Martin Mugar on painting and perception, abstraction and spirituality, and what is Zombie Formalism?
Top: MArtin Mugar, Still Life 2. Bottom: Rudolf Steiner, drawing from lecture (all image information as footnotes)
In this conversation with Martin Mugar we discuss Zombie Formalism, a term that has sparked a lot of debate in certain parts of the art world. We also discus some of Martin’s thoughts on painting as a visual language, and his personal development as painter over 5 decades. He is the writer who first coined the term Zombie Abstraction, which subsequently morphed into the now more common Zombie Formalism. He is a painter, former teacher, and writer. His new book is now available on Amazon. It’s called Drawing and Painting: Perceptual theory as a basis for learning how to draw.
Miles Hall: What first brought your attention to this kind of painting, and what was behind your use of the word “zombie?” In short, what brought you into the discussion?
Martin Mugar: I actually sort of stumbled into it when I read an article by John Yau who is a long-time critic and poet, and he was describing a certain group of painters who were imitative of work of the past. It was abstraction being re-explored but without any kind of intellectual engagement, just kind of a repetition of say, the style of Stella or the style of Rothko. He thought it was not only redundant, but concurrent with a certain mark-up in the value of this work: there was talk of “flipping it” the way people flip houses – and people were flipping paintings and the work was getting more and more expensive. So there was the question: what is this all about, what is the meaning of this kind of painting? For a while I had been ruminating on the notion of the importance of spirituality in painting, partly though the influence of Jeremy Gilbert Rolf.
So, soon after reading the Yau piece, I wrote an article and I titled it Zombie Abstraction. I described this kind of painting as a deadening of abstraction. Whereas Rothko’s work had a spiritual edge to it, or Pollock was thinking of the cosmos and the web of the universe, these painters, like Sarah Morris and Wayne Guyton, were merely using the formal imagery of the great classical modernist painters and just deadening them. So obviously you know, in mythology and the movies, a zombie’s body - the outward form - is there, marching along, but the soul or spirit is dead. This group of painters was totally ignoring the spiritual essence, taking something that once had a spiritual or cosmic edge and just reducing it to the innocuous. So the term Zombie Abstraction made total sense. About four months latter Walter Robinson wrote an article for Artspace, borrowing the zombie concept from me, but using the term Zombie Formalism. That cemented the zombie concept as a moniker for this kind of painting.
MH: Can we clarify? From what I understand of the term…it’s not an actual style of painting, it can be very painterly, spontaneous and drippy, or it can be really rigid and tight?
MM: Yeah, it’s more about a state of mind…
MH: Okay. So if we are talking about different styles, what if we peel things back to what we think of as the inception of abstraction? Spirituality was a central theme in the work of Hilma Klint. Moving a bit further along, the early abstract painters that come to mind are Mondrian and Kandinsky, and then obviously Malevich in Russia. They all had spiritual theories about what painting was too, but each had a little different take on what that meant, and how they got their forms.
Left to right: 3. KAsimir Malevich, 4. Piet Mondrian, 5.Wassily KAndinsky, 6.Hilma AF Klint
You’ve got Malevich… where he’s highly optimistic about where humanity is evolving, transcending to this fourth dimension, it’s very conceptual and esoteric, right?
MH: ….and there’s this kind of leap that happens with him, in terms of imagery. With Kandinsky it’s almost like a precursor to surrealism and very romantic. It comes out of his subjective experience of seeing colors as sounds and hearing sounds as colors…spiritual vibrations, but very influenced by what Monet had done with his palette. Then you’ve got Mondrian who is Dutch, but also grounded in the French school, and he comes from this tradition of designing out of nature…
MM: Well, he is very optical. When you look at the transition from his landscapes to his abstractions it’s a very slow, methodical analysis of vertical versus horizontal versus diagonal. In fact, in my new book I talk a lot about visual perception and about how there is a part of the brain, the striate cortex, which looks at the world and interprets everything as vertical, horizontal or diagonal, and that’s basically what Mondrian did…he plugged in, you know there are these characters like Cezanne and Mondrian who plug into these perceptual functions that we have, and then so much art history grows out of that.
