Zombie Formalism: the lingering life of abstraction in New York that just wont die

Durer using grid to draw

In the first few pages of Santiago Zabala’s “The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy”, there are incessant quotes and statements about how Tugendhat and other 20th c philosophers overcame the subject/object fallacy of Western metaphysics. First Charles Taylor in a heading states: “Tugendhat is very certain of the kind of construal of self-consciousness he cannot accept. He calls it the subject-object model, and its basic error is to construe consciousness as a relation to an object.” The author in the first paragraph goes on to quote Gadamer: ”….the subject as starting point, just as orientation to the object, is contested by making the intersubjective communication in language the new universal system of reference.” A few paragraphs later he says: ”The impossibility of the mental eye means the end of any pure subjectivity, the end of Cartesian subjectivity, which implies that objects can be seen “objectively” or “scientifically”.”

Wade Guyton

It is interesting to unpack this in relation to the transition to abstraction at the beginning of the last century, and in particular a rather recent recycle of minimalism that is cropping up in New York galleries and has received an imprimatur by the Whitney with a mid-career show of Wade Guyton, one of its practitioners. It provides an insight into the endless politics of suspicion that permeate so much of Western Culture over the last century and in particular painting. The ambition for the thinkers quoted above is to liberate our consciousness from a subjectively based consciousness that for various reasons is beholden to visuality. The first manifestation of this subjectivity or the “mental eye” was first seen in the realism that commenced in the Renaissance with the use of perspective and then in the Baroque with chiaroscuro. It reigned confidently over painting until the end of the 19th century. This mental eye was built out of clear notion of a strong subject, that shaped via a scientific understanding of perceptual processes, the world that surrounded the artist. The imposition of the gaze of the individual on what surrounded him seemed to parallel the thymotic excesses of Western Civilization as it objectified via science and capitalism the whole world. The image of the conquistador Aguirre in Herzog’s classic film “Aguirre, the Anger of God” descending the Amazon and conquering solely with his imperious gaze all that he surveyed is probably the most emblematic image for me of this attitude. A rather powerful bit of information to support this notion of Western consciousness is that the perspectival system of the Versailles gardens radiated from the bed of Louis the XIV. Sartre has a lot to say about the withering gaze of his grandfather, who was an old world authoritarian type. The counterattack on this sort of male gaze in 20th century philosophy is the subject of Martin Jay’s “Downcast Eyes”. To make his point about the domination of the visual in our culture, his first paragraph uses a laundry list of words etymologically based in the visual. In the first two sentences he succeeds in using: glance, demonstrate, vigilantly, keeping an eye out, illuminating insight and mirroring.

Zabala goes on to say: “If the old philosophy only referred to what could be seen clearly, the new philosophy refers only to what can be clearly communicated.” Rorty and others call this transformation: the “Linguistic Turn”. Science required that objects be placed under the scrutiny of the researcher and submit to the scientific method. A strange amalgam of suspicion and arrogance worked together in a mighty cabal to turn the world inside out. A naive acceptance of the world as it is presented on a day-to-day basis was replaced by a vision that the world must be founded on a more solid basis through the power of logos. The world became transformed into a series of topics: geology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, grammatology etc.

The first crack in that stranglehold on the real appeared in the phenomenological studies of Husserl and Heidegger. Heidegger has a phrase that always carried a lot of significance for me: “always already”. If we act on the world in a certain way, we are always already in it as a participant with other people using a language that we did not create. The pure cogito was immediately problematized. Our relation to things is not one of subject to object, but a more shared engaged reality of being in the world. His word for that reality was “Dasein”, which roughly translates as “being there.”

This became the start of a hundred years of philosophers trying to decenter the scientific gaze by deconstructing the language of metaphysics, with each new generation of philosophers accusing the previous one of still being subject to it. Wittgenstein added to this deconstruction by moving our focus away from the metaphysical to an analysis of how we use language in the real world. During the most recent era of French Deconstruction one adjective that you didn’t want attached to your ideas was “logo-centric”. Initially, the problem was that behind the strong ego was the belief in God as the origin of everything in a well-ordered universe, which still supported Descartes rationality. After that everything logical was perceived to be just a trace of that divine belief system, which had to be expunged from wherever in our language it was still hiding. And of course it got extended to the objectifying gaze, which was found most obviously in the male ego, responsible for all that was wrong with the world from slavery, sexism to the despoliation of the environment.

