Kenny Schachter über Zombie Formalism

Dawn of the Dead

Abstract paintings between boom and doom: Kenny Schachter investigates the market

The Foreground

Though it feels like it’s been forever upon us, Zombie Formalism is a recent breed of mostly male, mostly generic abstraction mostly expressed in paint on canvas; a generalization of meanings coined by artist and critic Walter Robinson, who as the founding editor of Artnet Magazine in 1996 and was my very first editor at the time before the vital, paradigm shifting net-news outlet was unceremoniously halted. Zombie Formalism (ZF hereon in) unlike Walter and myself, now long in the tooth, is like the commodity pits, a game geared towards youth. 

The obvious meaning of zombie, which for me harps back to the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, brings to mind the cannibalistic walking dead who instinctively headed to malls and department stores in an innate, primal quest to shop some more. They were soulless, lifeless but still had the unquenchable urge to consume. Warhol (who figures into this story) would be proud. The story of Walter’s zombies, a moniker he will wear around his neck till his death like a millstone, goes as far back as April 3, 2014, well shy of two years ago. This was supposed to be a corpse-eating dead art in search of one last hit of hedonism; but there’s more and less simultaneously.

I’m not sure anyone would believe Robinson’s argument was grounded in Clement Greenberg of all people, an aesthetic fascist in favor of art stretching and exhausting the physical qualities of the medium above all else—nothing but the thing itself. As an esteemed painter—the upside of his Artnet dismissal is the flourishing of Walter’s art career—he misses a key, determining factor in the importance of the theory he posited. While Robinson noted the high-end, How-to-Spend-It (Financial Times Supplement) lure of the rich and mindless art players to ZF, he failed to take note of the complicity of the artists, and I don’t mean in a necessarily bad way. 

This is art as calculated strategy like career planning with a guidance counselor in high school. What will my latest series be made of? What technique? Then I will attach an ex post facto conceptual conceit to it and boom; I am flirting with flippers. Its eco(nomics)-art, predicated on an easily repeatable and palatable formula. Alas, it was to be nothing more than another version of the romantic and mythical story of the rock prodigy who dies too early (usually at age 27) from an overdose of fill-in-the-blank; so too is ZF dead on arrival from indulgence in materialism and shallowness, more than anything else. 

The actual paintings, they are almost always on canvas—eminently storable in a free port near you—are reminiscent of bland, soggy white bread: conceptual art with no concept. Materials, which nowadays mean anything other then paint, or paint adhered to the surface in as unconventional and wacky a way possible, still sticks to the time worn conventions of abstraction. 

The result is art that requires nothing of you but 5 seconds to look (and trade for successively higher profits) before it spontaneously combusts like a proposed mission from Mission Impossible. Rest assured, there is at least one new zombie born every day, still. And some of them are quite easy on the eyes; I should know I’ve got a passel of them in storage and a few on my walls. I too was a victim from nothing more than self-wrought, old-fashioned greed. While others are actually good!


The Background

Warhol (1928-1987) tried in the vein to crack ZF with his shadows and silkscreened abstractions (and in every other screen they pulled) but was too far ahead of his time, whose lifetime auction record $385,000 in 1986 for “200 One Dollar Bills” later sold for $43,762,500 in 2009, a conundrum worse than being caught behind. I think he’d be quite amused by the latest breed of cute wee Warhol knockoffs. As long as there’s a new tool to serve it up with, these types of works will proliferate, like prospecting for gold nuggets utilizing the latest format technology permits. Warhol’s auction record stands at $105,445,000 on an estimate on request from November 2013 which might be overtaken any second. Of that he would have blushed.

In fact, you might say Warbucks Warhol was the progenitor of this most prescient, present phenomenon: the first commercially minded artist-speculator who intended to create, in giant batches, well beyond the notion of a few handfuls of hay bales or water lilies. Being an equal opportunity businessman, Warhol bowed to every taste level from Palm Beach to New York to Hollywood, in between and the world over. He wanted a product line available in every size for every consumer to savor (with differing price points of course).

In relation to ZF, Walter mentions Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis as historical precedents but I’d rather establish its beginnings in proto Arte Povera. Is there anything terribly different about a lot of this stuff and Italy’s Lucio Fontana (1899-1958), especially the Concetto Spaziales, and just about all of Alberto Burri’s works (1915-1995) subject of a Guggenheim retro through January 6, 2016, all the way to the United States’ own Jules Olitsky (1922-200) and Larry Poons (b. 1937)?

