more general readers into an area too close to where I live which is intelligent/playful formalism that knowingly references its past.

  2. I understand your point. My problem is having read too much critical theory which tries to put everything in a political context. Personally,I am trying to jump out of that political enframement even as I apply it to others like Grotjahn.

  3. Hello Martin,

    Another interesting blogpost!

    There won’t be an end to Zombie Formalism until we find its root cause. I suspect that you and I had the same reaction to the death of painting narrative: to rebel against it and focus on the corporeal body of paint in painting. And I suspect that you share my frustration to watch an art world not join in at least rejecting the idea of the end of not only painting but also of art ...but instead comply meekly with the spirit of the age as you so briskly illustrate with associated examples in the rest of society such as zero interest rate / quantitative easing.

    I see this too in architecture (my first degree, and I taught as an adjunct in California for 8 years in architectural design). During a recent conversation with a friend who is still teaching, he was complaining about the influence of parametric design (think Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn) and how young architects and arch students are enamored with a kind of architecture that is relies on form automation via software. As a teacher, this kills the opportunity to instill architectural complex concepts and problem solving. Instead, acolytes are letting forms be generated by graphic programs and they are projecting sloppy architectural rationale onto them instead of creating the various systems (structural, circulation, enclosure, etc) and synchronizing them into a final synthesis. The enamor of shiny surfaces assumes that nothing within is important or interesting. The life within architecture need not exist at all.

    My assumption coming out of grad school (art) was completely off the mark: that it is the responsibility of every generation to question the received wisdom, shake it out in critique and fashion one specific for the subsequent one. Instead, all that was seemingly possible since the early 90’s was to write the bibliography and end notes for an art history for which no new chapters are considered permissible or possible.

    In recent years, the acknowledgement and branding of Zombie Art/Abstraction/Formalism seemed to sear our art world with an irrefutable indictment. (Thanks and congrats to your nomination!) But we all seem to carry on as if the critique is toothless. Maybe blood won’t be drawn until the whole art world gets the courage to reflect on the entirety of the Postmodern epoch and savagely critique it. I see no sign of this happening soon since to do this, one would have to see the arc of Postmodernism from the 60’s to today as a whole, a characterization that I seem to be absolutely alone in making. We are living the parable of the elephant and the blind men, it is as if we prefer to remain blind! Indeed, I had first noticed that it had been déclassé to even mention Postmodernism back in the mid-90’s, and people still yawn to this day. But I think the zombies will yet walk this earth until we take a hard look at our history and try to see what sapped the life out of art as we know it.

    All these thoughts have been simmering after reading your post, but it was watching this YouTube video that prompted me to send the link (below) to you. Now, I don’t want to encourage a transliteration of the content of the video to our shared concerns, but there is something interesting about how they describe what happens when the “purpose motive” drops out of society. I am associating this with the generational imperative in art to critique received knowledge and refashion a subsequent narrative to write the next chapter in art history. We as an art world have lost our purpose. What a better way to alternatively describe a zombie invasion?


      Here is the video Dennis refers to.

  4. I like your comment about the hand alone not being enough..and when will painting stop talking about itself? These conversations would be much easier if there was a clear stance of what art is now and what it's getting at.
    We still have residues of pluralism from the 80's and 90's where and artist can work a range of venues..personal to socially critical. It's hard to decipher and we're forced to sniff out general trends to develop arguments. You sniff out the nihilist stances well..zombies and provisional who work from laziness and emptiness. Maybe this is the overall message being pushed. I'm not sure I could say because I'm not glued to all the changes.. it would probably take some real research to get some scientific read of what is really predominant. From what i gathered when viewing all of those sites there is a repeated canceling out of the past, the individual, the romantic and a turn to nihilism, technology, the manufactured, scientific, loss of central viewpoint, and the replicated/synthetic.