Sarah Morris

I got off on this tangent after reading John Yau write in“HyperAllergic” about what he called the latest “look” in Abstraction. The work of its practitioners, Morris, Guyton and Kassay looks very much like the Abstraction of Stella, Reinhardt and Kelly, which is decidedly logo-centric. Greenbergian ideas about reducing forms to basic elements and constructing abstract realities went hand and hand with the positivists who believed in the superiority of mathematical language over the language of poets and mystics. “What you see is what you get” Stella is purported to have said. The early spirituality of Rothko and Mondrian is gone. These artists are laconic macho painters. They give you the least amount of what might be construed to be a painting and then pull up the ladder behind them. I suspect that this paring down of painting to simple terms embodies in some manner the analytic analysis of language, which reduces language to its grammatical elements and then submits it to validity tests. They want to see how painting functions as shapes on a wall. Or as they loved to say in grad school: does it work.

Already Yau, who is not a fan of these artists, does accept the premise that we should not go back to the days of the gigantomachia of Gorky and de Kooning. And there may be some truth that this generation of artists is too imbued with the culture of deconstruction to attempt to overcome Kelley, Stella and Reinhardt or in the case of Kassay, Ryman, at least on their own terms. Something else is going on here: There seems to be a need to push painting toward something totally inert, that could be simply part of a common language, no longer power-laden as the last word of something irreducible, which was the goal of Kelly, Reinhardt and the early Stella. The work of these artists becomes as common as money, just a token of exchange, like baseball cards. By shifting the terms of painting away from any lingering notion of being an object and pushing it into the realm of language and in the case of Guyton producing the painting mechanically with an inkjet printer, sets the painting free from its roots in science and objectification.

Jacob Kassay

If the influence of Tugendhat and analytic philosophy is as pervasive as I think it is, the primacy of language theory would give permission to this generation to take painting further down the road to just words and sentences. Rorty who had his role in this winding down of the metaphysical, critiques Heidegger because “he treats language as a brooding presence rather than as a string of marks and noise emitted by organisms and used by them to coordinate their behavior.”

Heidegger placed importance on the ignored copula “is” that we use without acknowledging its role in grounding our day-to-day use of language in something more numinous. It backgrounds it and in poetry approaches the foreground. In the case of our contemporary practitioners of abstraction it has been excised.

These works of art look like paintings, act like painting but on closer inspection are as bloodless and lifeless as zombies. That the New York culture allows this kind of painting to rise to the top is no surprise: the New York financial world is known for creating zombie loans and the NY Fed has succeeded in creating a zombie economy.

Simone Weil said that culture moves in grand arcs either ascending or descending. Assuming the movement is down, could it be we have reached the bottom?

I can be followed on twitter @mugar49

References to this article on line and in hard copy:

Raphael Rubinstein references my role in coining the notion of Zombie Formalism in paragraph 19 in this article in “Art in America”, another reference to the sequence of events here: About:Content, Another reference:capscripts, and at Paint This Desert and most recently on Hyperallergic

Question appeared on Jeopardy! noticed by Jerry Saltz who helped propagate the notion of Zombie Formalism
although he still claims that Robinson coined it.


