0Phillipe Halsman, “Clement Greenberg,” 1959.

At the moment there are questions going on in my circle about originality and quality – what those things are, what they entail, and if we are even able to recognize what those things might look like in a painting at this late date in the Postmodern era. Let’s face it. The old and by now VERY conservative ideas that drove the Modern movement, abstraction, flatness, process, materialism and “formalism,”  are the go-to painting tropes for our professional Modernists. In fact painters  have become more like curators, DJs, MCs, aficionados of taste, collaging and collapsing one well known style into another, looking for resonance and harmony among period pieces much like Baz Luhrmann does in his movie The Great Gatsby. We prefer to use “approved” artists’ works that have the correct kind of taste, the correct kind of presentation, the correct kind of look or feel rather than create something from scratch, something from our own existence. For instance Jerry Saltz recently wrote an article that discussed the sameness of many painters’ works and ideas even including illustrative slide shows of groupings of paintings done in similar styles. I thought this was eye opening.

“These artists are acting like industrious junior post­modernist worker bees, trying to crawl into the body of and imitate the good old days of abstraction, deploying visual signals of Suprematism, color-field painting, minimalism, post-minimalism, Italian Arte Povera, Japanese Mono-ha, process art, modified action painting, all gesturing toward guys like Polke, Richter, Warhol, Wool, Prince, Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Wade Guyton, Rudolf Stingel, Sergej Jensen, and Michael Krebber.”

Jerry’s critique comes on the heels of Walter Robinson’s Zombie Formalism, which is a fun way to describe visual ideas whose “sell by” date has long since past.

“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 PollockMorris Louis, and Frank Stella’s “black paintings,” among other things.”

And the assertion that Clement Greenberg is still an aesthetic force to be reckoned with is rather amazing at this late date. His theoretical preferences for painting, what it should do, what it should look like, still carries weight especially in our institutions. And I find that a bit strange, because unlike most of the innovators in 20th Century art Clem did not paint or sculpt. He did not “create” a style in painting, though admittedly, he did direct it. No other critic since the inception of Modern art is so connected with the creation and rise of a style of art-making. No other critic is considered a major component in the aesthetics of the movement itself. And Clem’s success, not merely as a taste maker, but as a non-practicing theoretical force, set a strange kind of precedent for artists and for critics as well. Critics became real “creative” forces and artists had to assume the role of cultural theoreticians. It’s been nearly 65 years since Avant-Garde and Kitsch became the defining essay for the direction of 20th Century art, and its importance can not be overlooked. Clem’s essay actually changed the direction of Modernism, began the Postmodern art world, and it still hangs over our contemporary art world, specifically painting, like a Sword of Damocles. Its continuing strictures keeps many of us in place.

Our stasis is connected to Clem’s discussions of originality and quality surrounding painting, two things that come up quickly and profoundly in AG&K. These are the issues that many abstract painters discuss on a loop. What does Clem mean by quality or uniqueness? Is that where the visual work of art becomes powerful, meaningful? Are these combined qualities or do they exist separately? Can something be unique and have no quality, can something have quality and not be unique? Where does the “new” come into play? If something is “new” does the work have quality and/or uniqueness? As you can see these are tail chasing thoughts, and I don’t know a painter that hasn’t considered them at one time or another. But rather than directly confront them in a definitive way most of us choose to ignore them, put them to the side and overlay another style or process on our canvas. Postmodernism, luckily, has provided us with a Clem Dispensation, a back door to the program, so to speak. What we tend to look for in our Zombie Formalism is individual “difference” and professional craftsmanship. We prefer the well-made painting by a recognizable “hand” in a digestible “style.” But as Jerry’s essay shows there’s very little individuality or uniqueness in those slight differences. Rather we get product, handsome things to sell that vary only in the upgrades. And the question has to be WHY?

I’m convinced that Adam Curtis is right, that our culture is soaked and sodden in its past, that there can not be originality in the way we approach cultural ideas when we do not question what those ideas actually mean or what those ideas actually do.

“Throughout the western world new systems have risen up whose job is to constantly record and monitor the present – and then compare that to the recorded past. The aim is to discover patterns, coincidences and correlations, and from that find ways of stopping change. Keeping things the same.