    See More from Martin Mugar

  5. Dear Martin,
    Very zippy! Keep marshaling intelligence!


  6. Here are Hollingsworth issues with MO?POMO

    We are still within the Modernism/Postmodernism MO/POMO envelope…
    ...and we can’t leave it until we tear it wide open.
    MO/POMO were born as one but diverged in name when they issued forth.
    I came to this conclusion after reading Shattuck’s “The Banquet Years”, linking Alfred Jarry to Duchamp.
    Painting was the sun and it had to be occluded so that we could see -give justice to- the stars -aka the alternate media (other suns).
    Duchamp’s urinal occluded the sun, was the progenitor to POMO, which laid dormant for 50 years until the later emergence of Pop.
    What crystalized at the high point of NYC AbEx (MO) was the effort to touch G-d (transcendence) via material means.
    The POMO turn at its flowering was to flip the script: 2 point 2 (not touch) everyday life (not G-d) via conceptual (not material) means.
    What followed in train was the exposition of POMO.
    First, Pop pointed to everyday life, but was still ensnarled in the painterly facture of their MO antecedents.
    Minimalism turned down the dial of materialism in artwork until the conceptual remained in view.
    Sol LeWitt was the fruit of the POMO tree, he clairvoyantly anticipated the information age, focusing on art as a series of instructions.
    POMO continued past its prime, elaborating alternative means of pointing to everyday life: Crit Theory, Decon, the personal = political
    As a river begins as a crisp and cold stream, widens into a slowing dirty course and fans into a stinking silted delta… so too POMO.
    We are living in the delta phase, we can only hope we are the ones evaporating into clouds that will later form dew in the mountaintops.
    What must be distilled: the lessons learned, a critique of both MO/POMO, especially POMO since it is implicitly a critique of its twin.
    We are prevented from doing this since the majority of the artworld refuses to be concise in the definition of POMO.
    We insist on seeing only trees and no forest, the forest for us as yet does not exist.
    We whistled past the graveyard when the Berlin Wall fell, clinging to Fukiyama’s “End of History” thesis.
    Evidence that the creed persists: MoMA’s “Forever Now”.
    We whistled past the graveyard when the Twin Towers fell…
    ...deaf to the atavist’s reminder that utopia will always be in a future that never arrives.
    We are told that history is over and new chapters cannot be legitimately written.
    Recognizable possibilities are restricted to writing endnotes and bibliography.
    And now the zombies have arisen, hungry to eat brains.
    Yet still, we are defenseless, bereft of resources to arm us via the critique of the MO/POMO epoch that brought us to this place.
    We are 21st century creatures, yet mentally trapped in the framework of the 20th.
    It will do us well to be reminded that we are not bound by the strictures of the previous era.
    We should shake it down in critique, cast off what no longer pertains.
    We should keep what yet pertains and add that which is relevant to our time and of our horizon.
    Every artist has a responsibility to provide their own answer, to throw the dice and let tomorrow’s artists decide who the winner is.
    My throw: defy the narratives of death and nihilism;
    ...recognize the intensification that the information age bestows on us and refuse the hamster wheel;
    ...realize that we must write our own programming code;
    …reject the puppet show of combatting MO/POMO;
    ...celebrate the Janus faced MO/POMO, guardian of doorways and gates looking forward and backward;
    ...recognize that our hands are on the steering wheel, we are not helpless;
    ...acknowledge that the world possesses a grain to it and strive for the wisdom to know when to go against it…
    (Invoking the Tao Te Ching) MO/POMO are the same / But diverge in name as they issue forth…
    …Being the same, they are called mysteries / Mystery upon mystery - / Gateway to the manifold secrets.

  7. I am feeling upbeat about my writing:Three adjectives have been used to describe it.Brisk,zippy and edible.

    1. "pellucid" from Paul Rahe in 2012 on the Duchamp piece

    2. Bracing from Katherine Parker

  8. Kung Fu Tse was upset when he once got an I CHING reading of Grace, finding such a quality superfluous... I like your work because it's brisk, zippy, and well seasoned. Imagine if your words were ponderous and gave indigestion, let us count our blessing. Love your writing for the breath of the conversation and because it's well written. It's Duchamp's influence... In a 1998 panel discussion titled “Vision and Visuality” sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that Duchamp despised optical, ocular art and artisanal work, hence the ready-made. Yet making ocular, optical art takes years of experience and artisanal work is done with loving patience, these are things to respect, not to despise. We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, or that Stravinsky loathed musical notes.

