Étienne-Louis Boullée

Étienne-Louis Boullée was an 18th century French neoclassical architect whose designs were highly conceptual and physically extreme. His most famous buildings were never made. 

"Boullée sought to inspire lofty sentiments in the viewer by architectural forms suggesting the sublimity, immensity, and awesomeness of the natural world, as well as the divine intelligence underlying its creation. At the same time, he was strongly influenced by the indiscriminate enthusiasm for antiquity, and especially Egyptian monuments, felt by his contemporaries.

To bring geometric forms to life, Boullée depended on striking and original effects of light and shadow. He also emphasized the potential for mystery in building, often burying part of a structure." - Encyclopedia Brittanica

"His style was most notably exemplified in his ‘Project for a Cenotaph for Isaac Newton’ (above), which would have taken the form of a sphere 150 m (500 ft) high embedded in a circular base topped with cypress trees. Though the structure was never built, its design was engraved and circulated widely in professional circles.

‘Newton’s cenotaph was designed to isolate, to reinvent, the huge movement of time and celestial phenomena. Inside, the viewer is isolated too, on a small viewing platform. Along the top half of the sphere’s edges, apertures in the stone allow light in, in pins, creating starlight when there is daylight. During the night a huge and otherworldly light hangs, flooding the sphere, as sunlight. During the day, the “night effect.” During the night, day.'"

".... Boullée began to imagine an architecture of naked walls, ‘stripped of every ornament … light-absorbing material should create a dark architecture of shadows, outlined by even darker shadows’.

‘A taste for the monumental unadorned tombs of the Pharaohs may have been prevalent at the time but it was probably no coincidence that Boullée dreamed up his Temple of Death (above) shortly after Robespierre’s Terror had forced him to withdraw from Parisian public life. His earlier design for a Monument to Sir Isaac Newton is like a giant, unadorned white balloon, about to rise skyward. The Temple of Death, in total contrast, is sunk into the ground. It looks like a photographic negative, and its ornamentation is a mere punched-out absence – a series of black, square window openings. What was new about Boullée’s design was that instead of being based on living nature it was based on nature’s fleeting, distorted image: its shadow. What Boullée imagined was a monolithic plainness, dark surfaces swaying between flatness and endless depth. More than just romantic horror vacui, this was a premonition of the plain, smooth surfaces that would embody the rationalization of space in the dawning Industrial Age.

‘In the Modern Age it is usually the kaleidoscopic, shiny surfaces of the objects surrounding us that are most eloquent about our desires and fears. The indifferently plain, matt, monochrome, silent surfaces ubiquitous in modern society – industrial finishes in black, grey and anthracite; polished steel, sheets of plaster, pressed wood, plastic and aluminium; walls, streets, machines – are silently taken for granted as being neutral amid the glittering turmoil. Ever since Boullée, however, the reality has been that plain surfaces are not simply neutral objects in social space, but the very materialization of that space.’"  - Frieze Magazine

Some quotes from an essay by Boulleé on art and architecture (worth reading if you have the time):  "An edifice for the worship of the Supreme Being! That is indeed a subject that calls for sublime ideas and to which architecture must give character. But to give character to one's work, it is necessary to study the subject in depth, to rise to the level of the ideas it is destined to put into effect and to imbue oneself with them to such an extent that they are, so to speak, one's sole inspiration and guide. The aim of religious ceremonies is to induce a state of profound reverence. It is therefore necessary to use every possible means of inducing grandeur and majesty. Since man is always impressed by size, it is certain that a Temple built in honour of the Divinity should always be immense. Such a temple must be the most striking and the largest image of all that exists; it should, if that were possible, appear to be the universe. To be reduced to what is called necessity when designing a temple is to forget one's subject.

When I observed that a Temple should appear large, I was not referring only to its size. I meant to include the use of that ingenious technique which makes it possible to extend and enlarge the impression we have; this is done by juxtaposing objects in such a way that their overall effect is fully developed as we look at them, and by arranging them in such a way that we appreciate their multiplicity, the successive aspects in which they are revealed to us are removed continuously until we can no longer count them."

This is the seed of something I hope to develop in my own artwork in the next year. 



"The Belly of an Architect" - (1987) - An American architect comes to Italy to arrange an exhibition of Étienne-Louis Boullée's architectural work. Score by Glen Branca and Wim Mertens. 

Zombie Formalism

The lazy-seeming abstraction I was seeing all over Berlin last year has a name: Zombie Formalism.

Robert Mangold’s “Framed Square With Open Center II” , 2013

Robert Mangold’s “Framed Square With Open Center II” , 2013

Walter Robinson at Artspace invented the term: "With their simple and direct manufacture, these artworks are elegant and elemental, and can be said to say something basic about what painting is—about its ontology, if you think of abstraction as a philosophical venture. Like a figure of speech or, perhaps, like a joke, this kind of painting is easy to understand, yet suggestive of multiple meanings. (Kassay’s paintings, for example, are ostensibly made with silver, a valuable metal that invokes a separate, non-artistic system of value, not unlike medieval religious icons, which were priced by both their devotional subjects and by the amount of gold they contained.) Finally, these pictures all have certain qualities—a chic strangeness, a mysterious drama, a meditative calm—that function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design.   

Another important element of Zombie Formalism is what I like to think of as a simulacrum of originality. Looking back at art history, aesthetic importance is measured by novelty, by the artist doing something that had never been done before. In our Postmodernist age, “real” originality can be found only in the past, so we have today only its echo. Still, the idea of the unique remains a premiere virtue. Thus, Zombie Formalism gives us a series of artificial milestones, such as the first-ever painting made with the electroplating process (Kassay), and the first-ever painting done using paint applied in a fire extinguisher (Smith). "

 Robert Yoder,    TD (HOBBY LANTERN 2) ,   2013

 Robert Yoder, TD (HOBBY LANTERN 2), 2013

The term caught on and has been in discussion for the last few months.  Oscar Murillo is name-checked in almost all of the articles mentioned, and is actually the artist I'm least offended by. His show at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie was invested in using the space in a way I found interesting, and I liked his film and photo work much more than the mostly contentless paintings (which are what presumably have been selling for upwards of $400k apiece). 

Oscar Murillo, Untitled (stack paintings), 2013

Oscar Murillo, Untitled (stack paintings), 2013

Jerry Saltz gets rude: "Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just “new” or “dangerous”-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences. 

This work is decorator-friendly, especially in a contemporary apartment or house. It feels “cerebral” and looks hip in ways that flatter collectors even as it offers no insight into anything at all. It’s all done in haggard shades of pale, deployed in uninventive arrangements that ape digital media, or something homespun or dilapidated. Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary of smudges, stains, spray paint, flecks, spills, splotches, almost-monochromatic fields, silk-screening, or stenciling. Edge-to-edge, geometric, or biomorphic composition is de rigueur, as are irregular grids, lattice and moiré patterns, ovular shapes, and stripes, with maybe some collage. Many times, stretcher bars play a part. This is supposed to tell us, “See, I know I’m a painting—and I’m not glitzy like something from Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons.” Much of this product is just painters playing scales, doing finger exercises, without the wit or the rapport that makes music. Instead, it’s visual Muzak, blending in."

Here's a gallery of "Zombie Formalist" work. If you're interested, Jerry Saltz has compiled very interesting side-by-side comparisons of works of art by different artists that he feels reflect this trend. The article is very much worth the read. What do you think? Personally, this is a style or sub-movement of art that I found myself very disappointed by when visiting galleries. When many works of this kind are in the kind of proximity necessitated by a solo show, they become small, drab, homogenized- not the kind of thing I return to.