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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



"Stephen Dean: Jugglers" at Ameringer McEnery Yohe, 5 June - August 1, 2014.
First, I must make a correction before I launch into my latest discussion of shows I’ve seen. The correction concerns the phrase “zombie formalism.” From two references in the NY Times, I mistakenly assumed in the last print edition issue of FMD that this was a coinage of its senior critic, Roberta Smith, as the latest put-down phrase for modernism. It turns out that Smith was merely quoting a posting by Walter Robinson on April 3 in the magazine for Artspace, a website that claims to offer “insider access to the world’s best art.”

According to Robinson, this term describes a “new style” in painting that combines a “straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making of painting” with “the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg,” and he sees it popping “up all over the place.” The artists he cited as examples of this new style were Jacob Kassay (b. 1984) Lucien Smith (b. 1989), and three artists in a 16-artist group show called “Ain’tings” at Robert Blumenthal on Upper Madison Avenue: Aaron Aujla (b. 1986), Dylan Bailey (b. 1985) & Chris Duncan (b. 1974)

I myself didn’t get to the Blumenthal show, which closed in April, and am also unfamiliar with the work of Kassay and Lucien Smith, despite the high auction prices for their work that Robinson cited (I will charitably prefer to think he was quoting these prices as evidence of their popularity, though perhaps he was quoting them in the usual misguided way as evidence of their quality).

Peter Plagens is more up on the buzz than I am. He described “zombie formalism’s” hallmarks on April 25 in the online Wall Street Journal as “a loosely or partially stretched monochrome canvas, an exposed stretcher bar or two, and perhaps an oddball embellishment such as a bent nail or quick hit with some spray paint.” He said it is also known as “the new casualism.”

Plagens was really more concerned with an equivalent in current figurative painting, which he titled “casual weirdism” and “slacker surreal.” He said that its main tenet was, “in effect, paint whatever you want however you want,” but cited only one proponent, a Brit named Jill Mason (b. 1974) who was having a show at Nicelle Beauchene in SoHo. That’s another show I didn’t get to.

There’s also a recently-posted article in Abstract Critical, the British webzine, by George Hofmann, the painter, on the subject of “gestural painting.” Hofmann doesn’t quite see this as a new movement, but he does see it as “a cropping up of these moves” in two “younger” painters, Amy Sillman and Ben Dowell.

The reproduction of Hofmann’s own work that accompanies the article is also definitely gestural. It seems to be quite a logical outgrowth of the 2012 painting by him that I reproduced with my review of his September, 2012, exhibition at Show Room, but I had never even heard of Sillman and Dowell until he mentioned them. Nor have I seen any of their work in the flesh (to be sure, I saw some reproductions on the web, but I avoid evaluating work on the web because it so often gives a misleading impression).

Both Robinson and Plagens rather ostentatiously gave the birth dates of the artists they wanted to celebrate, and all these birthdates are later than 1970. From this I deduce that Robinson & Plagens feel a need to emphasize what may be known as “emerging” artists—as opposed to “mid-career” artists and “senior,” “veteran” or even “established” ones.

Robinson & Plagens would even – I hazard a guess – like to think that what they are describing is the coming thing, a brave new wave by a whole younger generation that is sweeping across the art scene and carrying all before it.

Being contrarian in nature, I wondered whether any of these tags – “zombie formalism,” “slacker surrealism,” or (for that matter) “gestural painting”—describes everything you can see in the galleries these days. I admit, I’ve been somewhat lax in patrolling them this season, but there are an awful lot of them (more than 300 in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens listed in the summer issue of the Gallery Guide, and even that publication is a lot less all-inclusive than it used to be -- no Gagosian listed in the summer issue, for instance, and no Williamsburg entries, either).

Since I wanted to get this issue of FMD to its subscribers before Christmas, I decided to limit the focus of my attention to Chelsea, and chose July 10, when I’d been invited to (or notified of) four openings, as the day to make my rounds. But I was narrowing my search still further, looking for “zombie formalism” and in particular for “emerging” artists making it.