We can’t properly see what is happening because these systems are operating in very different areas – from consumerism, to the management of your own body, to predicting future crimes, and even trying to stabilise the global financial system – as well as in politics.

But taken together the cumulative effect is that of a giant refrigerator that freezes us, and those who govern us, into a state of immobility, perpetually repeating the past and terrified of change and the future.”

Also in the case of AG&K contemporary painters do not question the “either/or” endgame of Clem’s essay, its blatant nostalgia for a failed Modernism of purity and process, and its subsequent presentation of Kitsch as a more inclusive, more parasitic, and thus, more dangerous form of art. The Modern problem as outlined by Clem is paramount to understanding the workings of our culture in the latter half of the 20th Century. It turns out that Clem’s dreaded Kitsch, the possibilities for using Kitsch as aesthetic critique have been far more popular and radical than his ideas for a nostalgic, romantic Modernism. And that dichotomy of cultural power, of aesthetic insight, and even his defense of classist values of quality and taste are all used to make his point, to move Modernism into a very specific final phase. As we will discover there are so many interesting arguments to be made!

The artist/painter/theorist Paul Corio recently wrote to me about the issues of originality, uniqueness and newness. We had been discussing Greenberg and AG&K. And I think Paul shows us part of our current problem, part of our understanding of the current problem – that painting has always used its past, that painting has always gone back to go forward, and it would seem that Postmodern painting is trying to do the very same thing.

“I guess when I try and define originality for myself, it means something sufficiently original.  If Morandi were strictly copying Cezanne, or Bonnard were any closer to Matisse, it would block my enjoyment of the paintings.  But those parallels are still right there, the way that Velazquez was so obvious in early Manet.  And to reiterate an earlier point – paintings by Pollock, Caravaggio, Morandi, Bonnard, Manet, and Velazquez are now all old, as un-new as can be, but they’re still great.  

So what do I mean by quality in painting?  The seamless disposition of color, scale, composition, surface, texture, subject (if one goes that route), space, light, atmosphere.  Here it’s easy to brand me as a formalist, I know, but I’m not – I have no interest whatsoever in purity or distillation.  Especially the latter – the Baroque remains the height of painting for me, and it’s the polar opposite of distilled.”

Paul made some valid points. Each artist he mentioned managed to create a singular break with style in their work, managed to imprint their personality on that very past, managed to move that past into the artist’s present. And I think this has to do with other issues, with how we use our cultural tools, with how we see IN our time. And again I refer back to Jerry’s and Walter’s observations. Why does it feel as if there is nothing new going on when we see Zombie Formalism or Jerry’s slideshows? Why doesn’t this work seem to have built something on the ideas of the past? Why does this work seem static, of another time? What is it about this time, about us, that “keeps things the same,” that re-presents old ideas without the benefit of distance, of place? And why are content to do this? Why is this unlike the changes to style, to visual ideas that we see in Manet’s use of Velazquez or Morandi’s use of Cezanne?

These are all issues, especially those brought up in Greenberg’s AG&K, that we will examine in more depth in the final Untethered posts to come.


  • George Hofmann

    I think the problem with Zombie Formalism and Saltz’ cookie-cutters is lack of authenticity. Nothing could be more dissimilar than paintings by Paul Corio and myself, yet I think our work rings pretty true because of our own deep conviction, understanding and coming to grips.
    In perhaps my favorite quote of all time the linguist Helen Vendler expanded on something the poet Seamus Heaney said:
    (He said)
    “Imaginative arts are practically useless, but they verify our singularity, and stake out the core of self which lies at the base of every individuated life”.
    “Singularity and individuated life are those qualities indispensable (but not sufficient)for identifiable style. There have been singular and individuated selves who never created. But without a singular and indivduated moral self there has never been a singular and individuated style.
    The creative self does not have to be virtuous in the ordinary sense of the word, but it does have to be extraordinarily virtuous in its aesthetic moves. It must refuse – against the claims of fatigue,charm, popularity, money and so on – the received idea, the imprecise,the tired rhythm, the replication of past effects, the univestigated passage.
    It is this heroic virtue in the realm of aesthetic behavior that courses in the arts exist to teach. Human testimony is not uninteresting in itself, but it does not convey the morality of the imaginative effort toward aesthetic embodiment. That morality is almost unimaginably exhausting.”