So you go from the early Mondrian, where he is looking at trees, and then he is beginning to look at the verticals and horizontals but it’s still trees, you know? And then suddenly there are no more trees, it’s just this abstraction. It’s powerful. It’s like the whole world just submits to this visual logic that actually comes from part of our brain, a certain cognitive piece of the way we see all the time but don’t necessarily pay attention to.
Left to Right: 7-12, Piet Mondrain
MH: Yeah, that kind of abstraction is fascinating to me because it’s right there in how we experience the world…anyway, I was bringing up those four painters to see if they would draw a contrast with what you’re calling Zombie Abstraction, and also to ask something like the inverse question: how far back do the zombie roots go? How far can we trace it? Is there a seed from the beginning with one of these artists that eventually corrupts modern abstraction? Makes it unsustainable, or makes it a failed project form the start?
MM: Failed project? No.
MH: Could we trace it back to Greenberg?
MM: Hmm, I don’t know. I see Stella as a turning point. A lot of his imagery is like graphic design, and I think graphic design becomes a predecessor for Zombie Formalism. So it’s no longer like we were saying about Mondrian and even Kandinsky, for them it comes out of perception, it comes out of how we see the world, an understanding of how the eye and the mind work…
MH: But isn’t good graphic design about seeing? Maybe we could say Stella is a kind of nihilistic graphic design, stripped of all its content?
MM: It’s like a graphic design exercise...
MH: …or a graphic design exercise based solely on the rectangular format of the canvas?
MM: Sure. The early paintings.
MH: It’s funny, I think Stella’s best works are those early ones.
MM: Yeah, the latter work, you know these big bombastic – I don’t get it – if you read Working Space, the lectures he gave at Harvard, he praises the Baroque: Ruebens, Rembradnt, Caravaggio, and he thinks in his late work he is realizing that great Baroque complexity but it’s just not grounded in perception in any way. And I think that’s a real problem.
MH: Maybe the goal of dealing with the square pushed those early black paintings, but the “baroque” ones are a little untethered? Like he’s lost.
MM: Maybe. I mean if you saw his big retrospective at the Whitney back in 2015 … there were a lot of people who were really critical of that show. There is a piece in Hyperallergic where Joseph Nechvatal really cracks down on him as someone who takes abstraction and kills it. I think that’s because it’s moved so far away from perception - I mean I used to see that even at Yale – you know, just do things on the canvas, move things around…
But It’s interesting you bring up Klint. She and the other painters you mentioned were all involved in Theosophy or Anthroposophy, and I believe all modern abstraction initially came out of one of those two schools. Spiritual systems of thought related to Idealist philosophy. You’ve got Rudolf Steiner who was the founder of Anthroposophy and also an architect.We think of Le Corbusier as a kind of poster boy for modernist architecture, but Steiner’s buildings really are precursors to what Le Corbusier did – with the raw concrete and all those abstract forms, that kind of sculptural fantasy we see with Notre Dame du Haut.
left to right: 13. Le corbusier, 14,15. Rudolf Steiner, 16. Annie BEsant, C. W. Leadbetter
Also, Steiner used to do these big, abstract-like drawings to explain his spiritual ideas. They’re fantastic, dealing with the etheric and the astral or what have you.
Before that, and before Klint, you have Annie Besant and Leadbeater publishing the Theosophical book Thought Forms. It was full of abstract color shapes that represent states of mind. That’s years before Klint’s first non-objective pieces. So yeah, spiritual notions are at the very root of abstraction.
MH: Interesting. What you’ve been saying is that Zombie Formalism is missing something spiritual, but also something perceptual.
MM: Yeah, right.
MH: There is something higher that it is missing, and also something…
MM: Lower, more grounded? Sure.
MH: …an earthy edge perhaps, having feet planted on the ground, like our human perception of the physical world. So what would be the alternative? An antidote to Zombie Formalism? How would someone go about painting today in a way that wouldn’t be void of both earthiness and spirituality?
MM: HA! Well. That’s a good question. I don’t know for certain, I mean, not as a kind of program that I could prescribe. But in terms of my own work, I’m very often surprised that I have worked my way from basic perceptual issues to much more complex ones.
MH: You started out working very representationally?
