Zombie Formalism and its Aftermath: Eight Years On

Alex Israel - Sky Backdrop. Alex Israel - Sky Backdrop. Sold for $442,000 via Sotheby's (May 2015).

Zombie Formalism may well have been the most important art movement of the new century. Driven by the economy, it transformed the art market with a familiar and fast adaption of minimalist abstract expressionism. But what on earth is Zombie Formalism? And how did it sleepwalk from overnight success into near oblivion?

Zombie Formalism is a truly modern art expression. Yes, it was an art movement that burned brightly in the past decade thereby making it modern by definition, but the circumstances of its phoenix-like rise and fall offers a true reflection of 21st century society.

Throughout modern history, art movements have been pioneered by innovation in art, with critics and art enthusiasts fawning over exciting new styles that grabbed attention, from Avant-Garde, to Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionism, as people were enchanted by the newness and excitement of drinking in romantic symbolism, forced perspectives or other tropes that defined the movements.

Instead, Zombie Formalism changed what it meant it to be a young artist in the art market. Power was stripped from the galleries and handed to the world of finance, with an economic upturn creating a vogue among collectors for making speculative investments in a certain type of painting by a certain type of young artist. These collectors would buy artworks for relatively low prices with the purpose of receiving a significant return on the secondary market soon afterward.

The art style associated with Zombie Formalism was a form of abstract expressionism, but where it found its home wasn’t so clear. Part reactionary expressionism that one writer for Bloomberg flippantly described as a “doodle,” and part ode to Minimalist Monochromes or Color Field paintings, but with a degraded and modern twist. See Jacob Kassay’s work (below) for an examples of contemporary Color Field paintings.

This is art that caters to the demands of the market, not art that drives or influences it. It’s the most contemporary of contemporary art and can be viewed as a reflection of changes within society. Beginning in 2011 and lasting for roughly four years, the art world was hungry in its desire for a particular type of painting, which at the time was still nameless, until the artist and critic Walter Robinson coined the phrase in a 2014 article, Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism.

This newly named art movement was further given context by critic Clement Greenberg, who highlighted the artists’ method of creation in a way that echoed the Abstract Expressionist principles that influenced them, but without advancing the idea – hence the “zombie” in the name. Ready for the digital age, these artists employed theatrics ideally suited to social media audiences (including the use of fire extinguishers or fire), which often helped the paintings to achieve viral status online.

The artist Seth Price, in his searing novel Fuck Seth Price, didn’t hold back in his critic appraisal of works, which he described as “tepid compositions, hesitant and minimal in appearance, kind of pretty and kind of whatever, loaded with back story.” However, despite this indictment, the backstory married with the potential of short-term profit proved irresistible to many shrewd, hard-nosed investors, as newly discovered works sold for north of $400,000.

Zombies lead the charge

And the investors driving the market in zombie formalist artworks helped to launch the careers of a number of young artists, as each scrambled to unearth the latest work with the biggest potential for short-term profit by artists like Oscar Murillo, Lucien Smith, and Jacob Kassay. But, as the critic Jerry Saltz noted with dismay in his essay, Zombies on the Walls: Why does so much new abstraction look the same? Despite Saltz’s criticism, Smith remains one of a handful of artists to have survived the Zombie Formalism apocalypse with work that continues to attract interest from collectors (although it no longer commands quite the prices it did at the movement’s peak in 2014; a year before the market collapsed under its own weight).

In 2014, Smith’s Love Story/A Woman Under The Influence piece sold for $233,000 at Christie’s, New York, while in the same year I’m So Tired Of Being Alone achieved $81,250 in another Christie’s auction. Fast forward to 2020 and the prices appeared to have plateaued, with Untitled (Flood Painting 15) selling for £40,000 at Christie’s, while in March 2022, his 40 Days and 40 Nights piece went under the hammer for $39,060 in another Christie’s auction, suggesting that prices for his work have hit their ceiling.

This story of artists enjoying a peak in the sale price of their work in 2014 is a familiar one and certainly familiar to Tauba Auerbach, whose Crumple IV composition sold for an impressive $1,061,000 at Christie’s in 2014. But by 2017 that price had dropped significantly, with Slice V and Untitled (Fold) (2010) selling for $358,000 and $230,000 respectively.