Posted by Martin Mugar at 8:26 AM

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Labels: Boris Groys, Ellsworth Kelly, Ernst Tugendhat, Jaocb Kassay, Jerry Saltz, John Yau,Mondrian, Reinhardt, Richard Rorty, Santiago Zabala, Sarah Morris, Stella, Steven Parrino, Wade Guyton, Zombie Formalism


  1. Craig StockwellDecember 14, 2013 at 11:07 AM
  2. Martin I respect your writing and the depth of resources you draw on in your thinking. I am troubled by the overall voice of complaint that rides through your critical thinking. I think this can be the curse of the old guys. It distances you as a writer and artist rather than as an artist who is engaged in the same muck.
    39 minutes ago · Like
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  1. Martin MugarDecember 14, 2013 at 11:11 AM
  2. I am having such a good time doing this.Don’t spoil the fun. I always talked like this even in my twenties.It probably has a lot to do with my armenian heritage and the sense that that the status quo is falling apart and another genocide is on the horizon. Also I have a hard time seeing the world as made for me.That also has something to do with being descended from a nomad people.But thanks for your comment.I always appreciate feed back.It is interesting that Yau quoted Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” as though it gave permission for these artists to imitate.But the key is that these artist’s feel no anxiety about the influence which is essential to Bloom’s thesis.
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  1. favesDecember 14, 2013 at 11:36 AM
  2. Martin, thank you for a very thoughtful piece. Your personal perspective comes from a sharp intellect and a felt experience no matter what “age” you are. Keep it up. Old guys bring a sense of history to the world. Art history did not begin in 1980
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  1. Martin MugarMarch 14, 2016 at 7:12 PM
  2. thanks Mr Faverman
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  1. Martin MugarDecember 14, 2013 at 3:00 PM
  2. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
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  1. Paul PollaroDecember 15, 2013 at 9:35 AM
  2. Thoughtful as usual. I had a little trouble with the use of gaze, second paragraph, four or five times. Tricky word/ phrase as it can be used both as “the authoritative glance of the individual” relating to the mental eye/subjective. Can also be read as in Lacan’s “the gaze” which is the uncomfortable realization that one’s own ideas and disposition can all of a sudden be analyzed objectively from another source.
    Seems you meant it as the former and not the latter?
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  1. Martin MugarDecember 15, 2013 at 10:21 AM
  2. Thanks. Sartre’s grandfather subjected Sartre to what I guess would be the Lacanian version of the gaze. I had this insight that Giacometti’s sculptures are running away from this objectifying gaze.
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  1. Martin MugarApril 18, 2014 at 7:48 AM
  2. I would like to think I at least try to find the cultural underpinnings of this work and not just vituperate.But the notion of flipping supports my notion of this work being reduced to “currency”.
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  1. Martin MugarApril 24, 2014 at 6:40 AM
  2. This blog is finally getting some traction on twitter.Here Brian Dupont agrees I came up with the Zombie reference before Walter Robinson on artspace:”Oh, agreed; I’m glad to see parallel discourse linked & twitter encourages the expedient turn of phrase.” Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic said:”Pardon my particularity; I saw you write it 1st. It might be common, 5 years ago we would’ve called it “Vampire Formalism.”
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  1. Martin MugarApril 28, 2014 at 5:27 PM
  2. I commented somewhere on my blog about the bureaucratic strain in abstraction.I borrowed this term as Schurmann uses it to describe some Western philosophers.It seems to be an attempt to reduce art to something that is pure surface and functions as common currency.Here is a description of Kojeve by Boris Groys that seems to capture the essence of what shapes that kind of thinking and art:
    At that time, he developed the very well-known notion of the end of history, which should be understood as the end of philosophy and not of practical history. What he meant was that the history of philosophy, as a history of looking for a perfect society, a perfect way of life, this history has come to an end. He believed that the understanding of the ideal organization for social practice had been reached. This mode of organization is the so-called universal and homogeneous state: a state in which all rights and all desires are recognized, a state of total recognition in which the differences between oppressor and oppressed, between master and slave, are erased. And so, once this understanding has been reached, the next step is the practical work. In his view, philosophers have to become bureaucrats, clerks, in order to organize the bureaucracy of this new homogeneous and universal state. So, putting his thoughts into action, after World War II, Kojève ceased to be a philosopher and became a bureaucrat. He notably participated in the foundation of the European Community and he was a high ranking representative of France in many international conferences and organizations, specializing in economic relationships.