  • Martin Mugar (@mugar

    I subsequently understood from reading Groys that maybe this formalism has its origins in Malevich’s abrupt severance of painting from perception,emblematic of the proletarian revolution’s break with the past. Mondrian is grounded in perception and the past.Zombie formalism is a different strain of abstraction.

  • admin

    I think you’re correct, Martin. Zombie Formalism has very little to do with anachronistic issues of perception, visual theoretics or aesthetics. I believe this kind of work is concerned with the contingencies of outsourced production, capital liquidity and Neo-Liberal economics. It is “abstract” only because the focus of the work is on the realization of the “conceptual” object itself. That’s why the kinds of materials, the dimensions of the piece, the logistics of manufacture and the tools used in the work’s making actually matter more than the visual perception of the art object. We do not have to look for coded and quantified meaning because it is always-already available. What we actually look for in this kind of “abstraction” is optical sleekness, designer efficiency, upscale luxury, and surprisingly, ease, harmony and continuity. Zombie Formalism is one of the first art “movements” created by professionally educated artists strictly as a “branded” style, produced and curated exclusively for a specifically-identified high-end consumer/collector. There can be no revolution, political, social or cultural, here at the end of history. There is no point to it. There is only the certainty of economics.

  • Martin Mugar (@mugar

    Good points. These artists are like Kojeve’s bureaucrats at the end of history.Everything can be managed.In the past what was decadent and subject to being eliminated was always a top heavy power structure like the French Kings.You cut off the head and the system fell.But this power structure permeates all levels of business and government and feigns a kind of asceticism that makes it look as though it were the art of essences and spirituality.I like the notion of outsourcing you used.

  • admin

    Yes! But this art does express the essences and spirituality of this era. Unlike Modernism it doesn’t have to rebel against the era, it doesn’t have to espouse change. This kind of abstraction seeks to become part of the economic flow by actually mimicking the outlets and sources of that flow. For instance Russell Brand, the comedian and retro-Modern rebel, has written a book entitled “Revolution” about Postmodern Neo-Proletarian politics, a kind of media-friendly 60’s Communism. He is currently on a promotional and chat show tour to sell his book. His highly entertaining youtube channel critiquing politics, society and media runs advertisements. Every thought, every idea, every personal stand is instantly monetized – not only by the participant, the rabble rouser, but by the society and the culture itself. Nothing stands outside the economic system, there is no “underground,” everyone with a “voice” in the system gets paid.

    As of yesterday Apple started gathering our banking information, in essence becoming a bank themselves through their hardware and programming. This will make them the middle man for every cultural/consumer transaction that happens through our icomputer systems. Already our medical histories, our financial histories and our online existences are merging into the databanks, the cloud, that is owned and operated by a few extremely powerful corporations. Think of the power that this implies, how that information might be manipulated. Certainly my life is being affected, but the generations that follow, their society and culture is becoming more and more virtual. And I dare say those being born today will be formed entirely by computers and virtual existence. They will not know of a different world where physical privacy and individual choice could remain personal and without exchange value. They will live publicly strictly through their extensions. Regardless of how any of us feel about it, that is the revolution and it is being uploaded.

    As for the current art world, the truth is Zombie Formalists have already accepted their clever name, just as the Fauves or the Impressionists accepted their scandalous names. It has already become a badge of honor for those “outsourcing” the retro-revolution against the luddite painting hoards who do not understand the importance of economic abstraction. I’ve come to believe that we, or rather those of us who are happy to use your very clever “nom de scandalisé”, are the actual bureaucrats.

  • Martin Mugar (@mugar

    By giving them a name I am working for them.Co-opted!!Dammit!!All these notions of deception are part of nature.Is the orchid that mimics the flower but is sterile less real?Trace of the trace etc.Simulacra!mirror worlds.

