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Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism

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Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism
Can anyone stop the march of Zombie Formalism? Does anyone really want to?

It's been fun watching the teapot tempest launched by Los Angeles art flipper Stefan Simchowitz in his Artspace interview last week. Initially the reaction was rather savage, as it unfolded via comments on Facebook, illustrating the ruder extremes of our digital art discourse. But if you ever wondered just how this flipping business works, at least now you have some first-hand evidence.

The ferocious currents of the art market have always been visible enough in the auction rooms. But it’s silly to be upset with the fish that swim there—that’s like getting mad at people who win the lottery, or Donald Trump. It’s just not very bohemian to care about that kind of stuff, as many who involved themselves in the Simchowitz contretemps eventually pointed out.

The real takeaway of the whole business is how dim artists are when it comes to the market and its machinations. Every once in a while a market mover like Simchowitz makes headlines, but in fact this sort of thing goes on all the time. Charles Saatchi invented an entire art movement in the '90s, and Mary Boone had the magic formula in the '80s. Larry Gagosian sits at the center of his own solar system, as do scores of other art dealers around the world. Museums, art schools, and art magazines are also power centers in their own way, as are the new digital communities. 

lucian smithLucian Smith's Two Sides of the Same Coin (2012)

And sad to say, the notion that there is a genuine, pure, sincere, and deep art that can be set in opposition to a compromised, mercenary, dishonest, and shallow one is romantic piffle. In 40 years in the art world, I’ve met plenty of irreverent artists, but never one who thought, first and foremost, that he was running a scam.

This is not to deny that money talks, as people like to say. The question we should be asking, though, is: "What is it saying?"  

One thing I’m hearing these days, loud and clear, is the hum of an art style that I like to call Zombie Formalism. “Formalism” because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting (yes, I admit it, I’m hung up on painting), and “Zombie” because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg, the man who championed Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, and Frank Stella’s “black paintings,” among other things.

Do I need to prove that formalist abstraction is a walking corpse? Will a quote from the book jacket of Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg: A Life (1997) do? “By the late 1970s, ‘Clembashing’ had become the art world’s favorite indoor sport.” The rejection of “Greenbergianism” was absolutely central to SoHo art conversation in those pre-Chelsea days. And as the ‘80s got under way, with the decade’s double focus on Neo-Expressionism and postmodernist photography, Greenberg dropped out of the debate altogether. 

jacob kassayJacob Kassay's Untitled (2010)

His aesthetic principles persist, however. Two notable examples of Zombie Formalism would be the electroplated silver monochromes of Jacob Kassay (b. 1984) and the “Rain Paintings” of Lucien Smith (b. 1989), both recent favorites of the art flippers. (Kassay’s auction record is $317,000, reached last fall at Phillips New York, and the high price for a “Rain Painting” is $372,000, set just two months ago at Sotheby’s London, according to the Artnet price database.) 

With their simple and direct manufacture, these artworks are elegant and elemental, and can be said to say something basic about what painting is—about its ontology, if you think of abstraction as a philosophical venture. Like a figure of speech or, perhaps, like a joke, this kind of painting is easy to understand, yet suggestive of multiple meanings. (Kassay’s paintings, for example, are ostensibly made with silver, a valuable metal that invokes a separate, non-artistic system of value, not unlike medieval religious icons, which were priced by both their devotional subjects and by the amount of gold they contained.) Finally, these pictures all have certain qualities—a chic strangeness, a mysterious drama, a meditative calm—that function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design.   

Another important element of Zombie Formalism is what I like to think of as a simulacrum of originality. Looking back at art history, aesthetic importance is measured by novelty, by the artist doing something that had never been done before. In our Postmodernist age, “real” originality can be found only in the past, so we have today only its echo. Still, the idea of the unique remains a premiere virtue. Thus, Zombie Formalism gives us a series of artificial milestones, such as the first-ever painting made with the electroplating process (Kassay), and the first-ever painting done using paint applied in a fire extinguisher (Smith).

I confess a certain bias towards the idea, having long claimed as a figurative painter to have debuted in 1984 the first-ever painting of a nude flossing her teeth. 

aaron aujlaAaron Aujla's Untitled (2013)

At any rate, like the creatures of its namesake, Zombie Formalism pops up all over the place. I see it in “Ain’tings,” a show of 16 relatively unfamiliar artists at the new Robert Blumenthal Gallery at 1045 Madison Avenue just north of 79th Street. Ryan Steadman, the artist who organized “Ain’tings,” writes of the “materiality” of the works, which nevertheless abandon the “conventions of painting” and other traditional mediums. Me, I just wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with the too-witty term “ainting.”

The show includes a wood panel covered with black cedar shingles by Aaron Aujla (b. 1986); a vertical monochrome whose surface is marked by circular holes, which turn out to be the insides of plastic caps for cans of spray paint, by Dylan Bailey (1985); and a ghostly square monochrome whose surface is made from horizontal rows of strapping tape, translucent but reinforced with white string, by Chris Duncan (b. 1974). 

chris duncanChris Duncan's Fade #6 (2014)

Though apparently none of these artists are on the Simchowitz list (prices range from $2,500 to $12,000, and several of the works are sold), the show still represents a concentration of art-world interest. Among the signs: several of the artists have long waiting lists; several are represented by serious art-world players or have recently had well-received shows at hip young galleries; one is in the Whitney Biennial; one received a great review in the New York Times; a couple of them are former assistants to artists who are now hot art-market properties.

dylan baileyDylan Bailey's Untitled (2013)

Does any of this make your blood boil? Well, passion can be good thing in the art business. Just don’t let it keep you from joining the winning side.

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