And dare I say, had Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) not existed and some 22 year-old white punk from the Mid-West—now living in New York—dragged an oversized squeegee of the type employed by street beggars on the corners of a town near you to make paintings, he’d be collected like crazy and vilified at very same time.

The Practitioners

Here is a list from Monopol Magazine, which I could add to till I was blue in the face and rendered zombie-like myself but I will spare you (and me). Checklist is more appropriate as many spec-u-lectors used to buy by merely ticking boxes after being told to by friends. As this is a largely money moving and re-moving movement, lets address the art and the market hand-in-hand as that's how they roll. As you see from the dates of birth I’ve included, this is primarily a young man’s game, with a smattering of complicit females (just kidding).

Jacob Kassay (b. 1984) has an auction record of $317,000 on an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 from a 2011 painting sold in New York, November 2013; while most recently a work from 2010 was bought in London last month at a 60,000 - 80,000 GBP  ($122,567) estimate. Though a work fetched $118,000 on an estimate of ($100,000 to $150,000) in New York in May, you could say if the slithery, silvery paintings continue to trend down they may soon be worth less than the meltdown value of the silver used in their production. For worse or worse, the lesser metal will always pale in contrast to the sparkle of Damien’s diamonds. 

At $389,000, Lucien Smith’s (b. 1989) auction record for a work and his first to appear at a public sale, was fittingly purchased by the voraciously acquisitive dealing family, the Mugrabis, at Phillips New York in November 2013. They’d be hard pressed to get more than $100,000 on their original investment today. I must say I am a fan of his fire extinguisher spray paintings and mushed synthetic pie-scapes, but he became and probably always will be, the poster child for the movement, the face of ZF.

Smith’s last large rain painting (as the extinguished series has been branded) made $105,987 (£68,500) on an estimate of $30,945-$46,418 (£20,000-30,000); respectable but a far cry from nearly $400,000 the last one made in February 2014 in London. He is alive but may still require life support. Today the art market whipsaws in a manner not too dissimilar from global stock markets. 

Dan Colen (b. 1979) is the grandfather of this group, which fact makes me feel practically dead myself. Dan was more a member of a roving ensemble of characters, among the most adept from a traditional art-making standpoint. Famously appearing on the front cover of NY Magazine in January of 2007, with Dash Snow (1981-2009) and Ryan McGinley (b. 1977) for an article titled “Warhol’s Children”; it was heroin chic, not just as posture (maybe posture too), but also as avid users, that came to define the aesthetic of this loose group of artists, some still at work like Nate Lowman (b. 1979) and another prematurely dead (Snow), soon to be the subject of a Peter Brant museum showcase. 

I forgot to mention Dan is not what I would call a fully-fledged ZF at all other than his compressed flower works—which over time will inevitably disappear from conservation issues—or lack of forethought to conservation issues; and maybe his bird shit and bubble gum “paintings” (record over $1,000,000 in 2013). But his record of a whopping $3,000,000 achieved in May of 2014 was for a hyper realistic (one assumes painted by the artist) rendering of a Disney-esque burning, smoking candle entitled Boo Fuck’n Hoo—I challenge any FZ to make such a well executed rendering in paint. 

The last work of Colen’s to appear at auction was one of his soon to disappear “Mercyflowers on bleached Belgium linen (aka recipe for disaster) which made £134,500 ($207,657) on an estimate of £60,000 - £80,000 ($92,635 - $123,513). Though nothing has hit the big numbers since 2014, he is alive and kicking hard.

Adam McEwen (b. 1968) is another fossil in comparison to the unbridled youth of the majority of this visually raggedy, ad hoc hodgepodge group of alleged ZF art and artists. He also happens to make bubble gum paintings like his pal Dan, noted above—I imagine their assistants sitting around getting drunk while consuming massive wads of gum—fun. His record is $315,000 in May 2013 on an estimate of $80,000 - $120,000 for a graphite work on aluminum resembling wood grain—that I will assume he drew. His gum record is $200,000 in the same year by the way. His last graphite work, though admittedly not as appealing an image, made £56,250 ($87,033) on an estimate of £30,000 - £50,000 ($46,418 - $77,363), again not mega but still mega decent, it certainly could have been worse. As an aside he also makes sculptures and conceptual text based works like the great series of obituaries of living people. Again, he’s no zombie either. 

