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
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.
The Important Artists and Works of Formalism in Modern Art
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
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."
Oil on panel - The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
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."
Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows
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."
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue
Varying blocks of primary colors offset against blacks and whites create the rhythm of this abstract artwork. By the 1920s, Mondrian had begun to create his signature work, in an instantly recognizable style often emulated by subsequent designers, architects, and artists. As artist John Goodrich put it, a Mondrian painting created "an arena of minutely adjusted intervals. It shows, as directly as possible, the way colors - retiring, interruptive, elusive, arresting - multiply every impulse of drawing, deflecting or accelerating their rhythms.... Colors condition the relationships of lines, and vice versa, in a climactic rhythm of tensions."
This work exemplifies Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism, an avant-garde movement closely associated with Formalism, that used basic formal elements such as color and line to convey the spiritual harmony underlying reality. The juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines and the use of primary colors along with blacks, whites, and greys were meant to suggest the opposing metaphysical forces structuring reality. As Mondrian said, "[a]t the moment, there is no need for art to create a reality of imagination based on appearances, events, or traditions. Art should not follow the intuitions relating to our life in time, but only those intuitions relating to true reality."
Greenberg acknowledged Mondrian's work as a key example of Formalism, and saw it as standing apart from the artist's philosophical pontifications: "Mondrian's painting, however, takes its place beside the greatest art through virtues not involved in his metaphysics. His pictures, with their white grounds, straight black lines, and opposed rectangles of pure color, are no longer windows in the wall but islands radiating clarity, harmony, and grandeur - passion mastered and cooled, a difficult struggle resolved, unity imposed on diversity. Space outside them is transformed by their presence." The strict geometry of Mondrian's work influenced subsequent generations of Formalist-aligned artists such as Bridget Riley and Ellsworth Kelly, and architects including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Oil on canvas - Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague
Autumn Rhythm: Number 30
Number 30 is among the most famous of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, which he began creating in 1947. He made such works by placing the canvas on his studio floor, pouring household paints onto the canvas, and then using brushes and other implements to fling and drip the paint. As a result, his artistic process attracted as much public and critical interest as his finished artworks; the photographer Hans Namuth spent several months documenting Pollock's method, including the creation of this particular piece.
Originally the work was titled Number 30, as Pollock felt the use of numbers prevented any kind of implied meaning. However, in 1955, it was renamed Autumn Rhythm: some art historians believe the new title was Clement Greenberg's suggestion.
Pollock's pictures have invited numerous interpretations, each critic stressing very different aspects of the artwork and/or its creation. Harold Rosenberg, for example, focused on process and technique: Pollock's dynamic encounter with the canvas, which he called action painting. But for Clement Greenberg, the painter's strongest advocate, the significance of his technique lay in its formal achievements. Pollock managed to detach line from its traditional role of defining shape and volume, inaugurating a new kind of painting, which he described as "'decentralized,' 'polyphonic,' all-over...with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeat[ing] itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other."
Given Clement Greenberg's central role in defining Formalism within modern art, Pollock's drip paintings are perhaps the quintessential example of art created and interpreted on Formalist term. For Greenberg, Pollock's variant of Formalism corresponded to "something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other."
Enamel on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This work depicts the American flag, composed of combined panels and a collage of newspaper scraps, and painted with pigment and melted wax. Jasper Johns is often credited with paving the way for Pop Art by re-introducing recognizable subject matter into modern art at the height of the Abstract Expressionist era. But the importance of early pieces such as Flag lies equally in the way he created a careful balance between form and subject-matter. The depiction of a flag - a two-dimensional form, at least when laid on the ground - mischievously emphasizes the flatness of the pictorial plane while at the same time introducing a recognizable subject matter with many contextual and narrative associations, playfully subverting Formalism's emphasis on non-figuration.