I decided to classify as “emerging” any born since 1970, and therefore currently 44 or younger. Older than that, I decided, they would fall into the category of “mid-career” artist--as for example Amy Sillman does, having been born in 1955—though Ben Dowell may be younger, having taken his BFA at the University of Kansas in 2001. Since the normal age for receiving a bachelor’s degree is 21, this suggests that Dowell was born around 1980.

In all, I got to eight exhibitions that day, including four with group shows and three with a pair each of artists.

This first was Howard Scott, where the show was “2014 Summer Group Show” (closed July 19). The show focused on Scott’s usual taste for sensitive minimalism, with Rebecca Salter and Vincent Hamel standing out, but their monochromatic panels were very workmanlike. They weren't made on loosely stretched canvas or bedizened with any of the pretentious little doodads that Plagens described—though to be sure, I don’t consider monochromatic panels typically formalist or modernist in the first place.

To me, a monochromatic canvas falls into the category of minimalism, which tends to be an abstract form of pomonianism, a way of carrying modernist abstraction to a ridiculous conclusion. Moreover, according to Howard Scott himself, none of the artists in this show qualified as “emerging,” as all were born earlier than 1970. He offered me an invite for the gallery’s first show in the fall, one of slightly less minimalist paintings by Charles Thomas O’Neil, but according to this artist’s website, he was born in 1966, so he, too, is only a “mid-career” artist.

Elizabeth Harris had mounted “Summer Invitational” (closed July 25). Included were five painters: Rick Klauber, Gary Petersen, Joanne Mattera, Sarah Walker & Paul Mogensen. All were showing un-gussied-up hard-edged and (in the case of Mogensen, Peterson & Mattera) geometric abstract paintings.

All three were employing more or less conventional media on more or less conventional grounds. Klauber’s “paintings” were actually arrangements of brightly-painted rectangular cedar shims on the walls, and Walker’s small paintings of intricate vegetal shapes were mounted on panels that slanted in from the edge of the painting to the wall, creating the novel impression that the image was “floating” off the wall.

Still, both these artists were producing very workmanlike creations, no zombie formalism here, though nobody in this show was born since 1970 either.

Elizabeth Harris herself said that the youngest artist in the show was probably Walker, but none of the literature at the gallery's reception desk had a birth date for her. However, according to Walker’s online listing as a member of the faculty at Clark University, she took her MFA (from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) in 1990. Even assuming it took her only one year to complete that degree, she must still have taken her B.F.A. (from the California College of Art) a year earlier; again, this suggests a birth date of 1968.

The gallery also pointed me in the direction of Mattera’s very visual blog, with its extensive “walk-throughs” of exhibitions. At the moment, the top-listed shows at Mattera’s blog were two in which Mattera herself was appearing, the other (besides the show at Harris) being the multi-talented tribute to the American Abstract Artists at Sideshow. Its walk-through at Mattera’s website (when combined with the Harris show) suggested to me that hard-edged, workmanlike & frequently geometric abstraction might be the commonest form of abstraction on view in the Big Apple at that moment (though if this had been January, and Mattera's "walk-through" offered Sideshow's more varied "Peace" show for inspection, a lot of more fluid abstraction would have been on view, along with a lot of figurative painting and sculpture, etc.).

Ameringer McEnery Yohe had--and has--two exhibitions on view: its main space is given over to “Franklin Evans: painting as supermodel,” while its smaller back gallery displays “Stephen Dean: Jugglers” (both through August 1). The Evans piece is a very large, brightly-colored & multi-media installation, but installations were not my subject, this time around.

The Dean pictures are more relevant to this piece, consisting as they do of vertical monochromatic panels of craft paper or aluminum black foil with three small circular holes in each, arranged in a two-eyes, one-mouth configuration and filled with something called “dichroic glass.” This mirror-like glass is iridescent and reflects colored light off it it—very much in the manner of those sunglasses with iridescent lenses which are so chic this summer.

