Formalism in Modern Art Movement and Chronology

"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."

James McNeill Whistler

Key Characteristics of Formalist Art Theory

A painting's form is composed of its basic elements: color, line, composition, and texture. These elements constitute the fundamental language used by formalist art critics to examine and analyze works of art.
Whether an artwork is a pure abstraction or representational, a formalist looks for the same basic elements and judges a painting's value based on the artist's ability to achieve a cohesive balance in the composition.
If a painting is deemed deficient in value, it was because the artist had failed to create a visual balance of the formal painterly elements.
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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.

Most Important Essays


Key Points:

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.


Original content written by Justin Wolf
. [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org website. Available from:
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QUOTES

"Nature contains the elements, in color 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."
- James McNeill Whistler

"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-betweens of a 'subject.' Working on a single plane as the instantaneous visualizing factor, he realizes his mind motives and physical sensations in a permanent and universal language of color, texture, and form organization. He uncovers the pure plane of expression that has so long been hidden by the glazings of nature imitation, anecdote and other popular subjects. Accordingly the artist's work is to be measured by the vitality, the invention, and the definiteness and conviction of purpose within his own medium."
- Man Ray

"It has been in the search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at 'abstract' or 'nonobjective' art - and poetry, too...Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself."
- Clement Greenberg

"The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence."
- Clement Greenberg

"Color is a plastic means of creating intervals...color harmonics produced by special relationships, or tensions. We differentiate now between formal tensions and color tensions, just as we differentiate in music between counterpoint and harmony."
- Hans Hofmann

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Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fauvism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Man Ray
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Barnett Newman
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Adolph Gottlieb
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Thomas B. Hess
Thomas B. Hess
Thomas B. Hess was an art critic and historian, and a proponent of Abstract Expressionism. He served as editor of the influential magazine ART News.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Thomas B. Hess
Leo Steinberg
Leo Steinberg
Leo Steinberg is one the twentieth century's foremost historians and scholars on the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo and other Italian Renaissance artists. In addition to his scholarly work on Renaissance art, Steinberg is also a significant authority on twentieth-century modern art, including the paintings and sculptures of Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns's Flag series, and Willem de Kooning's Woman series.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Leo Steinberg
Robert Rosenblum
Robert Rosenblum
Robert Rosenblum was an American art critic, curator and historian. His greatest contribution to the modern canon was his redefinition of Modern art history, offering that the era began not with Impressionism but with Neo-Classicists of the late eighteenth century.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Rosenblum
Baroque
Baroque
Baroque art and architecture emerged in late sixteenth-century Europe after the Renaissance, and lasted into the eighteenth century. In contrast to the clarity and order of earlier art, it stressed theatrical atmosphere, dynamic flourishes, and myriad colors and textures.

Modern Art Information Baroque
Neo-Classicism
Neo-Classicism
Neo-Classicism encompasses several distinct movements in the arts and architecture during the mid-1700s to the late 1800s that drew specifically on ancient Western cultures for inspiration. Looking back to the arts of Greece and Rome for ideal models and forms, both human and structural, Neo-Classicism was a category for literature and music as well as the visual arts. Jacques-Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres were the most iconic French Neo-Classic painters.

Modern Art Information Neo-Classicism
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hans Hofmann
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Motherwell
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
David Alfaro Siqueiros
David Alfaro Siqueiros
Jose David Alfaro Siquieros was a Mexican social realist painter, an active member of the Mexican Communist Party, and one of three artists - along with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco - who gave rise to the Mexican Mural Renaissance in the early twentieth century. Siqueiros's large-scale fresco murals are defined by their anti-Fascist politics and near expressionistic aesthetic.

Modern Art Information David Alfaro Siqueiros
Jose Clemente Orozco
Jose Clemente Orozco
Jose Clemente Orozco was a Mexican social realist painter who is best known for his large-scale murals of human toil, suffering, and the industrial age.

Modern Art Information Jose Clemente Orozco
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Wassily Kandinsky
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Georges Braque
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Francisco Goya
Francisco Goya
Francisco Goya was an eighteenth-century Spanish painter, and is considered by many to be "the father of modern painting." Informed by the Baroque style and the Classicists, Goya's art bridged the gap between Realism and Romanticism, but also contained provocative elements such as nudes, war, and allegories of death. He is considered a major influence on the works of Manet and Picasso.

Modern Art Information Francisco Goya
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Title: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875)

Artist: James McNeill Whistler

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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."


Full Fathom Five
Full Fathom Five

Title: Full Fathom Five (1947)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork Description & Analysis: Full Fathom Five was among the first drip paintings Jackson Pollock completed. The pictures have invited numerous interpretations, many of which stress very different aspects of the paintings. For example, Harold Rosenberg focuses on process and technique - Pollock's encounter with the canvas. But for Clement Greenberg, the critic who was the painter's strongest advocate, the significance of his technique lay in its formal achievements. It managed to detach line from its traditional role of defined shapes and volumes, and it broke away from the rigid, shallow, demarcated space that had dominated painting since the advent of Cubism, replacing it with a loose, open web of space.


Flag
Flag

Title: Flag (1954-55)

Artist: Jasper Johns

Artwork Description & Analysis: Jasper Johns is often credited with paving the way for Pop art by re-introducing recognizable subject matter into art. But the importance of early pieces such as Flag lies equally in the way he created a careful balance between form and subject matter. This created a dilemma for formalist critics such as Clement Greenberg, since while they maintained that the seat of an artwork's value lay in its manipulation of form, Johns made it impossible to deny the importance of subject matter. Artists such as Mark Rothko insisted on the importance of subject matter, but the appearance of their work made it easy to ignore it; pictures like Flag made that impossible.


Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.