Works such as Flag created a dilemma for Formalist critics such as Clement Greenberg, since, while they maintained that the core of an artwork's value lay in its manipulation of form, Johns made it impossible to deny the presence of subject-matter in a work created on Formalist terms. Ironically as critic John Yau noted, Greenberg inadvertently paved the way for the subversion of Formalist principles by Johns and other artists through his insistence that art should express what he called "the real and material plane." Although this was intended to signify a plane of unfettered Formalist composition, without the intrusion of external context, "this insistence led directly to the literalism of Minimalism and to the literalist readings of Pop Art, particularly the 'flag' paintings of Jasper Johns."
Yau notes that, "[a]lthough Greenberg rejected Johns's paintings, his followers did not, in part because they saw in Johns a way to distinguish their viewpoint from Greenberg's while adhering to his model of historical progress." Along with his collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, Johns also played a pioneering role in the development of Neo-Dada, a movement that, challenging medium-specificity and abstraction, heralded the decline of Formalism's dominance.
Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Here four squares in teal blue, light and dark green, and dark purple, are arranged in diminishing sizes, asymmetrically placed low in the pictorial frame. Albers began his Homage to the Square series in 1949; this late work in the sequence indicates his ongoing commitment to the formal exploration of color through the addition of a fourth square, and his extreme restriction of color palette, using four variations on blue.
Committed to abstraction, Albers experimented with color juxtapositions almost scientifically as a way of creating differently inflected forms of pictorial space. In the 1920s, as a leading teacher and artist of the Bauhaus, Albers played an important role in the development of Constructivism and its subsequent development in Concrete Art, both of which were centrally concerned with abstract formal effects. He was to play an equally important role in shaping North American art after he fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Arriving at the Black Mountain School in North Carolina, he famously expressed his artistic intentions by saying in his limited English, "I want to open eyes." His book Interaction of Color (1963) was widely influential, and his sober Formalism, exploring chromatic interactions and geometric abstraction, influenced developments in Color Field Painting and Minimalism. Teaching and painting until his death in 1976, Albers influenced new generations of artists, including Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg, Eva Hesse, and Cy Twombly.
One of the most striking aspects of Albers's variant of Formalism was his sense that formal experiment could have an ethical and culturally progressive value. As contemporary art historian Eva Díaz notes, "Albers [found] in form an ethics of perception which he developed in theories of progressive pedagogy concerning experimentation and social change.... He maintained that learning to observe and design form made an essential contribution toward cultural transformation and growth."
Oil on Masonite - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Spray-painted with innumerable small dots of paint, this painting exemplifies the trend of contemporary Formalism that was subsequently dubbed "Zombie Formalism." resembling rain or mist from a distance, the small dots of paint are revealed to be spatters when viewed up close, each one a tiny explosion trailing speckled threads. Contemporary Formalism often emphasized the painting process, with artists using unique methods to set their abstractions apart. This painting was part of Smith's series Rain Paintings (2011), which he made by using fire extinguishers to spray paint. As he described: "Growing up in New York City, I was very aware that graffiti artists were using these outdated fire extinguishers - not the ones that spray powder but the ones that spray water. You fill them with paint and then I just started experimenting with that tool. There's a lot of different variables that come into play when making those paintings: the distance you are away from the canvas, the viscosity, the 3-to-1 ratio of paint, what kind of paint you use, how soluble the paint is. Once I'd figured out that process it was really just waving a wand."
Smith made his series while studying art at Cooper Union School of Art. After graduation, the sale of his work became the leading example of a new kind of art investment. As art critic Luka Terihaj puts it, Smith "had the art world transfixed on his every move after a 'meteoric rise' in 2013. His process-based artwork earned him 'critical darling' status amongst the industry's elite with the likes of The New York Times and Vogue dubbing him 'the art world wunderkind'."
However, this phenomenon was short-lived; as art critic Henri Neuendorf noted: "Smith saw two more years of rampant speculation before his auction prices fell, just as quickly as they rose. In 2019, the average sale price for Smith's work at auction was just $22,992, according to the Artnet Price Database." In 2015 Smith decided to go independent, leaving his studios and New York City and working with a non-profit, Serving the People, focused on creative inquiry. More recently he has launched an artistic comeback. In 2020 he held his first solo exhibition at Parrish Museum in Long Island, stating that "[w]hat I would love to achieve from this is to give artists a little more power. A lot of artists think they need to put their careers in the hands of curators and dealers and gallerists to be taken seriously. But I don't necessarily think that is the case all of the time."