Judging from two descriptions of zombie formalism, Plagens’ general description, and one of Robinson’s more specific ones, this may have been the closest I had yet come to an example of it. In the Blumenthal “Ain’ting” show, Robinson had picked out a work by Dylan Bailey (b. 1985) and described it as “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.”

To judge from the online reproduction of one of Bailey’s “paintings” posted in connection with his solo exhibition at David Nolan last year, his carefully painted fields are punctuated by many more than just three plastic caps. They also come in a horizontal format as well as a vertical one, but the familial similarity is there, even though (horrors!) Dean is a “mid-career” artist, born in 1968 (Franklin was born in 1967).

Can it be that this supposedly “new” style of painting has been around for a while, or is it just coincidence that two artists from two artistic generations should wind up with two such similar images? Or would Robinson reject Dean’s pictures as too neat & clean, too well put together?

Johannes Vogt was the site for another group show, this one called “Paging Yolanda” (closed July 17). It was the only show which I was to see that featured almost exclusively “emerging” artists—six out of the seven included fell into this category. They were Luis Miguel Bendaña (b. 1988), Harry Finkelstein (b. 1990), Donna Huanca (b. 1980), Brian Kokoska (b. 1988), Jasper Spicero (b.1990), and Elizabeth Jaeger (b. 1988).

The lone mid-career artist here was James O. Clark (b. 1948), whose ingenious constructions I have seen and admired in Sideshow's “Peace” exhibitions.

After an introduction to “Yolanda” as a whole by the gallery director, Nate Hitchcock, I proceeded to examine the individual pieces. It was a lighthearted show, very much in the tradition of Duchamp, with three-dimensional work as well as two-dimensional. Clark’s most conspicuous contribution was a piece called “res ipsa loquitur” (a legal term, meaning “the thing speaks for itself”). In it, Clark had put together three large vinyl balloons on the floor, then connected them across their tops with a softly-glowing tube of orange neon.

Jaeger’s “Georgia” was a nearly life-sized black ceramic, plaster and latex nude with long (real) hair on her head. She was standing on her hands, bending her legs at the hip and with her knees touching the wall, and she was balancing a bowl (with a real gardenia floating on some water in it) on the backs of her thighs, just above her private parts.

This was the real environment for “zombie formalism,” a pomonian environment which bore little if indeed any similarity to true (modernist) formalism. Rather than “zombie” formalism, I think the best name for it would be “pomonian formalism,” if that doesn’t sound too much like an oxymoron.

In any event, here was probably the nearest I got to what Robinson called “zombie formalism,” in not one but two works. One was Bendaña’s “Endive Salad with Grotesque Cream Sauce.” This was a vertical monochromatic panel made of machine knit cotton on top of VHS tape. The tape glittered through the very loosely knit cotton, and the whole thing resembled Robinson’s description of the piece by Chris Duncan in the “Ain’ting” show, as “a ghostly square monochrome whose surface is made from horizontal rows of strapping tape, translucent but reinforced with white string.”

The other zombie-like piece at “Yolanda “ was Huanca’s “Grey Gardens.” It was a tall vertical panel, covered with wooly grey fabric, a length of white tape stretched diagonally across its lower half, and a small piece of mud-colored loose velvety fabric draped across from the lower end of this tape.

All in all, "Grey Gardens" was not so terribly far from Plagens’ description of typical zombie formalism: as “a loosely or partially stretched monochrome canvas, an exposed stretcher bar or two, and perhaps an oddball embellishment such as a bent nail or quick hit with some spray paint.” It didn’t overwhelm me.

If the point of “zombie formalism” is to present “abstract” art that’s somehow inert or dead looking, then these works go quite a long way toward achieving it.

All of these shows had already opened when I saw them, but I still had to get to my four openings. The first, to which I had been invited by Philip Gerstein, was at Veridian Artists, another gallery I’d never been to. It was offering its “25th International Juried Exhibition” (closed July 19).