Whereas Parker Ito (b. 1986), he’s a zombie no doubt, one of the worst assaulters—a smug, conceited kid who spat out art as fast as it could be printed to a market hungry for more. Until it wasn’t, about 5 minutes later, what you would call a hard landing. His auction record for his hit series “The agony and the ecstasy” was better named then experienced. The work was printed onto a 3M product called Scotchlite that only appeared to come to life if you blasted it with Broadway-theatre-scaled lights. In other words, only in the showrooms of auction houses where in February of 2014 one made £56,250 ($93,594) on an estimate of £10,000 - £15,000 ($16,638 - $24,958) before plummeting to £7,500 ($11,604) in October of 2015 on an estimate of £6,000 to £8,000 ($9,283 - $12,378). Forget Scotchlite, if you own some Ito (finito), you will need a double scotch instead. But hey, you never know, he’s only a kid and still capable of achieving good work.

David Ostrowski (b. 1981) is from the in-your-face, f*ck you school of painting that antagonizes viewers, challenging them to like the seemingly random squirts of spray paint or studio detritus adhered to mostly white grounded canvases. It's a barely there, or not much to look at aesthetic, indolent and slacker in its approach yet somehow coming off as seductive and appealing when he gets it right. It's the hit/miss ratio that needs some attention. That and the fact that practically every work he’s ever (casually) made has more or less all made their way into auction doing no deed to his now fragile market. I’m a fan, albeit one with hesitation.

Ostrowski made £170,000 ($292,653) in London in July 2014 on an estimate of £30,000 - £50,000 ($51,493 - $85,822) but the last sale was £32,500 ($50,177) for a work equally as good as last year’s record breaker with an estimate of £25,000 - £35,000 ($38,598 - $54,037). Someone call in an editor and gallerists with stricter resale clauses in their invoices. 

Fredrik Vaerslev (b. 1979) must be included as a ZF forefather with his slapdash, haphazard Pollock-esque splatters of paint resembling drop clothes from probably better made paintings by someone else. There are also rather tasteful striped works and painted picket fences with too obvious illusions to suburbia, ho-hum. His record is a not uninspired $317,000 in 2014 on an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 in New York. But today you can snap them up for at least a third less like the untitled “canopy painting” that made $78,766 on an estimate of $78,766 - $118,149) in Christie’s Shanghai of all places in October of this year. At least he’s making inroads into other markets, a necessary strategy for surfing the vicissitudes of the rollercoaster ride that is the international art market. 

Aaron Aujla (b. 1986) is without any auction history, a breather from having to compile this tedium information, and I am certain for you reading it. He is represented by Clearing gallery of Brussels and Brooklyn, a top notch gallery necessitated for younger artists more than most, and makes for me fairly art school-ish works like a grid of dark hued cinder roofing tiles that bring to mind the more accomplished (commercially and conceptually, though I don’t agree with all) works of Theaster Gates. Guilty as charged. 

Dylan Bailey (b. 1985) is another without an auction history (relief- sigh) who made a series of spray works comprised of jumbled groupings of floating numbers (like in how much it will cost you, sucker) and with the leftover paint nozzles he did another series embedding them into the surface of works; clever, clever and industrious too. He’s got the requisite long locks and good looks sadly still an influencer of early market success, and happens to appear on the net with Gagosian gallery trendies and the likes of Nate Lowman. Keep a watch on this one…

Chris Duncan (b. 1974) makes rainbow colored paintings that resemble lollipops and are painstakingly applied collaged swirls of painted paper.  He’s only ever had a single work at auction that appeared twice (!) back in 2012 that was bought in at an estimate of $500 - $1,000; who put him on the list? I’m still scratching my head over his inclusion on the list. 

Amy Feldman (b. 1981) is another painter yet to come to auction and looks like one about to fly. Nothing zombie about her, one of the few females on the list, though I am sure there are plenty more about, she makes cartoonish abstractions that seem easy, almost too easy but they draw you in despite your knowing better. They are goofy, saccharine and childlike like Lily van der Stokker (b. 1954) but drained of color, they leave you wanting more, hooked like a helpless fish. I love good-bad painting, which this unequivocally qualifies as, so watch this space, another soul firmly in the land of the living.