Acrylic on primed canvas - Private Collection
“L'art pour l'art”
The development of Formalism was informed by the doctrine of "l'art pour l'art" ("art for art's sake"), first used by Victor Cousin, a French philosopher, during the early 1800s. Subsequently, the French novelist Théophile Gautier used the phrase to describe his novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835); by the mid-1800s, a number of literary and visual artists were promoting the idea that art existed solely for its own sake, and should not serve any social or moral purpose.
The artist James McNeill Whistler said that "art should be independent of all claptrap - should stand alone." As a leading figure of both the Aesthetic movement and Tonalism, Whistler's "nocturnes", such as Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-75), became influential exemplars of a Formalist approach. Critic Clive Bell would later describe Whistler as being among those "who made form a means to aesthetic emotion and not a means of stating facts and conveying ideas."
The Emergence of Critical Formalism
Formalism as a critical approach - rather than as a mantra amongst artists - began to emerge during the late 1800s, particularly in response to Post-Impressionism. This shift was informed by philosophy as much as by the pronouncements of artists. The philosopher Hippolyte Taine, for example, in his The Philosophy of Art (1865), described a painting as "a colored surface, in which the various tones and various degrees of light are placed with a certain choice; that is its intimate being." The Post-Impressionist Maurice Denis, in his "Definition of Neo-Traditionalism" (1890), stated that "a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order." Denis's much quoted text became foundational to the early emergence of critical Formalism, though in some respects its remit was narrow, merely acknowledging the flatness of the picture plane at a time when artists such as Paul Cézanne had already developed radical new approaches based on that concept.
The critic Alois Riegl was also important in establishing Formalism as a critical tradition, as well as establishing art history as discipline. In works such as his Spätrömische Kunstindustrie ("Late Roman Art Industry") (1901), Riegl developed the concept of a Kunstwollen, or a cultural or period style, unified by certain common stylistic traits. Riegl's writing influenced a number of later 20th century scholars such as Walter Benjamin, Erwin Panofsky, and Otto Rank.
Clive Bell and Roger Fry
Members of the innovative Bloomsbury group, Clive Bell and Roger Fry both helped to pioneer and develop the theory of Formalism in the early 20th century. As an artist and a critic, Fry was influenced by Paul Cézanne; as a curator, he played a leading role in introducing Post-impressionism to Anglophone audiences. His exhibition "Manet and the Post-Impressionists", which opened in London in 1910, included works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin.
In the exhibition brochure, Fry wrote of "the revolution that Cézanne has inaugurated...His paintings aim not at illusion or abstraction, but at reality." According to art historian Elizabeth Berkowitz, the show was "visited by about 25,000 individuals over the course of two months [and] was also a commercial success." Fry's exhibition also gave Post-Impressionism its name; Fry went on to promote a number of now canonical painters including Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Léger, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Miró.
Fry's interest in Post-Impressionism and Cubism reflected a passion for artistic stylistic which emphasized formal effects over figurative or narrative value. According to art critic Michael Fried, the "core of [Fry's] so-called formalist esthetics [was] the conviction that all persons capable of experiencing esthetic emotion in front of paintings...are responding when they do so to relations of pure form - roughly, of ideated volumes in relation both to one another and to the surface and shape of the canvas - rather than to whatever dramatic expressiveness the work in question may be held to possess."
Fry's views were compatible with those of the critic Clive Bell, who would become the most influential voice in establishing Formalist theory. His pioneering work Art (1914) argued for what he called "significant form," posing the question: "[w]hat 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."
For Bell, Paul Cézanne's works exemplified the idea of "significant form." He called the artist "the Christopher Columbus of a new continent of form," and further advocated for the importance of his work in Since Cézanne (1922). Bell dismissed what he called "Descriptive Painting," declaring that, while "portraits of psychological and historical value, topographical works, pictures that tell stories" interested us, they were "not works of art. They leave untouched our aesthetic emotions." In contrast Bell wrote, "Cézanne set himself to create forms that would express the emotion that he felt for what he had learnt to see...Everything can be seen as pure form, and behind pure form lurks the mysterious significance that thrills to ecstasy. The rest of Cézanne's life is a continuous effort to capture and express the significance of form."