MM: Yeah, for years. Let me put it this way. I went to Yale for both graduate and undergraduate school - and it’s funny - I felt like just about everybody there was plugging into some sort of movement, something that was represented by the faculty or was really hot in New York at the time – you know, like they were going to flip it into some kind of success - whereas I feel like I went back and re-capitulated to the history of art. I was able to spend some time looking at things in Europe due to a fellowship after undergrad, and I remember spending a lot of my time looking at Delacroix and Gericault and David, and I liked the political and historical aspect of all of it, you know the struggle against the powers that be – it was a very Marxist energy, some of it before Marxism. And when I came back to Yale I was working on this big narrative painting in the parking lot called Murder in the Parking Garage…
MH: Sounds like early Odd Nerdrum!
MM: Haha! Maybe, yeah. But I was looking at these big concrete structures, and I had this notion about how maybe symbolically they could only be redeemed by some sort of blood sacrifice, and then someone actually got murdered there. On top of that, they hired a Yale art student to do the composite drawings for the suspect, and that just freaked me out. I was also thinking I wanted my painting to be more about looking than anything else. I totally abandoned that piece. The whole thing collapsed for me. All the faculty had loved it, something they thought was big and bold and obnoxious. They Loved that. And I just went back to looking at early Matisse, and the way he would use warm and cool light on opposing sides of a subject. Visual experience. Most of the faculty were really disappointed. I remember in a crit, one of my teachers saying, “What happened to you, you used to be such a good painter.”
But I just told them, “I can’t do this historical/narrative, stuff. I’m just going to learn how to paint.”
There was only one teacher who supported me in that, Lester Johnson….And then I pissed off Al Held, who walked into my studio one day and said, “You know Martin, I know what your problem is: you have too many influences!”
And I said, “Yeah Al, you’re one too many, get the hell out of here!”
MH: OH-WOW! Haha!
MM: Yeah. He was kind of an arrogant guy. But you know I learned a lot from him.
MH: The few paintings of his I have seen in person are really good.
MM: Very talented. Real visual intelligence. I’ve seen some very interesting work from him. One show I remember where he was working with orthographic perspective, he used it to create space but deny space at the same time, amazing sense of dissonance. But I don’t think he ever went from that perceptual insight into something bigger. Still, in a way I’m very glad I knew him, because he was someone, who latter on when I was in Greensborough, a lot of his ideas came back to me about making a transition from figuration to abstraction.
Left to Right: 17-20, MArtin Mugar, 1971, 1981, 1993, 2018
MH: How did that happen?
MM: Well, down in Greensborough I had much more of an opportunity to immerse myself in painting. For a couple of years up in New Hampshire I had been slogging away with so many hours teaching, and now I had a position that gave me much more time. I just started setting up objects on a table and painting them. At first in my little office, and then in a studio. I set them up with light coming in from a window on the side, like the Baroque, thinking of Vermeer.
MH: Some of those pictures you made there have a real visual weight to them.
MM: Yeah, always, that is always important to me.
MH: …and when I look at them, I can definitely see what you are talking about with respect to Vermeer, but you’re not quoting him when it comes to the actual painting technique?
MM: No. Not really. But light from the window was really important, and then I began looking at the objects right in front of the windows, looking at them against the landscape, with two different kinds of light. That was a crazy problem, to do real justice to that perceptual tension of two different kinds of light and space. Some of Al Held’s words came back to me, stick something on a canvas, like some bubble gum, and then make it work. So, I would mark up the canvas with marks on top. They were no longer just about the subject but were coming out of my head. It was something that I could experience, it was something that was all tied together visually by my ability to see and construct and shape. That was a big change in my work and eventually led me into abstraction. That was the late 80s.
MH: It sounds like, for you, the content of the painting has a lot to with how you experience things visually, how the eye and mind work, both in the world and in the painting. More so than any kind of subject matter or concept.
MM: Well, what I really believe more than anything else is that the language of painting is intrinsically visual. I mean, I remember seeing a show at the MFA in Boston around ’92. That show confirmed to me that I was on the right track for myself. It was a show where Salon painters were put up alongside the Impressionists. Unbelievably instructive exhibition. All these Salon people who had painted beautiful beach scenes, seascapes and landscapes next to Cezanne, next to Pissarro…And one group was totally phenomenological – like how am I experiencing this in my head, and the other group was more interested in describing a socio-economic world: Farmers in the field. If there was a boat you’d have a hailing port on it, very grounded in illustrating a particular thing and a culture. And then these other people who were just sort of lost in this perceptual reality; and that was the future of painting for the 20th century. They created this fantastically lyrical and poetic world out of the collision between their own phenomenological experience and the real world. It’s more universal than illustrating, you know, a particular sailboat or something.
