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Zombie Art - Not What You Think

  • Zombie art formalism
October 8, 2015
Anika Dačić graduated in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade and is currently pursuing MA in Literary and Cultural Studies. Her interests lie in social and cultural aspects of contemporary art production and she especially enjoys writing about street and urban art. Likes to knit, play adventure video games and host quiz nights at a local bar.

If the first thing that came to your mind when you saw the title of this article was Walking Dead series, living corpses looking for the brains or imagery based on the popular trends in the gaming industry, well dear readers you’ll get nothing of the sort here. Nevertheless, there is something else that came back from the dead during this decade and it has been troubling the brains of the art critics ever since. Not zombielike creatures but the revival of the abstractionism. How scary is today’s abstract art? Apparently more than we expect it to be. Modest Abstraction, Zombie Formalism, Crapstraction and even some gender-related variants of the term are in circulation when it comes to those uninventive, appropriative, mechanical reproductions of the original aesthetics of abstract art. The abstract art saw a big come back in the art market not so long ago, and the thing that scares the art critics the most is that this “new” movement has been fetishized by the art flippers.

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Chris Duncan – After Space Exhibition at Loyal Gallery, 2014 ©Chris Duncan

Postmodernism and the Questions of Originality

It is a shared and common feeling in our time that there is nothing genuinely new and original that can be invented. The end of history is the end of the modernist idea of progress and the post-histoire era brought recycling and pastiche to the table. If way take a short look into the art history until our century we see that it has always relied on the rebellious and creative spirits who were transgressing the limits placed by their predecessors. When abstract art pioneers introduced their first works, they were fighting against the bourgeois taste and dominant cultural values. Abstractionism was original and experimental, challenging for the viewers who were more than often repelled by it. However, avant-garde stops being just that after it is embraced by way too many people and the exhaustion of once rebellious art movement is inevitable. But since there is nothing new to be done in our age there is an increasing trend towards the revival of the movements of the past whether we call it influence, recycling, imitation, appropriation or simulacrum as defined by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

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Marcia Hafif – Made in LA Exhibition at Hammer Museum. Photo via contemporaryartdaily.com

Zombie Formalism: Living Corpse of the Abstractionism

Zombie Formalism is a term coined by the artist and critic Walter Robinson. In his opinion, the revived concept of abstract art is a combination of formalist methods in painting and the zombielike return of the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg, art critic responsible for the promotion of the American abstract expressionist movement. From the Robinsons point of view, the success of the “new” movement can be attributed to the art flippers among others who are betting on the safe sales and qualities such as elegance, simplicity and other convenient features that can be well incorporated into high-end interior design. The struggle to understand the minimalist or abstract works in the past was replaced by the fetishism of the artistic process as the only way of creating something truly original in our time like the first ever painting done by applying paint with fire extinguisher. There are several other critics who share the common ground and who see this tailor-made art as the art that was primarily motivated by the art market demands. Rather than doing actual experiments artists are finding a way to produce new but ultimately the same paintings that can fetch bigger amounts of money. Everyone plays safe and everyone is content in the end, except those who are actually contemplating on the current state of the art world and the art history.

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Left: Lucien Smith – Untitled 7, 2012. Acrylic on unprimed canvas 20 x 16 inches © Lucien Smith / Right: Lucien Smith – Raising Arizona, 2012. Acrylic on unprimed canvas 24 x 16 inches © Lucien Smith

Art Flipping: If It Sells, It is Still Alive and Well

A couple of times art flippers were mentioned as the culprits responsible for the increasing interest in contemporary abstract art. Last year’s Bloomberg analysis showed how the quick resale of the works of the emerging artists is a sure sign of the bubble that was created in the contemporary art market. Not by coincidence, their analysis is based on the two examples: the works of Oscar Murillo and Lucien Smith, artists favored by the art market insiders and frequently connected to the aesthetic principles of zombie formalism. In just two year from 2012 to 2014, their pieces have surged more than 3,000 percent making them the trendiest artists under the age of 35. Other artists frequently identified as Zombie Formalists are Joe Bradley, Jacob Kassay and Israel Lund among many others.

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Left: Oscar Murillo – Untitled, 2014. Oil, oil stick, and graphite on canvas 235 x 185 cm – Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery / Right: Oscar Murillo – untitled, 2014. Oil and oil stick on canvas and linen 210 x 165 x 3.5 cm – Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

The Walking Dead Art Movements

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, is all contemporary abstract art so bad? Certainly, there are those painters who are doing their job better than the others, and those that we can choose among others due to our preferences. But these artists don’t necessarily have to be the ones favored by the art market trend setters. And we have to wonder are artists to be blamed? Can we distinguish between those who work in minimalism or abstractionism because they are pursuing their creative urges and those who are just following the safe route and choose abstractionism over other styles because it’s easier for them to benefit from the increasing interest in it. After more than a year the debate is still in turmoil and we’ll just have to see how the events unfold in the future and whether the production of zombie formalist art will decrease if the art market climate changes.

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Featured image:

Jacob Kassay – Untitled, 2009. Acrylic and silver deposit on canvas 48 × 36 inches. Photo via ramikencrucible.com