The Emergence of Abstraction
Formalism's emphasis upon the composition of formal elements paralleled and furthered the rise of abstraction. The connection could be seen as early as the near-abstraction of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) or Cezanne's final landscapes. Building upon Cezanne's emphasis upon "the cylinder, sphere and the cone" as the visual components of the natural world, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque developed Cubism's multiple perspectives and fractured forms. In Du Cubisme (1912), Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, the leaders of Salon Cubism, wrote that Cézanne's work "proves without doubt that painting is not - or not any longer - the art of imitating an object by lines and colors, but of giving plastic [solid, but alterable] form to our nature."
In 1913, Kazimir Malevich developed the principles of Suprematism, an abstract art composed of a limited number of geometric forms. As he later recalled, "[i]n the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square." David Bomberg, a pioneer of abstraction in Britain, described his work on similar lines: "I appeal to a sense of form - where I use naturalistic form I have stripped it of all irrelevant matter...My object is the construction of Pure Form." His works, such as The Mud Bath (1914), depicted the human figure as a geometric shape, a process which he described as "searching for an intenser expression."
The Expressiveness of Form
Man Ray, the USA-born Dadaist and Surrealist, issued a statement in 1916 for The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters at the Anderson Galleries in New York. Including work by sixteen American painters, such as Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, Thomas Hart Benton and Marsden Hartley, the exhibition was meant to advance the idea of a North-American tradition of avant-garde art, building on the momentum of the famous Armory Show of 1913. Man Ray wrote that: "[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." The artist, meanwhile, "is concerned solely with linking these absolute qualities directly to his wit, imagination, and experience, without the go-between of a 'subject.'"
In 1916 Man Ray also privately published A Primer of the New Art of Two Dimensions. His treatise failed to find a following and Man Ray was to become best known for his subsequent Dada and Surrealist works, and as a photographer. However, as art historian Francis M. Naumann wrote, the primer presented "the basic tenets of a remarkably prescient Formalist theory, one that contains the seeds of a critical approach that would not be fully explored in American art for some forty years, not until the so-called second generation of Formalist critics applied their analysis to the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and 1950s. The three basic tenets of Formalism espoused by these critics can be summarized as follows: (1) primary interest in the structural order of a work of art; (2) purity of the medium; and (3) integrity of the picture plane. All three of these concerns are either directly stated or implied in Man Ray's writings."
In the 1940s, Clement Greenberg defined and promoted the key concepts of Formalism to such a degree that his name became synonymous with the term. According to the poet and critic John Yau, "with his 1939 essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' Greenberg began to develop his brand of Formalist theory regarding innovative modern art...[He] made three points. First, Modernism is defined by self-criticality...Second...advanced painting clarifies its essential uniqueness as a two dimensional, flat surface...Third, abstraction is more advanced than representational art."
Many of Greenberg's subsequent essays, including "Towards a New Laocoon" (1940), "'American Type' Painting" (1959), and "Modernist Painting" (1960) became keystones of Formalism. Each essay developed a further tenet of the school. For instance, "'American Type' Painting" (1959) advanced the works of the Abstract Expressionists, including Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, and Adolph Gottlieb, pinpointing the specific figures and styles that informed each artist. By discussing how each artist's painterly language evolved, Greenberg was able to indicate how Abstract Expressionism exemplified purity of form and purpose in painting.
In "Modernist Painting" (1960), Greenberg fully defined his concepts of flatness and medium-specificity, and described how Modernism, in his words, "used art to call attention to art." He defined medium-specificity as "the unique and proper area of competence of each art...all that was unique in the nature of its medium." He defined painting's unique qualities as "the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment." In Greenberg's view "Manet's became the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted."