  • Hilary Hunt

    Wow. My initial reaction. This reminds me of the labors of Hercules or the myth of Sisyphus. Greenberg, simulacra, debased painting, zombie formalism, etc. Greenberg believed painting unfolded in an essentialist manner driven by the Absolute Spirit, Marx’s mode of production fueled by Hegel? As with Structualism one can’t explain any one human’s novel decision since the language or kinship system ought to predetermine. Hence, Expressionism, a name if you remember, no one really liked, as in Abstract Expressionism. The problem too, is that both then prevailing criticisms, Greenberg/Rosenberg both could account for stuff. Dekooning factures paint, the brush applying paint, the body/arm dynamic in ways that is essentialist and behavioral. Then, later your Griselda Pollock’s come along and discount AbX as so much sexist dick art. Then semiotics comes along with media focus and the codes of photo. take over: Sherman, Koons, Prince. So we have played through simulacra a la Situationist aesthetic. The big picture of art history has had lulls before. Someone will improvise the chess game, or move to something else. The irrational decision helps, remember Dekooning was doing what he thought was Picasso, Miro; the signal was garbled by distance and war.

  • Hhunt

    I should add that with AbX you have two, and more if you consider Hess, Sandler, Rose, Alloway, Judd, competing criticisms attempting to make sense of the painters. Sandler’s grouping into either/or domains masks the group fluidity that was the case and crossed stylistic boundaries. DeKooning and Gorky being good friends with Raphael Soyer, or Sandler’s difficulty with Ad Reinhardt are cases in point. Jerry Saltz does not program criticism; Jerry Saltz is a reviewer for an Internet paper(?), with deadlines and word count. He has to shoot from the hip, thus his reports are really first impressions, critical-lite. I am not quite satisfied with Zombie in Formalism, as I don’t want to ruin a great word, but there is definitely a stiffening into academia. But just as Jerry barks about art schools this week, although he missed the growth of Administration, he’s right about the age of the art faculties turning out students with old ideas. I graduated from MICA in 1974, and some of the faculty are still there in the foundation programs, still telling students not to copy photographs, while your Princes and Koons make millions. Disconnect and out of touch might be the part of the Zombie problem.

  • Martin Mugar (@mugar

    When I coined Zombie Abstraction that was reformulated as Zombie Formalism by Walter Robinson and then used by Saltz,I assumed the genesis was from Mondrian. The notion of the desiccation of the perceptual roots seemed to be behind what I wrote.I later realized after reading Groys that the origin of this work is rather a different strain of abstraction coming out of Malevich which is not perceptually based but rather a political statement about the new world of the proletariat that Groys sees as a severance from the past.New art for a new society.So I in fact no longer think, however catchy Zombie Formalism is, that it captures the essence of this new movement.

  • Hhunt

    Admin wrote above “for a specifically-identified high-end consumer/collector.” Using terms like outsourcing and saying the techniques of making are more important, Admin is saying this is bad? Sounds a little to me like Process art minus the primitivism usually associated with the term. As far as outsourcing, that’s a touchy term to consider. For one we have your Ruben’s/van Dykes who hired drapery or floral specialists to speed the production of canvasses, right? And to the degree we can believe that bullshitter Duchamp, we have the artist outsourcing the ‘window’ of Fresh Widow, the hand of Tu m’, and the skin of the nude corpse in Etant Donneé, though, granted, the process of making is not the focus. (The readymades belong to a changing category.) So, if this abstraction claims a holding pattern status, then is that so bad, if not a très bit dull?

  • Hhunt

    It is interesting that hex Greenberg puts on Kitsch. Haven’t reread the article, 1939(right?), but G’s bastardization of kitsch rests on his perception that k. is degraded folk art, no? Yet, in his push to for a kind of eugenic purity in painting based on an essentialist view of painting, Greenberg never reserves a place for authentic folk as a viable means. He just drops it, despite how relevant it was for Picasso, Miro, Pollock. Again, Greenberg bulldoses everything out of the way with his monolithic ideology. So, his criticality be came prescriptive ideology, not description. However, the kitsch of German Dada, the photo directed, debased poetry of the masses, could not be killed and comes back to America thru Hamilton and Warhol.

  • Martin Mugar (@mugar

    Greenberg is just Husserl’s eidetic reduction applied to art.No notion of the void underlying reality.

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