  9. Kung Fu Tse was wrong, of course, stylin is always stylin...

    1. Rhythm in poetry and in art. The body that stands under the images and the words. Who talks about Grace in art? That is a very religious concept.Kojeve who tried to eliminate all transcendence from art and culture was surprised at its tenacity in Japanese art.

    2. remember watching Louis Malle's epic documentary on India.One segment was of some young female classical dancers rehearsing.After being filmed for sometime they began to feel exploited and brought the filming to an end. I remember their grace and their ambition to connect through their dance with the deities.

  10. Copied from Chris Hedges: 'Neoliberalism and globalization are zombie ideologies. They have no credibility left. The scam has been found out. The global oligarchs are hated and reviled. The elite has no counterargument to our critique. So they can’t afford to have us around. As the power elite becomes more frightened, they’re going to use harsher forms of control, including the blunt instrument of censorship and violence.

  11. Received this as an email:
    Dear Martin Mugar, A friend sent me a link you your very nice blog essay on Grotjahn, his wife, Schnabel's son and Walter Robinson, official favorite lout of the NY establishment. Myself I doubt that Grotjahn ever looked for long at a Stella, if he ever bothered to look at all. That he's on the board of MoCA says everything there is to be said about painting's institutional support in LA. I lived there for nearly thirty five years and there was never a Stella show at either a gallery or a museum.
    However, I think you're being a bit fatalistic. I am taking the liberty of attaching a pdf of an essay which is a chapter I wrote for a recently published book, which is about a broader and slightly more theoretical question, but which has a suggestion as to how abstract or representational artists might proceed in the wake of art history being turned into a joke. Thanks, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe.

  12. Another comment on the art scene this time on Laura Owens from Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe :
    From my point of view Laura’s work represents a retreat from inventiveness into an academic art of reference rather than experience, as far as Barthes goes it’s the ‘readerly’ as opposed to the ‘writerly,’ where the former is a philistine rejection of the latter. The heaviness of the work is of a kind found in a lot of work that is said to embody a world view which is not that of the while male, and as such it’s a cliché that can’t possibly do what it is said to do. That would be ok with me if it weren’t just heavy and inert. The only time Laura ever spoke directly to me it was to accuse me of not having paid sufficient attention to her work. Actually I have in my life been careful not to spend to much time on things that seem to me banal, and especially not on the aggressive banal, there’s nothing by me of more than a sentence or two on Al Held or Keiffer, for instance, because to me nothing happens in the work that encourages me to have a new thought about its premise. Same thing with Laura, aggression as a form of reassurance, thick and sloppy as a sign of immediacy. Or rather as a sign of immediacy brought under the control of the word and the already digested, apparently reassuring for many but for me only one more a sign of the triumph of the shrill, which is the kind of reassurance that I only find depressing.”

  13. There could be a belated need to find origins.Appears Guidi is looking to aboriginal art. A gallery in Australia posted a like on Twitter to my tweet on her. (I misspelled her name Gaudy) I didn't get that connection. And now Hirst is looking back to Bonnard.The hermeneutic turn toward Being.

  14. I was sending out a mass mailing of my penultimate blog on "Innocence and Art" to galleries on the off chance that someone might reply. I got a response once from Mary Boone who liked my zombie piece.This time I heard back probably from the front desk of David Kordansky in LA from someone with the first name Emerald. I checked out the stable and surprise surprise I discovered it was the home of Mr and Mrs Guidi-Grotjahn. Her work did not at all look Romantic.It was of the same hardened flat desiccated egoism of most Zombie Formalists and the same for every other artists in the gallery.So zombie lives on. What I did learn is that there is a connection between egoism and zombie of the self detached from all of Freud's add ons like the ID or Eros or Jung's cosmic stuff. God is dead a long time ago. I guess the Zizek complaints of neo-liberalism apply here.Marcuse's one dimensional man reigns!

  15. wondering whether the af Klint show at the Guggenheim was the retort to ZF. In a conversation on line with some Theosophists they referred to her paintings as embodying " living" ideas. Living vs the dead! Theosophy reclaims abstraction!!

  16. The virus pushed the market over the cliff.wonder how the zombie investments are holding up now.