However, Auerbach might be one of a few exceptions to the rule of Zombie Formalists who struggled to replicate the same impact and financial appeal as they did during the movement’s zenith. This is evident by the fact that an untitled piece of hers sold for $630,000 in March 2022. In fact, Auerbach hasn’t suffered at the hands of the crash in the market – quite the opposite in fact. According to a 2018 artnet Intelligence Report, Auerbach’s total sales value at the height of the movement from January 2011 to August 2014 was $9,647,289, but in the period August 2014 to June 2018, she has actually seen the total value of her work increase significantly – to $15,911,836.

The same can be said of Alex Israel, whose total sales value jumped from $1,606,000 (January 2011 to August 2014) to $6,651,392 (August 2014 to June 2018) making the post-zombie apocalypse landscape seem considerably less intimidating. His Sky Backdrop series of paintings have maintained an appeal throughout the past decade, although they did reach a peak in 2014, when one sold for $1,025,000 at Christie’s. A year later the price was less than half – at $442,000 – when sold at Sotheby’s and in November 2019, another piece from the series achieved HKD4,685,000 at Christie’s.

Alex Israel - Sky Backdrop.

Alex Israel – Sky Backdrop. Sold for HKD4,685,000 (c. $596,800) via Christie’s (Nov 2019).

Then there’s Oscar Murillo, who is one of the few artists to attract a steady and even total sales value over the past decade. According to the artnet Intelligence Report, his sales value was $7,292,23, (January 2011 to August 2014) and he only experienced a marginal dip, as his work realized a total of $7,188,092 in the period from August 2014 to June 2018.

This price uniformity is reflective in the value of Murillo’s works at auction, as his untitled graffiti-style work sold for $197,000 at Christie’s in May 2014 and four years later in May 2018, his Collective Conscience piece sold for $200,000 at Sotheby’s

Assessing insatiable demand

And it was the likes of Smith, Israel, Murillo and Auerbach who, along with a band of other young artists at the zenith of the movement, were the faces of Zombie Formalism at its peak, with collectors scrambling to own anything with their name on. Their impact was such that by early 2012 the movement had seemingly altered the very fabric of the art world. Gone were the traditional reins of power, which for decades and beyond were in the hands of critics, curators, and art benefactors, and in their place stood money men in suits. The power was now with a global collector class looking to turn art into profit.

Oscar Murillo - Collective Conscience.

Oscar Murillo – Collective Conscience. Sold for $200,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2018).

Such collectors/investors were often brokers who usually didn’t have a background in art. Prior to setting their sights on the art world, they had channelled their investments into commodities like fine watches, cars, or nightclubs, but now there was a new get rich quick scheme to exploit.

Change was also occurring in the world of finance, which had turned towards collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and mortgage backed securities in search of profit. These derivatives proved popular as they had the benefit of being loosely regulated, complex to the point of opacity, and hugely profitable. So, when these investors turned to the art market they found an attractive environment.

The art market had shown its strength in the wake of financial instability, something which it had surprisingly achieved a number of years prior following the 2008 financial crash. Many businesses suffered greatly during this period, but the art market managed a rapid recovery that the Financial Times described as “gravity defying.” This was aided by the fact that investors had begun to lose faith in traditional markets, and alternative assets like art had become increasingly appealing.

The rise of the flipper

This scenario brought new faces to the art market. One of these was the art flipper, who emerged onto the scene with an eye for art that could return them a profit, and fast. Gone were the days of collectors making long-term investments in the careers of artists, and in their place were flippers who were more concerned with near-term profit.

This practice was new to the art world, but it was bread and butter to the flippers, as their strategies mirrored the profiteering practices of Wall Street traders. This was particularly appealing to flippers as this pump-and-dump approach had been denied to them on Wall Street, as it’s a form of stock fraud that’s long been illegal, but it wasn’t denied in the comparatively unregulated world of art.

However, this form of speculative acquisition did occasionally produce a win-win situation for buyers and artists alike and one proponent of this is collector, advisor, and entrepreneur, Stefan Simchowitz. He believes that the limited auction inventory for stars of the Zombie wave, due to their age, can be attributed to backward strategic thinking.

Simchowitz was of the belief that major galleries largely represented major estates, relying on the dead to maintain their standing, and paying little attention to young artists. “Young, emerging artists want to be with these big, fancy dealers with big net worths because it’s more prestigious for them,” he said. “But [big galleries] don’t build a market for them because they’re not f*cking interested.”

Zombies in an art history context

This is far from the first time that the influence of wealth on aesthetics has been bemoaned by critics and those within the art world though, just ask Jeff Koons. Koons has been lambasted for pandering to the world’s billionaires over the years, while his work has become prized as a status symbol and for its investment potential. His three-foot silver rabbit figure sold for $91 million at Christie’s in 2019.