Riding up in the elevator, I somehow intuited that Veridian was an artists’ cooperative. This impression was reinforced when I got off the elevator and saw the food being offered. Besides the white wine & sparkling water one more commonly finds at openings of commercial galleries, I saw grapes, honey-roasted nuts, pretzels, cheese puffs and supermarket cookies (including many chocolate Oreos).

The only other place I’ve seen a spread like that in Chelsea was at the opening of a show at another artists’ cooperative. The sheet containing a “juror’s statement,” written by Katherine Brinson, the Guggenheim Museum curator who selected the show, confirmed my suspicion that this gallery is “artist-run.”

As to the art, there were 23 examples of it by 17 artists, representing many media. On the checklist, I noted one sculpture made of ceramics and ice age mammoth ivory, as well as digital collages, a piece made of woven microfilm and another of charred cherry wood with gold leaf, to say nothing of more conventional acrylics and prints. But I’m afraid that the general impression created still struck me as lacking that steely-eyed insouciance which passes for professionalism in so many commercial galleries.

I was reminded of that passage in one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective stories where her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, goes to dine around 1925 at the Soviet Club, a London establishment to accommodate the “free thinkers” (aka Communists) of that day. Lord Peter is reminded of mission teas by this club, though he can’t say exactly why—except that both had “that curious amateur air which pervades all worldly institutions planned by unworldly people.”

Admittedly, the opening was so crowded that I couldn’t see all the art, so I came back another day. All of the work on view was on the small side. The biomorphic objects of Bob Augstell & Barry Goldberg struck me as reminiscent of surrealist objects from the 1930s, while the little wood-and-glass box by Robert Davis and the little gilded wood house by Michael Wolf both reminded me of the constructions by H. C. Westermann that I used to see at Frumkin when I was patrolling 57th Street in the 60s for Time.

The two collages by Renna Mae Zimmer, while attractive, also suggested to me that the artist was an admirer of the collages with which Romare Bearden made a name for himself in the 60s, while the dual photograph of a woman’s head by Erica Gagnon suggested to me more recent work by Hiroshi Sugimoto & Carrie Mae Weems, with Andy Warhol’s multiple portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor also somewhere on its artistic family tree.

In short, although all of the work on hand was carefully made and professional-looking, I don’t remember seeing much that would fit in with the latest fashions elsewhere in Chelsea. Of course, I suppose the same might be said for the best works in this show: two abstract paintings by Philip Gerstein, the man who’d invited me to this show (and whom unfortunately I didn’t get to meet in the crowd).

These two 18-inch square panels were painted with deliciously muted but still colorful smears—or, if you like, gestural strokes—in oil stick and acrylic. They deserved a better fate, even if Gerstein, who has been showing since the 80s, is mid-career rather than emerging, and can by no stretch of the imagination be called a zombie.

The other painting that stood out in this show had been shipped all the way from Japan, but arrived too late to make the checklist. All the same, it was touching--an honest, sincere, & perfectly realistic rendering of an old man visiting his wife in a hospital. Called “A Couple in a Sick Room,” it’s by Osamu Hirota. Like good abstraction, straightforward realism never goes out of style.

My next two stops were to openings at galleries where I expected to find work more or less suited to my palate—and was not disappointed. The first was Berry Campbell, which has mounted a dual exhibition of paintings by Eric Dever & Jodie Manasevit (through August 9).

The opening for these two abstract painters was jammed, with Sauvignon blanc and fancy water to soothe the thirsty (no edibles). I was able to see enough above the crowd so that I can report these paintings are both colorful and pleasurable, if not perhaps as memorable as this gallery’s last exhibition, of work by James Walsh & Susan Vecsey (both reviewed here on June 22)).

Dever studied at the Otis Art Institute as early as 1980, though he didn’t take his BA (at California Lutheran College) until 1984; Manasevit took her BS at City University of New York (CUNY) in 1983. No emerging artists here.

