Michael Zwack, a New York–based painter whose spiritually and emotionally engaged work was initially associated with the Pictures Generation, died on May 5. The cause was lung cancer. The artist was 67 years old.
Zwack’s paintings often appeared alongside works by Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and others who formed a loose group known as the Pictures Generation. Zwack, like many of those artists, began creating work in response to a world of images in the late 1970s, relying often on ready-made pictures in his work. But unlike his peers, he didn’t typically make use of photography. (Gary Indiana recently called Zwack one of the group’s “remarkable painters,” along with Walter Robinson and David Salle.) In 2009, Zwack’s work was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Pictures Generation survey.
With layered images that border on abstraction, Zwack’s thinly painted works look almost like double exposures. He returned repeatedly to images of seascapes and oceans, which he then superimposed with text and various patterns. In the ’90s, after encounters with Haitian Voudou traditions, Zwack’s paintings took on a spiritual dimension, and often came to focus on the presence of people and things beyond this world.
Zwack was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1949. He studied sculpture at SUNY Buffalo and later went on to cofound the Hallwalls art center with Longo, Sherman, and Charlie Clough. In 1976, the year before Douglas Crimp’s first “Pictures” show at Artists Space, Zwack moved to New York City, where he lived until his death. He showed at Metro Pictures and Paul Kasmin Gallery, and he worked at the Kitchen, where he reportedly once saved Mike Kelley from accidentally getting burned alive in a performance that had gone awry.