Essay: Zombie Criticism
Contemporary abstraction borrows blindly from art history, all looks the same and works particularly well if you hang it over the sofa - this is the reproach at the heart of Walter Robinson's idea of "zombie formalism". But maybe art criticism has just forgotten how to look closely. Travis Jeppesen defends abstract painting against its opponents and hits the ball back into their court: it's time for critics to reengage with their subjects and find a new language for painting.
A silver surface presents itself: Jacob Kassay’s Untitled (2010). A brief, cursory glance yields an immediate dismissal: it is but another monochrome, a type of painting we are long accustomed to seeing, one that reached its peak of novelty or radicality long ago. Yet by forcing yourself to look long enough, to enter into the painting and the world it postulates, a whole other reality emerges. You discover that the painting is not flat at all, and behind the illusion of depth created by a series of contrasting hues within that single color, silver – a depth evoked in the way the darkness of the left side bleeds splotchily into the right, crescendoing into a brightness approaching pure white – a whole range of mysteries becomes visible. Is that an image, perhaps a face, struggling to emerge from beneath the blanket of color? Whatever it is, it is spectral. It is presence itself, yearning to break through the surface into a coherent and enunciated form, yet trapped in the confines of withdrawal, of feigned existence.
Kassay is one of the painters charged with producing “zombie formalism”, which has become something of an art world buzz phrase in the past year, derogatorily referring to (mainly younger) artists engaged in abstract painting. The essence of the argument, introduced by art critic Walter Robinson and popularized by his colleague Jerry Saltz in the widely read essay “Zombies on the Walls”, is that all these works looks the same, their manufacture is simple, they are devoid of originality and they are craftily deployed to fulfill a market craving that resonates with high-end contemporary interior design. That they are, in some essential sense, trite and superficial.
Why critics should be so troubled that artists are continuing to make abstract paintings as they have done for decades (centuries, we might argue …) is something of a head-scratcher. Art critics often seem more concerned with chasing down and announcing the latest trend rather than aligning themselves with a style or movement that risks eventually going out of fashion, as all art does eventually (and/or temporarily). Paradoxically, their pronouncements are often killed by the speed of the market. (A gallerist recently explained to me that the lifespan of art-market-trends is currently two to three months.) This kind of flippant criticism, the criticism of the social media circus, is similarly fated; much like the simple substitute language of the emoticon, it produces a pseudo-affect that evaporates not long after its (digital) inscription.
To me, such an eager dismissal seems emblematic of what I have come to think of, in turn, as zombie criticism.
And it is dangerous because it discourages the depth of engagement that might uncover real drama and possibility in such work. Abstract painting presents writers with a wonderful gift: the impossible task of translation. In its purest form, abstraction is that intimate field where the process of inquiry plays itself out while simultaneously documenting the artist’s path from knowing through unknowing, to its ultimate arrival on a hitherto unperceived plateau of visual enunciation. (“I think I’m painting a picture of two women,” Willem de Kooning once said, “but it may turn out to be a landscape.”) Abstract painting demands more from the viewer, since it speaks its own invented language. Meaning is not spoon-fed, there are no clear metaphors – rather, such painting attempts to develop its own unique code, with hidden, often private references and associations. Rather than attempt to decode a painting’s private universe via speculation or reliance on the painter’s biography, one has the opportunity to delve into painting’s ontology. Such a premise entails journeying away from one’s preconceived intellectual universe, a process described by Jean Genet in his study “The Studio of Giacometti” (1957): “In order to better tame the work of art, I habitually use a gimmick: I put myself, a little artificially, into a state of naivety, I talk of it – and I talk to it, also, in the most everyday tones, I even baby-talk a little […] ‘What a laugh that is … that’s red … that’s some red … and that’s some blue … and the paint, it seems as if it’s mud ….’”
Naturally abstract painting endures and is widely practiced; what is so often missing from current criticism, however, is the sense of play that animates painting and the other arts.
Play, that is, in the serious sense of the term: an exploration that leads to discovery. There are those who would object that criticism is not an art form; I would disagree. Even if there are very few examples to turn to in the present, there are plenty in history. While the poet-critic model exists from the onset of modernism with Charles Baudelaire, it was Gertrude Stein, in writing about art, who first had the ambition to use language as a way to evoke the dominant abstract painting style of her time: Cubism. “A brown subject is seen by the color. The red which is there is dark. The blue is that color. If the time is a sensitive celebrity then a piece of the paper is essential.” This is writing that flatout rejects the quadrality that most art criticism consists of, as analyzed by Sally O’Reilly in her essay “On Criticism” (2006): description, contextualization, interpretation, and judgment. Rather than be content with writing about art, Stein served as something of an external collaborator with the artists and artworks she loved, rendering her own literary abstraction as a work of art that could coexist with painting on a parallel plane. Alternately, one could say that she played the role of medium in channeling the metaphysical essence of a painting, and translating it into human language. When one is unwilling or uninterested to pursue this sort of intense relationship with abstraction as a language, the result can only be a form of zombie criticism, which represents a giant missed opportunity for both artist and writer.
Travis Jeppesen is a writer based in Berlin.