Artists and Formalism
As Clement Greenberg's Formalism became a dominant force in the 1940s, the leading Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, wrote a letter in The New York Times, which stated: "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." The two artists essentially believed that any attempt to deconstruct and subsequently explain an abstract work of art was to strip it of its intrinsic value. The ultimate meaning of an abstract artwork was to be found in its shapes, colors, and lines, and through the acceptance that, according to Rothko, "art is an adventure into an unknown world." Yet, at the same time, Rothko and Gottlieb also felt that a traditional classical subject, taken from Greek myth, could be expressed through that elemental form and abstract composition. As they noted, "[w]e favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."
“School of Greenberg”
As John Yau notes, "Greenberg's Formalist theory was understandably attractive to younger critics and art historians because he seemed to be turning art history into a scientific method...In doing so, he is claiming to be objective rather than subjective." Greenberg's influence is borne out in the writing of a number of younger critics, sometimes called the "School of Greenberg," who rose the prominence during the 1960s-80s, including Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss. According to the critic Michael Schreyach, "the years spanning the publication of Clement Greenberg's 'Towards a Newer Laocoon' in 1940 to Fried's 'Art and Objecthood' in 1967 witnessed the consolidation of Formalist criticism as the most intellectually exacting - and institutionally powerful - framework for understanding modernist art in the United States."
Michael Fried became a leading proponent of Formalism, arguing in "Art and Objecthood" (1967) against what he called the "theatricality" of Minimalism. Influenced by Greenberg, he extended Formalist theory in advocating for the paintings of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, and for the sculptures of David Smith and Anthony Caro.
Fried has continued to defend and promote the tenets of Formalism, as in his 2001 lecture "Roger Fry's Formalism," which reconsidered Fry's approach in conjunction with Greenberg's. As Fried put it, "[o]ne may deplore the fact that critics such as Fry and Greenberg concentrate their attention upon the formal characteristics of the works they discuss; but the painters whose work they most esteem on formal grounds - e.g. Manet, the Impressionists, Seurat, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Léger, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miró - are among the finest painters of the past hundred years."
By contrast, other proponents of Greenbergian Formalism, such as Krauss and Barbara Rose, were to move away from the limitations of Greenberg's approach later in their careers. As the art historian Donald Barton Kuspit notes, "[d]espite her adoption of Greenberg's focus on the object and its material qualities, [Krauss] repudiated Greenberg's Formalism for its lack of 'method,' in contrast to her own use of theoretical models."
Critics who Defied Formalism
Several critics during the era of Abstract Expressionism challenged Greenberg's Formalism. A leading rival, Harold Rosenberg, developed the term "action paintings" to describe Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, while arguing that "[f]ormal criticism has consistently buried the emotional, moral, social and metaphysical content of modern art under blueprints of 'achievements' in handling line, color, and form." Greenberg responded by characterizing Rosenberg's approach as involving "perversions and abortions of discourse: pseudo-description, pseudo-narrative, pseudo-exposition, pseudo-history, pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-psychology, and - worst of all - pseudo-poetry." Curator Norman Kleeblatt has called the rivalry between the two men "the foundational dialectic of the era," adding that "many observers half a century ago viewed the opposed perspectives of Rosenberg and Greenberg as the only approaches to contemporary art...either a Formalist or an existentialist view."
While Leo Steinberg and Thomas B. Hess also raised challenges to Formalism, arguably no critic presented more consistent opposition to the school than Robert Rosenblum. Rising to prominence after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Rosenblum proceeded to redefine the history of modern art by stretching the historical boundaries of modernism to include 18th-century Baroque and Neoclassicism.
In his essay "The Abstract Sublime" (1961) Rosenblum redefined the Abstract Expressionists, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman as proponents of what he called the "Abstract Sublime," heirs to the Northern Romantic Tradition. "[T]hese four masters of the Abstract Sublime," Rosenblum proposed, "have rejected the Cubist tradition and replaced its geometric vocabulary and intellectual structure with a new kind of space created by flattened, spreading expanses of light, color and plane. Yet it should not be overlooked that this...is not only determined by formal needs, but also by emotional ones that...suddenly seem to correspond with a Romantic tradition of the irrational and the awesome as well as with a Romantic vocabulary of boundless energies and limitless spaces." This emphasis on the emotional content of the work was in stark and deliberate contrast to the Formalist credo.