Another two artists were on view at Lori Bookstein, my next stop (where, as with the two previous galleries, the opening was from 6 to 8). “Willard Boepple: Monoprints” is occupying its main space and “Leland Bell: Morning Series” is in the smaller Gallery II at the back (through August 1).

Bookstein is one of those knowledgeable galleries which doesn’t consider birth dates as important as quality. Boepple, who needs no introduction to this audience, was born in 1945, while Bell was born in 1922 and died in 1991. Thus Bell really belongs in the category of “established artist, ” and Boepple could be described as "mid-career" or "established," depending on whether you look at his birth date or his extensive exhibition record.

At any rate, Boepple himself is anything but a zombie. I was happy to be able to congratulate him at his opening. His monoprints are handsome, but he is far better known as a sculptor than he is as a printmaker, and Bookstein will be showing sculpture by him from November 2014 to January 2015. I’ll discuss his work then.

Bell was a resolutely figurative painter, even when abstract expressionism was getting most attention--in the 50s This exhibition (of later work) consists of small pictures on paper and canvas, each depicting a man in bed, a woman looming over him, and sometimes a cat. Anything more remote from zombie formalism I can’t conceive.

The only solo exhibition on my list was “James Wolfe: Recent Sculpture” at the New York Studio School (through August 10). Its reception – doubtless to allow people time to get here from Bookstein – was scheduled to be 6:30 to 8:30, but when I finally got there – at 8:20 – I found the gallery shut up. I was told that everybody there had gone on to a reception for the artist.

This was depressing, as I had hoped to be able to meet the artist – having been aware of his work since he was exhibiting at André Emmerich in the 1980s, and having mentioned the permanent display of his work in Johnstown, PA, in my memoir. The man minding the front desk at the New York Studio School obligingly opened up the gallery for me, but I didn’t want to keep him on after he was supposed to be able to shut up shop & go on home, so I just took a quick look and resolved to come back.

What I found when I went back was enough to justify a separate review, so I will write one—after I finish this segment on my hunt for “zombie formalism.” Here I just want to say that I cannot imagine any work more vitally alive than this show of Wolfe’s. Any persons who, having seen it, think that it’s the handiwork of the moribund, either don’t know what they’re looking at—or how to look at all.

Then again, I imagine they will avoid seeing it altogether. Prejudices as deeply rooted as theirs continually need to be bolstered by wearing blinkers.


What conclusions have I come to in my search for “zombie formalism”? First, a couple of observations about side issues that I made on the way:

First, I was amused at the lengths that some galleries – and/or their artists—will go to in order to make the artists appear younger than they are. You look at these resumes that galleries keep in loose-leaf binders on their reception desks, and you may look forever before you find a birth date, or even the year that the artist received his or her bachelor’s degree. Also, even if you remember having seen a show by So-and-so in the 1970s and 1980s, you may hunt in vain for it to be listed among shows the artist has participated in—the entries of even the oldest artists tend to go back no further than 1980 or even 1990.

Not that this is anything new. When I was working on my dissertation, I discovered that my principal subject, the figurative expressionist painter Abraham Rattner, had been born in 1893, though from about 1940 onward, he claimed to have been born in 1895. Nor was he alone. My dissertation mentioned dozens of artists exhibiting in New York in the 1940s, so I tried to locate them in different issues of Who’s Who in American Art of that day—only to find that many of them had shaved a year or two off their birth dates.

The worst offender was Milton Avery, who claimed to have been born in 1893, but was really born in 1885. That’s only an 8-year gap. Today, the stakes are much higher—artists need to cut decades off their birth dates if they wish to compete. This to me is yet another legacy from the 60s, the pomonian shibboleth that Youth Is Always Right.

There are various reasons for the survival of this myth, which I’ve discussed elsewhere before now (not least in “A Memoir of Creativity”). But here I should simply say that the casual gallery-goer should think twice before accepting everything on the reception desk as literally true. It may be only metaphorical.

