Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Formalism in Modern Art Collage

Formalism in Modern Art

Started: 1905
Formalism in Modern Art Timeline
"Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miró, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors."
1 of 11
"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."
2 of 11
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."
3 of 11
Hans Hofmann Signature
"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."
4 of 11
Pablo Picasso Signature
"When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine."
5 of 11
Man Ray Signature
"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.' Working on a single plane as the instantaneously 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 the 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 its own medium."
6 of 11
Man Ray Signature
"Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music..."
7 of 11
James McNeill Whistler
"What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto's frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne? Only one answer seems possible - significant form. In each, lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions."
8 of 11
Clive Bell
"It is the mark of great art that its appeal is universal and eternal."
9 of 11
Clive Bell
"It would follow that 'significant form' was form behind which we catch a sense of ultimate reality."
10 of 11
Clive Bell
"Everything in Nature is modeled after the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder. One must learn to paint from these simple figures."
11 of 11
Paul Cézanne Signature

Summary of Formalism in Modern Art

Formalism is a critical and creative position which holds that an artwork's value lies in the relationships it establishes between different compositional elements such as color, line, and texture, which ought to be considered apart from all notions of subject-matter or context. Although the term primarily indicates a way of interpreting rather than making art, certain painters and sculptors, from Paul Cézanne to Jackson Pollock, have been associated with a Formalist approach. Originating in the mid-19th century, the ideas of formalism gained currency across the late nineteenth century with the rise of abstraction in painting, reaching new heights in the early 20th century with movements such as Cubism. During the mid-20th century, the North American critic Clement Greenberg defined a Formalist approach with unprecedented levels of detail and rigor. Since then, the term has been associated primarily with him, and with the artists he championed, such as the Abstract Expressionists.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The rise of Formalism as a critical approach is inseparable from the rise of abstraction in painting across the 19th century. As naturalistic detail receded from the canvas, so elementary compositional elements such as color relationship, shapes, and textures rose to prominence in the viewer's perception. This both paved the way for, and was heralded by, the emergence of critical approaches which championed "Formal" effects over and above figurative detail as key to artistic value.
  • In the hands of its most famous advocate, Clement Greenberg, Formalism came to stand for all that was intellectually sophisticated and forward-thinking in art, as opposed to what was kitsch and vulgar. For Greenberg, the aim of avant-garde art was to offer encoded analyses of the formal parameters of artistic expression itself, a subtle self-reflexivity that was only possible through the compositional play and daring of a Formalist approach.
  • Formalism has, throughout its history, been associated with a kind of political and ethical quietism, because of the assertion, so central to the school, that proper analysis of an artwork should be separated from all contextual consideration, and therefore all ideas of art as an agent of social change. This has occasionally led to an affinity between Formalism and the political right, which tends to preach acceptance of the social status quo. For example, Formalism in North America has been associated with the right-wing cultural journal The New Criterion.
  • Formalism, in spite of its history as a specific school of thought, is implicit in all engagement with art or literature, because what sets apart artistic expression from non-artistic is attention to the way that a subject is represented, whether in paint, sculpture, language, etcetera. As such, Formalism can be seen not only as a movement, but as an aspect or facet of all art criticism and appreciation.

Overview of Formalism in Modern Art

Formalism in Modern Art Photo

A pioneering work of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock's Mural (1943) exemplifies Formalism as defined by the critic Clement Greenberg, emphasizing formal elements such as color, line, and composition over and above subject matter. Formalism dominated the post-World War Two art world, but the idea has a longer history, and can still be sensed in contemporary artistic schools and styles.

Do Not Miss

  • Advocates for medium specificity demanded that each art concentrate on that which made it unique. In painting's case, it was its "flatness" that made it distinct.
  • 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.
  • Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
  • Modern Art is a period of art making that promoted the new and industrial world, free from derivation and historical references. And for the new to be possible, old ideas about art were often altogether abandoned, or deconstructed.

