I didn’t expect that International Pop at the Dallas Museum of Art (which is a very cool show) would get me thinking more about Zombie Abstraction, but that’s what happened. This is simply because I’m even more aware of how different my reaction is to some work versus other work, generally, in light of the recent Glasstire-driven conversation around abstract painting. I thought we were done talking about it, but the argument has continued offline, and considered in the context of art that resonates strongly with me, it bears revisiting.
But first, briefly: International Pop is cool, but not because it tries hard or strikes a pose. International Pop is cool because it’s solidly grounded in its time (primarily the 1960s), and the work was made by artists who were genuinely fascinated by the transition and possibility inherent in the post-war tumult. It’s a scruffy show, and willfully disjointed, given that the work comes from so many different places (specifically places that are not our place). The late mechanical age was ripe in its politics and as a grand and chaotic social experiment, and at that point, art was a valid way to respond to all that.
When you walk through the show, you can slip into the brains and concerns of the artists who made the work and feel their curiosity and excitement, their worry and their sense of play. A lot of this Pop Art is—counterintuitively—fast and loose, and looks and feels a bit unfinished or in-progress. And physically, the materials show their age. The work has traveled a long way, geographically and spiritually, to reach us here in the digital age.
Therefore the work in the show carries, and, up to the point of this writing, qualifies for the problematic description “timeless.” Not every piece, but en masse and (for the most part) individually, the works still have impact 50 years on. Timelessness is a tough nut to crack unless you’re an artist in tune with your time and you’re making art that responds to it, while gesturing toward an unknowable and disinterested future. International Pop (very well-installed, by the way) won’t change your life, but it’ll make your week and your brain richer and fuller.
So the work works. When figuring out an artwork’s impact, the three inherent questions surrounding the work’s existence are: 1) what compelled the artist to make it in the first place, 2) how fully does this piece exist in its world, and 3) is my world even a little shifted after having seen it? Like Pop Art, when Formalism and Abstraction took hold in the 20th century, they sprung from an urgency to communicate something new, something else, honest and open-ended to the world, and they were very much of their time. This is what allows an artwork to become timeless. In that sense, and in the hands of a real artist, even a slight or playful gesture contains a whole universe.
All of the best art springs from this impulse. This real need to respond, if not fire warning shots. And in recent years, the only contemporary art that turns me on is that which is clearly made in and of its own time. Our digital revolution and our current social and geopolitical climate make for boundless, heady material, and yet countless artist are churning out formulaic “blasts from the past” that ask nothing from new, frankly dumb collectors, and gives nothing in return aside from being moderately decorative. (I put the odious, jokey “Conceptual Lite” into this camp as well. I hate it more than I hate Zombie Formalism.) The younger artists don’t even know that a version of their uninspiring painting or sculpture was made 30 years ago by an artist who couldn’t find traction with it. The only thing supporting the current deluge of Zombie Formalism is an insatiable, uneducated “market” and a lot of artists who aren’t subjected to any real checks and balances, i.e. critical scrutiny. Ninety-nine percent of the newest art at art fairs will line the big birdcage of tomorrow.
I’m starting to see the trend recede (as all trends do), and after meeting with and seeing the work of so many younger people, I’m generally convinced of their engagement with the Here and Now. It takes a lot of forms, and some of those don’t yet have a name. This is good. And I don’t have a problem, generally, with continued explorations of Formalist concerns, because that’s as much about physics-plus-nature—which really is timeless material—as it is about art.
But I can ask that artist steep themselves in art history so they know where we’ve already been—and I do believe this is crucial—because there’s a serious difference between knowing your work evokes Manzoni (because Manzoni resonates with you and his concerns are your concerns) and accidentally making something that looks like Manzoni, who you’ve never even heard of. And if you don’t think savvier, emotionally invested art viewers can spot the difference, think again. And if you seriously don’t give a fuck because your work is selling to speculators and dumb people: I’m happy you can sleep at night. Someone has to.
When Rainey Knudson and Michael Bise complain on these pages about Zombie Abstraction, they’re not mindlessly echoing some established chorus for the sake of entertainment. They’re expressing, again, a real fatigue about market-driven pap that has no resonance or presence, no interest in the world, and no future.
Comparing the impact of the work of today’s Zombie Formalists to that of 1960s Pop Artists isn’t an obvious move, but any viewer confronted by art in a museum or gallery can certainly clock their own visceral reaction to the art—or their lack of visceral reaction or mental stimulation—and hope to find that moment of discovery in any art they see in the course of a week, a month, a year. A lot of the same blissed-out, laser-focused neurons are firing in my brain when I look at the Tadanori Yokoo in International Pop as the ones that fired just down the museum’s hallway in the screening of Ed Atkin’s video. Likewise, last weekend while walking through Strange Pilgrims, a big current Austin group exhibition, I’m as beguiled by Paul Sharits’ work from 1976 as I am the new installation (and especially the video component) of Phil Collins’ contribution to the show. Apples and oranges, sure. But in further comparison, the aftertaste of Zombie Formalism is sawdust, dosed with historical ignorance, critical tone-deafness, or cynicism, depending on the artist.