Formalism in Modern Art
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"Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful - as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth harmony."
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Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875)
James McNeill Whistler was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, a Romantic trend that celebrated "art for art's sake," and his ideas were important in spreading formalist approaches to art. As he put once put it "Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful." In other words, form in art is more important than the accurate transcription of nature. Such beliefs encouraged considerable abstraction in his work, the most famous example being Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which was the subject of a famous libel action after the critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of "throwing a pot of paint in the public's face."
Plato's Theory of Forms
Philosopher Plato developed a "Theory of Forms" based on the idea of eidos, roughly translated to mean "stature" or "appearance." Plato applied the term broadly in his various dialogs to suggest a rudimentary universal language. Every earthly object, he posited, whether tangible (like a chair) or abstract (like human virtue), shared one aspect: they all had a form.
Plato's theory of Forms can be best understood through his "Allegory of the Cave." He envisioned a cave which held prisoners who had been held captive their entire lives; all they could see were the shadows of workers cast along the cave's walls, and all they could hear were the echoes of their voices resonating throughout the cave. Since this was all they knew, the prisoners perceived these shadows and echoes as the actual form of real objects and were therefore completely unaware that those forms were just mimicries of the real things. Plato ultimately stated that the prisoners' perception of things was not false; by their understanding of the world, the shadows and echoes were the actual forms, just as a painting of a woman is as real, if not more real, than the actual woman who is depicted on the canvas.
In the early twentieth century, modern artists experimenting with styles of Fauvism, Expressionism, and Surrealism were influenced by many of the problems raised in Plato's "Theory of Forms." The most profound of these problems was humankind's attempt to reconcile permanence and change, which invited the following questions: how can the world appear to be both permanent and changing? If the world we perceive through the senses seems to be always changing and the world that we perceive through the mind seems to be permanent and unchanging, then which of these perceptions is more real, and how can we explain the existence of both?
The Expressiveness of Form
Man Ray, the American Dadaist and Surrealist artist, issued a statement in 1916 for The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters at the Anderson Galleries in New York in which he wrote, "The creative force and the expressiveness of painting reside materially in the color and texture of pigment, in the possibilities of form invention and organization, and in the flat plane on which these elements are brought to play. The artist is concerned solely with linking these absolute qualities directly to his wit, imagination, and experience, without the go-between of a 'subject.'"
Ray's point here stressed the importance not only of the artist's ability to link these "absolute qualities" on the picture plane, but also of his ability to create something visually captivating independent of anecdotes and contextual subject matter - what we commonly know to be the subjects of pre-modern art.
Formalism in Abstract Art
In the early 1940s, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb issued a statement in The New York Times, in which they wrote, "We do not intend to defend our pictures. They make their own defense. We consider them clear statements...We refuse to defend them not because we cannot. It is an easy matter to explain to the befuddled [critics] that The Rape of Persephone is a poetic expression of the essence of myth...the impact of elemental truth. Would you have us present this abstract concept, with all its complicated feelings, by means of a boy and girl lightly tripping?"
Rothko, Newman, and Gottlieb essentially believed that any attempt to deconstruct and subsequently explain an abstract work of art was essentially to strip it of its intrinsic value. The ultimate meaning of an abstract work was to be found in its very form - its shapes, colors, and lines - and through the acceptance that, according to Rothko, "art is an adventure into an unknown world." By trying to explain this world, critics were attempting to apply common sense to something that defied that very thing. Collectively, the work of these three and other New York artists had turned increasingly abstract to the point where abstraction became a painterly form in itself. Since abstraction was form, then it was by design self-explanatory and, according to the statement, comprised its own defense.
Clement Greenberg is considered the foremost formalist critic of the mid-twentieth century and, like Rothko and company, he believed that any analysis that searched for a deeper meaning of context or subject matter in abstract art went against the ethos of formal art theory. Greenberg was a formalist because he analyzed art based solely on the elemental truths of the artwork. A line is a line and a square is a square; the only important truth when considering these elements was the visual impact they had on the viewer.
Formalism and Media Purity
Much as Greenberg's formalism was an examination of an artist's ability to visually balance the elemental forms on the canvas, it was also a judgment of that painting's purity of medium and style. Greenberg soon concluded in his own writings that abstraction was the purest form of art because the abstract image was self-explanatory; it existed on its own merits and contained no hidden meaning. Greenberg also concluded early in his career that abstract art, unlike many of its stylistic predecessors such as Impressionism and Fauvism, did not blur the boundaries between various art forms. By this, he meant that certain forms could employ elements of other styles, but there was no confusing a work of pure abstraction as anything other than precisely what it was.
Critics who Defied Formalism
There were several critics and theorists during the era of Abstract Expressionism who adopted less formalist-based approaches to critiquing art. These critics included Harold Rosenberg, Thomas B. Hess, and Leo Steinberg. However, arguably no other critic challenged formalist art theory more than Robert Rosenblum. A prolific critic, professor, and curator for most of his life, Rosenblum rose to prominence following the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and proceeded to redefine the history of modern art by stretching the historical boundaries of modernism to include eighteenth-century Baroque and Neo-Classicism. By doing so, Rosenblum conveyed that all modern art forms were integrated into one large historical canon.
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By Clement Greenberg
Originally published in Partisan Review, 1955
In this career-defining essay, Greenberg discussed the works and careers of the various artists who fell into the category of Abstract Expressionism, including Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Arshille Gorky, and Adolph Gottlieb, pinpointing the specific figures and styles that informed each artist. For example, he wrote that, "Pollock had compiled hints from Picasso, Miró, Siqueiros, Orozco and Hofmann to create an allusive and altogether original vocabulary of Baroque shapes with which he twisted Cubist space to make it speak with his own vehemence."
Greenberg gave nearly the same treatment to each contemporary abstract artist, believing that in order to understand a painter's originality, one must understand how his painterly language evolved. These languages, according to Greenberg, stemmed from the art of Vasily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Francisco Goya, and many others, and by digesting all of these different artworks and styles, the Abstract Expressionists were able to boil the incongruous ingredients into a very basic and simple form of pure painting.
"In 1947 there was a great stride forward in general quality," wrote Greenberg. "Hofmann entered a new phase, and a different kind of phase, when he stopped painting on wood or fiberboard and began using canvas...But it was only in 1950 that 'abstract expressionism' jelled as a general manifestation. And only then did two of its henceforth conspicuous features, the huge canvas and the black and white oil, become ratified." Greenberg identified in this passage the final and critical stage when abstract artists did away with extraneous objects and resolved to use the most basic tools in their art.
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Formalism in Modern Art
| The Republic of Plato |
By Plato, Allan Bloom
| Framing Formalism: Riegl's Work |
By Richard Woodfield
| Art and Culture: Critical Essays |
By Clement Greenberg
| German Art History and Scientific Thought: Beyond Formalism |
By Mitchell Frank, Daniel Adler
| What Is Formalism? |
An eHow Presentation by Dr. Betty Ann Brown