Lauren Luloff (b. 1980) yet to appear at auction an alumni of the P.S. 1 Museum studio program, which I served as juror on during the 1990’s before most of the zombie’s were born, makes colorful decorative abstractions that harp to closely to Sigmar Polke (b. 1941 – 2010, and how he is missed) with a dose of Josh Smith (b. 1976); but more of the Pattern and Decoration movement associated by Kim MacConnel (b. 1946) and dealer Holly Solomon. Not a zombie (and not for me). 

Cordy Ryman (b. 1971) forever known as a Robert Ryman son (there are many that seem to be exhibiting art on his coattails), has had six works to auction to date, 3 of which went unsold and the remaining works made between $3,000 to $6,000; not quite sure how or where he fits in. Another decorative abstractionist like Luloff, they are colorful and geometric, and would fit perfectly in an ancillary Miami fair but far from the big tent, maybe in Palm Beach; I am at a loss on this one. 

Last and (most) far from least on this long list is Joe Bradley (b. 1975), an inventive talented artist on a slow boil of gaining momentum through various disparate bodies of work that push the boundaries in a way that artists from Cy Twombly to Mike Kelley did before him. Twombly defaced his canvases with painted scribbles and unknowable pencil cyphers Bradley has been known to make his most appealing marks on the backs of his canvases that only tantalizingly peek through the stretched surface of the painting. In addition he has put two fingers in the eye sockets of art lookers with his oil stick stick figures and fragments as well as pared down robots out of monochromatic panels either painted or in ready made vinyl. Like Mike Kelley he courts failure and you get the same sense Bradley is equally repulsed by success as much (if not more) than enthralled. He assuredly doesn’t belong on this list and his market is in rude health about to get ruder.

Bradley only just missed his 2011 auction record of £986,000 ($1,584,484) on an estimate of £300,000 - £500,000 in London with his October 2015 London result of £986,500 ($1,522,846), more pounds today but less dollars then in 2011, but he will as sure as anything I’ve ever predicted, eclipse that record in New York in November 2015 with an colorful abstract work estimated at $1,500,000 to $2,000,000 the highest estimate of the 52 ever to come to auction has been pegged at. And rightly so, he’s a wonderful one to watch. But with 5 major upcoming as this goes to print, his market will be particularly tested. 


The End and Beginning

I’ve never seen an art world measured in winning and losing to the extent it is now, or rather more succinctly how it’s been reduced to a numbers and fame game like everything else. But in effect it’s always been like this in one way or another since it came off the cave wall. Today the art world (and rest of world) is a zero-sum economic contact sport fueled by inbred competition and unchecked egos. A pecking order of monetary hierarchies drive the social swirl, which in turn dictates taste and auction records—but only driving a portion of the market, certainly not all. 

In the end I am a foolish (cynical) optimist believing that quality will take hold, an aesthetic meritocracy, like throwing a fistful of spaghetti against a wall and ultimately only some will stick. Though economics-ism could certainly be said to be a new art form, or at the least more than it’s ever been—a real congealing of artist intent—it simply reflects the culture of now. 

As much as ZF is a reality it also doesn't exist, nothing more than a fictitious sweeping generalization that could apply to a host of abstract painters. You could pigeonhole any atmospheric, fuzzy, lazy painting into the slot but it wouldn’t have rung true to the extent it has if there wasn’t more to it. I suppose it touched a nerve because it morphed into a golden-lubed infusion of artists who were speculating as much as the speculators and better; that’s what really appears to have ticked-off people the most. A new breed of cottage industry artist-entrepreneur was born, one who for a short period killed it enough jump on the property ladder and more.  

ZF will never be more than a catchy and tidy tag to dismiss works deemed too facile, like ready-to-wear is to couture; but rather, ready to hang as compared to Art. But Walter’s was never a sentiment intended as a depreciatory, and I must agree that good art will continue to emanate that could be said to fit within the loosely defined genre and some is, and will continue to be, (damn) worthy. 

"Walter Robinson (1950-2044) died today at the age of 94, having devised the term Zombie Formalism 37 years ago. And he painted and was the founding editor of blah blah." It’s good to be known for something at least.