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  1. Martin MugarApril 29, 2014 at 5:17 PM
  2. Groys somewhere talks about Malevich’s project as distinct from Mondrian’s.The absolute supremacy of his forms destroys the visual language of the past and gives us a new language grounded on nothing but itself.Mondrian comes to his abstraction via a reduction of perception that drags the past along with it in the form of warms and cools and push and pull.These zombie artist are in the Malevich strain of abstraction
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  1. Martin MugarOctober 6, 2014 at 5:29 PM
  2. I was flattered that Rubinstein acknowledged the pedigree of Zombie art by mentioning in the September “Art in America “article “Theory and Matter” that my use predates Robinson’s.
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  1. Henri MagazineOctober 21, 2014 at 7:47 AM
  2. 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.
    “from the administration of Henri Magazine”
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  1. Martin MugarFebruary 21, 2015 at 7:33 AM
  2. Art always reflects the economy.Read this from zerohedge:
  3. Back in the real world; evidence of the U.S.’s zombie economy is both overwhelming and abundant. It begins with 0% interest rates. As has frequently been noted in the past; 0% interest rates are the economic equivalent of a defibrillator. As with a defibrillator; it is the most-extreme form of stimulus known to us. As with a defibrillator; it is a “therapy” option which is so radical/reckless that it is only ever intended to be used as a last resort, to resuscitate a patient on Death’s door.
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  1. Martin MugarMarch 31, 2015 at 5:35 PM
  2. From Raphael Rubinstein in “Art in America” September 2014 in an article on Theory and Matter:”Coined by artist-blogger Martin Mugar, the term has been popularized by artist-critic Walter Robinson, who denounces much recent market-friendly abstraction for bringing back to life the dead ideas of Greenberg and relying on cheap novelty and pretentious gestures toward concepts like “materiality.””
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  1. Edda SörensenApril 30, 2015 at 6:42 AM
  2. “There exists not such a thing as Objectivity” Professor in quantum physics Dürr
  3. http://weisser-elefant.blogspot.de/2011/10/quantensprung-im-oberstubchen.html
  4. Thank you so much for your deep thougts, Martin.
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  1. Martin MugarApril 30, 2015 at 6:55 AM
  2. Glad you responded to the core of the essay which is a meditation on what is reality.Thanks!
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  1. Terrence HannumJune 26, 2015 at 10:59 AM
  2. Another reference to my contribution:
  3. “Its origins are cloudy. Blogger Martin Mugar in his late-2013 blog Zombie Art claims the lack of blood, the coldness of certain paintings defines this reanimation of the abstract. Then popularized in Walter Robinson’s Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism for Artspace.com where he exalts us to take sides in his ongoing undead battle.”
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  1. Dennis HollingsworthJune 26, 2015 at 11:06 AM
  2. My article linked up with an interview with Camille Paglia
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  1. AnonymousSeptember 8, 2015 at 11:43 AM
  2. The late Steven Parrino introduced the zombie impulse thirty years ago. It’s clearly stated in ‘The No Texts’, posthumously collected by Mark Dagley for the Abaton imprint in 2003. The artist Brian Kennon, founder of Two Cannons, published ‘Hello Victims: Ad Reinhardt’ in 2005, featuring reproductions of the black paintings juxtaposed with apocalyptic video stills and skeletal cruciform diagrams. Jacob Kassay’s work was strongly influenced by these forbears, and some of it was even produced in the Greenpoint studio Parrino had shared with Olivier Mosset.
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  1. Martin MugarSeptember 8, 2015 at 12:49 PM
  2. I see zombie impulse as an absence of life,a lack.It appears Parrino wants to pound that lack into our skull as a positive element. Negativity always flips into something positive. Stella and Reinhardt tried to control visual phenomena by limiting it to one or two elements. .It seems that Parrino abandons the optical with a punk violence: Hardcore zombie art.Was it Hegel who said that at night all cows are black? The will to a lack of distinctions is a “dead” end.
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  1. AnonymousSeptember 8, 2015 at 2:38 PM