Art as a status symbol and potential investment took root in the 1980s, when artists like Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel achieved megastar status. Recently, those artists whose work is as much art as it is an investment are the Zombie Formalists. And students of the genre at prestigious MFA programs, like Columbia University’s, have seen collectors eagerly buying up their work right off the studio walls in search of a quick buck.

This approach of speculatively buying young artists work might have been a relatively new market phenomenon, but its artistic roots are planted firmly in the process based abstraction of artists in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The process behind the abstract expressionist drip paintings of Jackson Pollock can be seen as a clear influence on many of the Zombie Formalists, but particularly on Lucien Smith, whose Rain Paintings series share an inventive process that involved using a fire extinguisher as his brush and spraying paint across the canvas. And like Pollock before him, his process-based art catapulted him to fame.

And while Zombie Formalism’s moment in the sun was relatively short-lived, its legacy has proven to have had greater longevity. There’s a new generation of painters under 40, influenced by the techniques, processes and aesthetics of the Zombies, who have developed a wide array of ways that paint can be applied to develop beguiling compositions.

“I believe my process is no more unique than I am,” said Jadé Fadojutimi, one of the new wave of process based artists whose canvases burst with energetic brushstrokes, suggestive shapes, and an exuberant color palette. Similarly, Ruairiadh O’Connell’s color field-influenced style has a clear process behind it, in which he looks “to layer and confront complex ideas with material processes that I discover along the way, which results in surface quality and depth that excites me.”

The end of an era

But, like any phoenix that burns brightly, it will inevitably burn out. And that was the case with Zombie Formalism. By the fall of 2015 the Zombie market had cooled and it seemed the Zombies had run out of fresh meat to feast on.

As prices soared at the height of interest in the movement, work sold for far above its estimate at auction, underscoring an artist’s popularity and heat index. At the same time it proved problematic; along with interest, critical scrutiny followed in its wake and that initial fervour of excitement was eroded.

Jadé Fadojutimi – She Squalls.

Jadé Fadojutimi – She Squalls. Sold for $504,000 via Christie’s (May 2022).

One example has become infamous within art circles and that’s the trajectory of Lucien Smith’s Hobbes, the Rain Man, and My Friend Barney/Under the Sycamore Tree (2011). The large-scale landscape first sold for a comparatively modest $10,000 at the artist’s Cooper Union exhibition. It was then purchased at auction by über-collector Alberto Mugrabi in 2013 for an inflated $389,000, but only two years later Mugrabi implied that its value had cooled and had become unsaleable relative to its original price.

So, with the market value dropping, so did the investors, as they moved their interest across to other speculative commodities like the emerging cryptocurrency market. As one door closes though, another opens. The critic Walter Robinson wrote: “Seems to me that the Zombie Formalism tag marked the sudden end of a movement of process-based abstraction, which opened the door for the current triumph of art with socio-political backstories.” These include the likes of Adam Pendleton, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.

A lasting legacy

This birth of socio-political art has proved to be an exciting legacy for Zombie Formalism, although not without its challenges. Now there is something of a schism, as buyers in the art market appear to be either following the lead set by museums, or influencing their output through their art donations.

Ruairiadh O’Connell – Flamingo.

Ruairiadh O’Connell – Flamingo. Sold for £750 via Christie’s (October 2021).

Not everyone is happy with this socio-political shift, though. “These artists who deal with narrative, figurative identity are not dealing with a more serious collector base” than the Zombies did, Simchowitz contends. “Galleries have very happily welcomed them as serious collectors because they’re now interested in more serious subjects. But they’re speculators. They’ve simply migrated like a herd to another category.”

This apparent tendency to repeat the mistakes of the sleepwalking Zombie market is in danger of being repeated according to London-based dealer Inigo Philbrick, who traded in work by Auerbach and David Ostrowski during the Zombie craze. “I think we’ll be having this conversation roughly every 10 years,” he predicts. “It’s the same thing we see in all sorts of asset classes, where people get enthusiastic and carried away, and then things overheat.”

This seeming inevitability of sleepwalking towards another art world frenzy is perhaps the greatest legacy of the Zombies. Whether it’s art with socio-political backstories, or something completely different, the search for the latest commodity to make a fast buck from is insatiable and the zombies will once again rise when a new star of the scene emerges. And if the lessons of the previous art market boom aren’t heeded then this will become an inevitability. But, as buyers continue to feed on art market hype and artists hunt a guaranteed source of income, the one difficulty is differentiating one zombie from another.