Concepts and Trends
“Truth to Materials”
An emphasis on the materiality of an artwork, defined in terms of "truth to materials," was a central tenet of Formalism, as well as a key concept within 20th-century art in general. In 1934, the British sculptor Henry Moore wrote: "[e]very material has its own individual qualities ... Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh ... It should keep its hard tense stoniness."
This emphasis upon an artwork's materials had its origins in the 19th century. It informed the Arts and Crafts movement, among others, while the Victorian critic John Ruskin wrote that "[t]he workman has not done his duty, and is not working on safe principles, unless he ... honors the materials with which he is working ... If he is working in marble, he should insist upon and exhibit its transparency and solidity; if in iron, its strength and tenacity; if in gold, its ductility..."
Clement Greenberg extrapolated his famous concept of medium-specificity or medium "purity" from this wider Formalist principle. In his essay "Modernism" (1960) he argued that "to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art" was a central aim of modern art. Flatness was the defining formal element of the painting for Greenberg: "flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art...the only condition painting shared with no other art."
Ironically, while the concept of "truth to materials" informed the development of Formalism, it also profoundly informed the rise of Minimalism, which departed from Abstract Expressionism in its use of non-artistic and industrial materials and processes, probing the limits of the artwork as a 'composed' entity. Greenberg was to dismiss Minimalism as "Novelty," while Michael Fried in his "Art and Objecthood" argued against Minimalism's "theatricality."
Formalism and Philosophy
Formalism was influenced by a number of philosophical concepts and trends, particularly drawn from the Plato's concept of ideal forms, and from the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant's concept of "purposive form."
Using the word "eidos, "meaning "visible form," interchangeably with the word "idea," Plato argued that truth resided in a realm of perfect forms which utterly embodied the ideals which evoked those forms. By comparison, everyday objects were mere shadows mimicking the ideals; for example, a beautiful object was but an imitation of the ideal form of Beauty. In his 'allegory of the cave,' Plato described this concept by developing the metaphor of prisoners held in a cave since childhood. Their only experience of reality was the shadow of things moving on the wall before them, reflections cast by their own movements, lit up by the fire behind them. True knowledge meant leaving the cave and walking into the sunlight, a metaphor for entry into the realm of pure forms.
Clive Bell's Formalist theories echoed this relationship between the universal and the particular: he wrote that Paul Cézanne's work manifested "a sublime architecture haunted by that Universal which informs every Particular. He pushed further and further towards a complete revelation of the significance of form....His own pictures were for Cézanne nothing but rungs in a ladder...The whole of his later life was a climbing towards an ideal." This description of the particular or 'concrete' as 'rungs in a ladder' by which the artist climbed towards an ideal strongly evokes Plato's philosophical stance.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment (1790), argued that "the proper object of the pure judgment of taste" was "the delineations [in the] composition." As the contemporary philosopher Donald W. Crawford notes, "for Kant, form consists of the spatial...organization of elements: figure, shape, or delineation, adding that "[i]n the parts of the Critique of Judgment in which form is emphasized as the essential aspect of beauty, Kant is consistently a pure Formalist." Clive Bell's concept of "significant form" was influenced by Kant's concept of 'purposive form." Clement Greenberg also noted Kant's importance, noting that, "[b]ecause he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism, I conceive of Kant as, the first real Modernist."
Flatness and Medium-Specificity
In developing his theory of Formalism, Greenberg not only defined the elemental formal components of canvas painting, but also developed the interrelated concepts of flatness and medium-specificity. Flatness, or what Greenberg called painting's "literal two-dimensionality," was, he argued, "unique and exclusive to pictorial art...the only condition painting shared with no other art." He defined medium-specificity more generally as "the unique and proper area of competence of each art [that] coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium."
Greenberg felt that painting's medium-specificity, which was sometimes dubbed 'purity,' would eschew any attempt to suggest three-dimensional or sculptural form. As such, only an abstract painting, refusing three-dimensional illusion and therefore refusing context, narrative, or figuration, could obtain medium-specificity. 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. It was partly for this reason that Greenberg championed the work of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, pioneers of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting.