21. Claude MOnet
MH: Well, there has been a lot of great writing about how Impressionism does come out of a particular social milieu, and you can never completely divorce it from place and time. But I think you’re right about the universality. And the seeing aspect. With them there is definitely a very broad appeal. Globally it’s the most popular painting movement ever. People love it. There is this phenomenological aspect that’s very personal, but paradoxically, broadly accessable…and I think we’re living in an era, it’s like we’ve forgotten that the human visual system is universal to all of us, and that while different painters or cultures may tap into different parts of the visual system in different ways, it’s still the human act of seeing. It’s not like certain forms or visual phenomena are owned by certain people or cultures, like national flags, or coats of arms or something. Sometimes I see this in representational painters too, wearing a certain kind of style like a badge. Or on another level, I see drawing students who just want to be handed a technique or a method to apply to their favorite subject. There is so much more.
MM: Well yeah. I like to talk about the fact that the strength of any kind of drawing all comes out of its connection to the visual language, which is internal, whether abstract or representational. We talked about Cezanne and the striate cortex, but at the same time you have Seurat, who (in his drawing) reduces everything to value at the exclusion of all else. That’s very powerful, it taps into a part of the brain that, as I see it, is very primordial.
22. Georges Seraut
It is prior to the striate cortex, which interprets value. There are ways of learning how to tap into these things, through the focused practice of drawing, and contemplating your own visual experience. Great painting can come out of it. So, for instance, if you talk about the transition…well let me explain this. When the eye looks at the world in terms of light and dark, ranges of value, if you put a line on a transition from light to dark, and then eventually get rid of all the light and dark, you end up with something like those Mondrians or a Giacometti. But it’s not just a style, the eye does that. It looks at these transitions from light to dark, and it puts a little line in there, whether vertical or horizontal or diagonal, and it can tell us a tremendous amount about space and light and form. And who wants to go back and discover all that stuff? It’s a lot of work.
Left to right: 23, 24 ALberto Giacometti, 25, 26, Piet MOndrian
MH: Well, there is still a lot of research going on, in terms of the biology and psychology of visual perception. Science is still finding out a lot about how we see. There is still a lot to explore, and sometimes the artists get there first before the scientists.
MM: Right, they stumble into it. And you know, the Salon school was basically a re-iteration of Chiaroscuro and Raphael merged together, line and tone. But they had pushed it to the point where it was like, nauseating. At first it was powerful…and continued to be for almost a century after Caravaggio. It taps into a very basic part of your brain that processes value shapes….
MH: Seurat kind of re-invigorated it by removing all the line, like you were saying.
MM: Sure. Still It eventually hit a dead end. But it’s interesting that you’ve got this guy working in isolation out in the south of France (Cezanne), probably on the spectrum, who taps into something new and changes the whole course of painting for over a century. It turns out to be a way of interpreting the modern world. By his sensitivity to his own visual system. That’s pretty amazing.
MH: It is when you think of it that way!
So my final question is this: What are the implications of all this? Especially for the young painter making their way in the world? How do you transcend being a zombie, either in terms of abstraction or representation? And what should the casual observer be aware of?
MM: Well, the young painter…I guess it has somewhat to do with what degree you are willing to go against the flow. I’m not a champion of any kind of school. Like I mentioned earlier, for me in grad school it seemed like everyone was trying to figure out what the flow was, and how they could use it to their advantage. And that kind of dynamic is still probably very seductive. I think some things we can ask the student are: where are you, where do you want to go? How honest do you want to be? Having a sensitivity to how the mind works, an awareness of how you are processing influences, rather than just trying to fit in, rather than just assuming a pre-determined narrative. Easy narratives are all around us, just look at politics these days. I would encourage young painters to understand the history of painting, be sensitive to what they are experiencing here and now, and then set out to really think visually for themselves.
