Michael Zwack in his apartment and studio in Nolita, New York City. Photo: Grace Villamil

Michael Zwack (1949–2017)

Michael Zwack, a New York–based artist who was associated with the Pictures generation, died of lung cancer on May 5. Zwack was born in Buffalo in 1949 and studied sculpture at Buffalo State College. Before moving to New York City in 1976, the artist cofounded Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center with Buffalo artists Cindy Sherman, Charles Clough, Nancy Dwyer, and Robert Longo.

Best known for his landscape paintings that incorporate ancient text and symbols and the natural world, Zwack said, “I want to seduce people into worlds that they may not ordinarily take themselves—into a world of morality, a world of humanity, where everything reverberates with potential meanings; a place where everything is alive, a place where it is difficult to deny reality.”

Zwack was one of the founding artists at Metro Pictures and was later represented by various galleries including Paul Kasmin. In the 1990s, he began learning about Haitian Vodou music and traditions and immersed himself in Haitian culture, eventually becoming the highest level of Vodou priest, a houngan asogwe.

In 2009, Zwack’s work was included in a survey of Picture generation artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the other artists featured in the exhibition were John Baldessari, Sarah Charlesworth, Nancy Dwyer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and James Welling.

In the February 1996 issue of Artforum, Rosetta Brooks reviewed Zwack’s exhibition at Thomas Soloman’s Garage. She writes: “Part of a generation of artists in the early ’80s who appropriated mass media imagery, Zwack reconsiders the impact of the photographic on our way of seeing. He mines the photograph’s ability to capture the fugitive, to reveal the unexpected, and to create a reverberative depth, celebrating the slow metamorphic quality of the natural world and our apprehension of it. For him, the image is a cipher of the archetypal, a vessel that has the power to hold echoes of an ancestral voice. Echoing the floating, phenomenal worlds that characterize the Japanese painting tradition, Zwack’s work encourages a contemplative, almost trancelike relationship to the phenomenal world.”