  2. the figure of the zombie hardly lacks distinction. it occurs in african, norse, hindu, and chinese folklore. there’s also a strong tradition found in anglo-saxon literature. until very recently, its manifestation was derived from haitian voodoo rites. first popularized in the thirties by the pre-code horror classic‘white zombie’, starring bela lugosi, this trope faded following the cult success of ’the serpent and the rainbow’ in the eighties. the notion of ‘will’ is strong in these fictions; haitians didn’t fear the zombi per se as much as its boko, or he who cast the spell that enslaved them.
  3. it was this exact moment, with painting deemed dead and history allegedly dying, that found steven parrino snatching souls and reanimating corpses. using metaphors derived from sources that owe as much to kashmir malevich and robert smithson as to todd browning and mario brava, his experiment was largely at odds with the critically fashionable, market-savvy simulationist painting that was arguably its twin. parrino’s twisted canvases — zombie formalism avant la lettre perhaps, but certainly known by their author and discerning others as such — only became collector trophies after his untimely death in 2005, when the brian kennon book mentioned above appeared.
  4. parrino’s works and their dissemination predate the arguments made here by many years, and should be acknowledged so. it’s disingenuous to argue otherwise, for whatever reasons, simply because the model of subjectivity his works propose is at odds with hidebound practices and hamstrung thought understood as properly ‘abstract’.
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  1. Martin MugarSeptember 8, 2015 at 10:13 PM
  2. Parrino is sui generis in his use of zombie and has more in common with Serra and early Held than with the artists grouped together by John Yau that I labled as zombie along with Walter Robinson.I mentioned the Malevich connection in a comment above that I repeat here: 
    Groys somewhere talks about Malevich’s project as distinct from Mondrian’s.The absolute supremacy of his forms destroys the visual language of the past and gives us a new language grounded on nothing but itself.Mondrian comes to his abstraction via a reduction of perception that drags the past along with it in the form of warms and cools and push and pull.These zombie artist are in the Malevich strain of abstraction
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  1. Martin MugarSeptember 14, 2015 at 5:12 PM
  2. A younger artist friend Paul Pollaro said that Parrino is punk and that the more contemporary versions of Zombie abstraction such as Kassay are grunge. Parrino as punk is telling the world to fuck off. Kassay as grunge says it all sucks and is infinitely nihilist. A lot has to be sorted out here.I thank “anonymous” for unpacking zombie formalism which was presented to me already packed by Saltz and Robinson.
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  1. Sarah WalkerSeptember 19, 2015 at 10:18 AM
  2. Great historical/philosophical background illuminating that pathological stripe of painting flooding the market. Another aspect touched on in your essay is their function as empty vehicles for Wall Street money laundering. In this way they are a part of the world financial sculpture, a conceptual art object/project that instigates dematerialization on a grand scale.
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  4. SeNDOctober 12, 2015 at 4:50 PM
  5. Thank you for your comment on my own essay about this topic, at artcritical.com. I’ve updated the essay to reflect the actual lineage of your term.
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  1. Martin MugarOctober 12, 2015 at 5:06 PM
  2. Thanks!I I appreciate Raphael Rubinstein making the claim on my behalf even though it angered his friend Walter Robinson.
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  1. Martin MugarNovember 24, 2015 at 7:28 AM
  2. From the auction “ob”-scene in the Art Newspaper: 
    “Warhol (29,215 pieces at auction to date) had 56 canvases up for sale in the week, safe to say more than any other artist; if only he could have lived to experience his transformation into fully-fledged currency, he’d have been tickled.” forget the return of the gold standard.We now have the Warhol standard. I said in the zombie formalism blog that any substantiality would be squeezed out of art so as to function as currency:
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  1. Miles HallMay 18, 2016 at 3:13 AM
  2. Hope this isn’t too much of a stretch, but this all sounds like an echo of a very long standing conversation in Western Art -going back to Titan and Rapael — concerning the supremacy of colore or disegno. Not directly the same discussion, bit there are some interesting parallels!
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  1. Martin MugarMay 18, 2016 at 6:13 AM
  2. I can see your point. Some people see provisional painting as a Mannerist movement after the classicism of High Modernism.
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