MH: Yeah, Thinking visually is very underrated these days. Or sometimes just done lip service to. But it’s important. It’s not simple or easy. It is a form of serious human inquiry. As you really get into sorting out your perceptions through painting, there are a lot of parallels to philosophy and science. If you look back over the centuries at the history of thought, even back to the pre-Socratics, they were working out whether the world, and our apprehension of it, was a unity or a plurality. Do you start form the top down and everything fits into that, or do start with all these little particulars and work your way up?
MH:…and the answer is…both somehow, like a zig-zag back and forth between these two.
MM: Well, yeah, if you are thinking of parts and whole, you can be Hegelian, or you can be Aristotelian. The parts can suggest the whole, or the whole can impose its energy and power over the parts, but just getting students to think: parts – whole – parts – whole, really trying to work out the solution to a painting. You know I often tell students when they are upset with their paintings – we’re always upset with our paintings, it’s just an intuitive understanding that there is something wrong, and that’s a good thing, it’s a very good thing. And there is a solution. It could be that the whole ties together all the parts – you know maybe you’ve just been lost in the parts and if you wait till the next day or sleep on it, you can come back and get it. It’s like, “Oh now I see it!” But it helps if you know the whole/parts dilemma exists.
And with color it gets even more complex. Looking back and forth between warmer and cooler light, we have these shifting perceptions because of how we apprehend hue. There is this kind of aura, or phenomenon, that has nothing to do with the physicality of the subject. It makes that tension between whole and parts almost unending! Zombie Formalism is just so far removed from that kind of struggle. And who is going to work up a genesis? I mean who has the time to ascribe to that kind of alienation or solitude? But it can be done still.
MH: Haha! Sounds so daunting.
MM: If you think of having to do it all at once! When I said “who has the time?” I was being somewhat facetious: thinking visually can come in steps. It’s like if you go to the circus, and you see a performer on the high wire, and he’s on a unicycle and juggling bowling balls - that didn’t happen all at once. He trained for years on the wire, probably low down, just walking. He was on the ground other days, doing that unicycle. Then just juggling, building up how many things he could juggle at once. Eventually he got on the unicycle and juggled, and so on…and so on.
So keep choosing visually brilliant influences from art history. Be cognizant of their influence on you. Understand what they were doing visually. Understand how the eye and brain work together. Work on different parts of your act in the studio. Be honest with yourself and sensitive to your own visual system.
Eventually, you might just find yourself flying around, up on that high wire.
Martin Mugar currently resides in New Hampshire. His writing appears in Painter’s Table. He also publishes regularly on his own blog: http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/
His new book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1475021364
1.Marin Mugar, portion of Still Life, 1981, courtesy of the artist
2. Rudolf Steiner, lecture drawing, black paper laid over blackboard, Circa 1920
3. Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting , 1915-16; Oil on canvas, Wilhelm Hacke Museum, Ludwigshafen
4. Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921, Gemeente Museum Den Haag
5. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913, Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery
6. Hilma AF Klint, date NA, Hilma AF Klint Foundation
7. Piet Mondrian, Evening: Red Tree, 1908-1910, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague
8. Piet Mondrian, Grey Tree, 1911, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague
9. Piet Mondrian, Blossoming Apple Tree, 1912, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague
10. Piet Mondrian, Composition in Blue and Gray and Pink, Kröller-Müller Museum in Netherlands.
11. Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grid #1, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
12. Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921, Gemeente Museum Den Haag
13. Le Corbusier, Notre Dame Du Haut, built 1955
14. Rudolf Steiner, The Second Goetheanum, 1924
15. Rudolf Steiner, lecture drawing, black paper laid over blackboard, Circa 1920
16. Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, Image from Thought Forms, 1905
17 - 20. Martin Mugar, courtesy of the artist
21. Claude Monet, Parc Monceau, 1878, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
22. George Seurat, The Artist’s Mother, 1883, The Getty Museum
23. Alberto Giacometti, The Artist’s Mother, 1950, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Estate of Alberto Giacometti
24. Alberto Giacometti, Self Portrait
25. Piet Mondrian, Self Portrait
26. Piet Mondrian, Tableau no. 1, 1913 Kröller-Müller Museum
Miles Hall is a painter and art educator. He has taught Drawing, Painting, Color Theory, and Modern Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia State University. He has an MFA in Studio Art and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History Theory and Criticism.