The Important Artists and Works of Formalism in Modern Art

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

Artist: James McNeill Whistler

This work depicts an evening firework display at London's Cremorne Gardens, as a rocket explodes, its sparks of color lighting up the darkness before falling into the river. The few figures on the shore in the foreground, and the shore itself, are almost ghostly, transparent. A product of Whistler's unique method of working with very liquid paint, this translucence of detail reflects his commitment to an art of evocative abstraction, departing from figurative accuracy. This painting was the last in a series of Whistler's nocturnes, landscapes that were important to both the Aesthetic movement and in launching Tonalism. Whistler described the works, exploring dark blue and green tonalities, as expressing "a dreamy, pensive mood." At the same time, the Nocturnes also reflect his view that emphasizing a painting's formal elements was more important than accurate representation.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket became 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" in 1877. Whistler's defense of the artwork became a de facto defense of modern art. As art critic James Jones writes, "Whistler performed brilliantly. In a Victorian court of law, he nonchalantly explained his idea of abstract art: 'Asked about the meaning of the word "Nocturne," reported the Times, "Mr. Whistler said that a picture was to him throughout a problem, which he attempted to solve ... "An Arrangement" was an arrangement of light, form and color'."

Clive Bell noted the importance of Whistler's stance and counted him among those "who made form a means to aesthetic emotion and not a means of stating facts and conveying ideas." As Whistler noted, "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."

Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904)

Artist: Paul Cézanne

This landscape depicts Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, a subject that Cézanne returned to again and again, as he created some thirty paintings and watercolors depicting the towering mountain. The valley that stretches out below is vibrant with irregular shapes of cool colors - rich green and blue - contrasting with sun-drenched yellows and other warm tones. The landscape is suggested rather than depicted, conventional representation replaced by an emphasis on formal elements.

Art historian René Huyghe wrote that "[i]n works such as these, [Cézanne] chose to rediscover a more substantial reality of simple forms behind the glimmering veil of appearances...At the same time, such pictures present shimmering harmonies of color that can be seen as totally flat designs, without depth." As the artist himself put it: "I do not want to reproduce nature. I want to re-create it." For him that meant depicting "nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone."

Cezanne's work had an enormous influence on the development of Formalism, partly thanks to the reception of his work amongst early-20th-century artists and critics. When curating Manet and the Post-Impressionists, a London exhibition in 1910, art critic Roger Fry wrote that Cézanne "showed how it was possible to pass from the complexity of the appearance of things to the geometrical simplicity which design demands." Clive Bell saw Cézanne's artworks as exemplifying the search for "significant form," and Cezanne became the primary influence upon Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in their development of Cubism. As Braque said, "In Cezanne's work we should see not only a new pictorial construction but also - too often forgotten - a new moral suggestion of space."

The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1916)

Artist: Man Ray

This work depicts a vaudeville tightrope dancer, her small grey and white figure picked out at the top of the painting, while the abstract pattern of large color planes beneath indicates the shadows of her movements. Resembling a collage, the painting was informed both by a series of preliminary experiments and by Ray's accidental discovery of the patterns his cutouts made when he discarded them on the floor. Abstract representations of the dancer's movements come to dominate the pictorial plane; formal effects become the object of primary focus.

In 1916 Man Ray exhibited ten works in The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters at the Anderson Galleries in New York. His statement included in the exhibition catalogue emphasized a Formalistic approach. He described painting as the process by which an artist realizes "his mind motives and physical sensations in a permanent and universal language of color, texture and form organization." That year he also published his Primer of the New Art of Two Dimension, described by art historian Francis M. Naumann as "a remarkably prescient Formalist theory."

As a native of the USA, Man Ray was significant in representing the interaction between European and North-American artists, by which the baton of Formalism was passed to US-based painters such as Jackson Pollock and critics such as Clement Greenberg during the mid-twentieth century. For Man Ray, "[t]he 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."

Useful Resources on Formalism in Modern Art

video clips
Do more

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Formalism in Modern Art Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
Available from:
First published on 01 Sep 2012. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]