Second, another thing I learned while conducting this exercise – though it may not strike any of my readers as startling – is that Chelsea has relatively little room for the emerging artist. With the exception of the Johannes Vogt show, all the artists in this survey for whom I could locate or approximate birth dates belonged in the “mid-career” category (plus one or maybe two in the “established” or “veteran” brackets).

In theory, at least, the younger folks are to be found in Bushwick or the Lower East Side, and it’s true that Peter Plagens found his example of “casual weirdism” in the latter venue. Yet here was Walter Robinson, finding his youthful “zombie formalists” on the Upper East Side, which is supposedly where only Dead White Males are to be seen.

What evidently matters more than geography is the grapevine that one is plugged into, and that leads from one “discovery” to another. But how widespread are the discoveries made by this process?

If you ask me, there are lots of different kinds of art on view—in the words of Chairman Mao, we are letting a hundred flowers blossom. On the basis of my own observations, I could say that the dominant style is well-made, hard-edge abstraction, but hey, I know that out of those 300 galleries, I am getting to only a small fraction of them—and I don’t presume to believe that I am picking the only, or even the definitive ones.

I will say I’ve seen enough of them to conclude that – to the extent it exists at all – “zombie formalism” is only a minor ripple on the ever changing waters of the art scene, being publicized for the sake of – what? Getting a dialogue going? Claiming the critic’s observations constitute a majority view? It’s true, I could be wrong—maybe in another six months, many more artists and/or galleries will be picking up on the style, as so many latched onto neo-expressionism in the early 80s, but then what? Will zombie formalism fade as fast as neo-expressionism did around 1986, in the face of “neo-geo”?
To me, all these tiny ripples resemble in their significance the pomonian fads and fancies that rippled across the art scene in the 60s, when pop was followed by op was followed by kinetic art was followed by minimalism was followed by conceptualism was followed by earth works and hyperrealism. Certainly, all these kinds of art are remembered, but most of the artists who were making them in the 60s are pretty well forgotten.

And this describing of the current art scene by different critics reminds me of that wise old tale, which emerged centuries ago from the Indian subcontinent, about the six blind men and the elephant. Each blind man grasps a different part of the animal and then describes what he thinks it looks like, but since each has only a part of the whole, the six descriptions are all different. The moral here is that truth is very subjective—I know that I don’t have all of the answers, but neither does anybody else.

Not counting all the many galleries which show neo-dada objects and installations, the sizable number of photography shows, and the fleets of representational art, I would say that – among those galleries showing abstract art – the dominant trend at the moment is workmanlike hard-edged abstraction, but if you look hard, you can find “zombie formalism,” and if you look even harder, you can find genuine formalism.

Before I sign off here, I should mention one presentable example of geometric abstraction that didn’t appear in a gallery, and a number of presentable organic paintings that did appear in galleries. The geometric example I speak of was the handful of grey-on-grey paintings by Dee Solin that were hung this spring in the lobby of the so-called Sports Illustrated Building, at 135 West 50th Street, right next to the Time-Life Building (closed June 12). True, a couple of them were more brightly colored and freely formed, but I liked the gray-on-gray geometric ones better—thought they harmonized better with the gray walls of the lobby…

Another faithful subscriber who had work in a New York show this spring is Irene Neal, whose two ink-and-acrylics on paper were the best thing that I noticed about “Clay/Paper” at Ashok Jain on the Lower East Side (through July 20; though I concede that I didn’t linger long at this show and may have overlooked some of their trendier offerings)….

Finally, although I haven’t been to Spanierman recently, I should mention that their July summer group show featured paintings by Stanley Boxer, Frank Bowling, Dan Christensen & Joyce Weinstein. Their August summer group show will include work by Marcia Scott, who is the daughter of Rachel Scott and thus practically Frank Bowling’s step-daughter.

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