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Modern Art Theory - Non-Formalism

Definition of Non-Formalism
Unlike formalism, non-formalism has by its very nature no distinct definition. Best understood as an outright rejection of the practices of formalist art theory, non-formalism is concerned with various factors other than the artist's application of the formal elements. Non-formalist critics tend to focus on issues like the artist's personal beliefs and/or the context in which a work was produced. If there is one unifying belief among 20th-century non-formalist art critics, it is that art is an organic process in which the artist's emotional state is laid bare by the final product.

Emergence of Non-Formalism in the Modern Era
Several American art critics in the early-twentieth century were deeply influenced by Existentialism, a philosophical movement foreshadowed by 19th-century thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard and famously espoused by French writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus. Known as non-formalists, these art critics were preoccupied with the emotional experience of artistic creation, and they followed the Existentialists' lead in focusing on issues of authenticity, angst, alienation, absurdity, disgust, transformation, anxiety and freedom in the modern world.

In 1940, critic Harold Rosenberg launched a new phase of non-formalist artistic criticism with his essay "The Fall of Paris," in which he linked the cultural significance of modern art with the social and political climate of the times. By critiquing both art and artistic movements within a political and social frame, Rosenberg defied the formalist conception of art as an entity independent of any social condition. It is important to note, however, that Rosenberg did not attribute the meaning of abstract art to social conditions; on the contrary, he argued that the abstract image on the canvas has no meaning other than the artist's actions on the canvas itself.

Non-Formalism and Abstract Expressionism
Non-formalist criticism played a crucial role during the time of Abstract Expressionism, particularly regarding people's understanding of artists' personal motivations and emotions. Rosenberg and other non-formalists, such as Art News editor Thomas B. Hess and artist/critic Robert Motherwell, stressed the importance of subject matter and context in abstract painting, but the subject matter was often the painter himself. They considered actions, emotions, and personal instincts to be an artist's most important creative tools.

Major Non-Formalist Art Theorists of the 20th Century:

HAROLD ROSENBERG
Rosenberg's most notable contribution to art criticism was coining the term "Action Painting," first used in a 1955 essay for Partisan Review, to describe the process employed by painters like de Kooning and Motherwell. Their actions, according to Rosenberg, denoted an emotional relationship between artist and canvas, as if the painter were a performer on stage. Rosenberg argued that "A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist." This was perceived at the time as a revolutionary critical perspective.
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ROBERT MOTHERWELL
In the late 1940s, Motherwell joined forces with Rosenberg to publish the journal Possibilities, of which only a single issue was produced. Possibilities was designed to reject the formal school of art criticism and theory and provide an open forum in which writers and artists could explore "their own experience without seeking to transcend it in academic, group or political formulas." Motherwell was himself a staunch believer in both the power of an artist's unconscious actions on the canvas and in how those actions were inextricably linked to the conditions of modern times.
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THOMAS B. HESS
In addition to spending years at the helm of the influential Art News, Hess was a high-profile champion of multi and mixed-media art forms, which began to gain wide acclaim in the late 1950s and early '60s with styles such as Neo-Dada, "combines" and installation art. The very nature of multi and mixed-media art ran contrary to of the notion of medium purity, which was a theoretical staple of Greenbergian formalism. Hess also happened to be a staunch proponent (and collector) of Willem de Kooning's work, describing him as an "off-balance" artist who "insisted that everything is possible within the painting, which means [he] must devise a system for studying an infinitely variable number of probabilities."
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WILLEM DE KOONING
De Kooning's paintings inspired Harold Rosenberg's term "Action Painting," as did the works of Motherwell, Rothko and Kline to a somewhat lesser extent. It was de Kooning, in fact, whose theoretical ideas and personal approach to painting influenced Rosenberg to abandon Marxism and embrace existentialist theory. De Kooning's non-formalism is summed up by his 1951 MoMA symposium address "What Abstract Art Means to Me," in which he commented that "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity." De Kooning viewed the artistic process as one in which the artist must maintain a certain level of personal discomfort and conflict.
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DORE ASHTON
Ashton distanced herself from formalist art theory by arguing that the Abstract Expressionists were philosophically unmoored artists who had, by their own actions, freed themselves from all theoretical schools of art. Thus liberated, Ashton argued, there are no limits to what an artist can achieve. Ashton considered the evolution of Abstract Expressionism to be the result of restless minds and brushes such as those of de Kooning, who, according to Ashton, cast "the artist in a role of openness, of restlessness, of spiritual independence..an attitude that was to sustain the artists in New York for some years to come."
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ROBERT ROSENBLUM
Rosenblum was one of the more outspoken anti-formalist art critics and teachers of his day. Of all his contributions, arguably the most significant was his serving as curator for several exhibitions of modern art that attempted to redefine the modern canon. For example, he placed works of Impressionism alongside pieces by academic painters from the French Salon and staged an exhibition of Normal Rockwell paintings at the Guggenheim. He also maintained that modern art was comprised not of a sequence of styles, but rather of any and all art forms that dared to experiment with perspective and objectivity.
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JOHN RUSSELL
Russell greatly admired those artists of the 1950s and 60s who seemed to invite the surrounding world into their art. One staple of formalist theory and artistic practice was that art began and ended in the studio, so it was crucial for the artist to block out any outside factors in order to ensure the work's purity. Russell deplored this idea. While he shared Rosenberg's affection for "Action Painting" and believed the human unconscious was a profound artistic tool, Russell saw New York City itself as the most powerful artistic inspiration of all, arguing that the urban landscape was an integral element in art from The New York School.
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