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Modern Art Theory - Formalism

Definition of Formalism
Formalism is a particular mode of art criticism and theory according to which all visual art has an intrinsic value. This value is determined by the artist's ability to achieve an aesthetic order and balance of certain elemental truths within a painting. These elemental truths are the painting's use of color, line, composition and texture. No matter how much artistic style and taste may change over time, formalism holds that these truths are constant.
Further information on Formalism

Emergence of Formalism in the Modern Era
Formalist art criticism in the modern era arguably began with English critic John Ruskin, who in 1843 contended that contemporary landscape paintings, like those by J.M.W. Turner, were technically and aesthetically superior to art from the Renaissance era.

Formalist art theory was advanced by another English critic, Clive Bell, who in 1914 published his theory of "significant form." Bell's central claim was that one's "aesthetic experience" of an artwork is determined not by the work's historical context or the artist's intentions, but rather by the artist's ability to use the formal elements to create a product that is balanced and aesthetically pleasing. In other words, what a painting represents is completely irrelevant to its aesthetic value.

Formalism in Abstract Expressionism
In 1939, Marxist art critic Clement Greenberg began publishing essays in and editing for the leftist journal Partisan Review. Influenced by the art and teachings of Hans Hofmann, Greenberg's formalism held that modern abstract painting was the purest and most advanced artistic style in all of human history. With his seminal 1939 essay, "The Avant-Garde and Kitsch," art theory in the era of Abstract Expressionism had unofficially begun.

Major Formalist Art Theorists of the 20th Century:

CLEMENT GREENBERG
Greenberg eventually abandoned his Marxist leanings in the late 1940s in favor of formalism. Early in his career, Greenberg had championed the art of Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still, but he ultimately admired the work of Jackson Pollock above all. Pollock's style was, according to Greenberg, pure abstraction that, "beneath the apparent monotony of [the] surface composition..reveals a sumptuous variety of design and incident." Greenberg viewed such painterly elements as exciting and utterly original. He once famously wrote, "All profoundly original art looks ugly at first." Contained within this complex statement was Greenberg's core belief that Abstract Expressionism - or what he called "American-Type" Painting - was not only the purest art medium, but also the most aesthetically advanced in all of art history because its practitioners had created new ways to communicate the formal elements of painting on the canvas.
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HANS HOFMANN
Hofmann was the quintessential formalist artist and teacher. Although his most celebrated artwork consisted of pure abstractions, Hofmann expressed no preference for any particular medium, so long as the artist was absorbed in his or her own work. In Hofmann's view, the determining factor of an artwork's value was what he called "push/pull," that is, the tension that occurs between oppositional forms on the canvas, resulting in a positive charge within a negative space.
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MEYER SCHAPIRO
Schapiro was a formally-trained critic and art historian in the Marxist tradition. He was particularly influenced by Alois Riegl's theory of Kunstwollen("will to art"), which states that any society's willingness to create art stems from its understanding of the world around it. As a Marxist, Schapiro believed that art and the material conditions of society were inexorably interconnected, yet he greatly admired Abstract Expressionist art for being culturally relevant in the modern era without advocating for any politics or ideology.
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BARNETT NEWMAN
Newman asserted that pure art is "antianecdotal" in that it avoids telling a story and introducing any context. A painting's true meaning, according to Newman, should be self-explanatory. This formalist approach to art, in which the purity of abstraction is the subject of the work itself, goes to the heart of Abstract Expressionistic philosophy. Newman saw such art as a return to basics, an exercise in evoking pure, almost primeval human emotion and instinct, wherein elemental forms of color, shape and composition communicate a universal language.
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MICHAEL FRIED
A disciple of Clement Greenberg, Fried was a formalist and purist who paradoxically maintained that there was nothing binding in the value judgments of formal criticism. The value of art, he said, was ultimately determined by one's emotional response to it. Fried's core philosophy concerned what he called "art and objecthood." He maintained that art consists of pure and autonomous forms, unaffected by any outside forces, while objecthood is essentially the opposite of art, wherein non-art forms render an artwork impure by drawing our attention to the object rather than the artwork itself.
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ROSALIND KRAUSS
Much like Fried, Krauss began as a formalist critic and disciple of Greenberg, but she slowly moved away from this school once Abstract Expressionism gave way to new styles. Early in her career, Krauss maintained that the only artistic qualities worth noting were the forms present on the canvas; to read any further into a painting amounted to an unnecessary search for hidden meaning, an outdated way of viewing and appreciating art.
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AD REINHARDT
Reinhardt's greatest theoretical contributions were his series of "How to Look at Art" illustrations for PM magazine. Many of these illustrations were highly detailed historical maps of modern art's evolution, grouping specific artists not so much into stylistic movements as into categories of technique and form. Reinhardt himself was a highly technical artist, creating stunningly minimalist abstractions that some have called "imageless" in which swathes of pure color cover the canvas. His formalism is evident in his use of precise layers of color and shape, enabling light to bring out the paintings' hidden elemental forms.