Though it has followed its own path of development, literary Formalism also emerged in the early 20th century, initially with the emergence of Russian Formalism. In 1914 in St. Petersburg, the OPOJAZ Society for the Study of Poetic Language was founded, emphasizing a 'scientific' or formal approach to poetic language and literary devices. As the scholar Victor Erlich wrote, the school "was intent upon delimiting literary scholarship from contiguous disciplines such as psychology, sociology, intellectual history, and...focused on the 'distinguishing features' of literature, on the artistic devices peculiar to imaginative writing."
While it was focused on language, the movement paralleled the development of Russian Futurism, an avant-garde art movement forged in literary circles. Though the Soviet Commissar for Education suppressed Russian Formalism in 1930, it became an important precursor to later Formalist literary approaches, including structuralism and post-structuralism. According to the literary scholar Douwe Fokkema, "[almost] every new school of literary theorists in Europe takes its cue from the 'Formalist' tradition, emphasizing different trends in that tradition and trying to establish its own interpretation of Formalism as the only correct one."
The influence of formalism began to decline by the 1960s, as movements inimical to its methods, such as Pop Art, Minimalism, Neo-Dada, and Performance Art, emerged as dominant forces. Moreover, according to Michael Schreyach, "for some post-Abstract Expressionist artists, the modernism endorsed by Greenberg and Fried seemed limited and limiting... Consequently there emerged various artistic practices and theoretical frame-works... rejecting Formalist autonomy and...reconnecting artistic practice to the social and political dimensions of 'everyday life'." According to Donald Barton Kuspit, "[b]y the end of the 20th century, Hilton Kramer, former art critic for The New York Times and editor of the conservative periodical The New Criterion, remained the one major convinced Greenbergian."
It is important to note, however, that Formalism continued to inform almost all critical approaches to modern art across the 20th century and will survive in the same way across the 21st, because it taps into such an elementary aspect of all artistic interpretation: the simple recognition that formal qualities such as the way lines and colors interact, the texture of paint or a sculpted surface, the way bodies or objects are arranged in conceptual or performance art, and so on and so on, are hugely significant to the meaning of an artwork Most modern art historians and scholars take up formal analysis as a vital method for analyzing and understanding artworks, but their formal analyses is generally framed by an awareness of cultural or historical context, making it distinct from Formalism.
Morevoer, in the 21st century, a more strictly defined Formalist approach continues to spark interest. According to art historian David E. W. Fenner, the philosopher Nick Zangwill "has done more than any person recently to resuscitate aesthetic Formalism" notably through his 2001 text The Metaphysics of Beauty. Zangwill has outlined his position as a defense of "moderate Formalism," which he further describes as "determined solely by sensory or physical properties - so long as the physical properties in question are not relations to other things and other times." In Berlin in 2014, the JFK Institute for North American Studies held a panel on the Goals and Limits of Formalism. The accompany publication described "a renewed interest in Formalism as a self-critical theory, one that is not only attentive to its own historical development (going back further than 1940), but also alert to its possible methodological restrictions."
The most recent 'revival' of Formalism was dubbed "Zombie Formalism" by art critic Walter Robinson in 2014. Around 2011, a boom in the art market was fueled by an influx of collectors who were primarily interested in contemporary art as a way of turning a quick profit. More accurately dubbed "art flippers," these investors purchased the works of young artists, such as Lucien Smith and Jacob Kassay, and then quickly "flipped," or resold, the works at art auctions. As art critic Chris Wiley wrote, the "polite, academic designation...was 'process-based abstract painting'...but it was Robinson's 'Zombie Formalism' moniker, with its built-in critique, that really stuck." Robinson explained his term: "'Formalism' because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting...and 'Zombie' because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg."
Within a few years the market collapsed, as art critic Tim Schneider describes: "[t]he most infamous example of this process was the trajectory of Lucien Smith's Hobbes, the Rain Man, and My Friend Barney/Under the Sycamore Tree (2011), an epic-scale landscape painting first sold for $10,000...then bought at auction...in 2013 for $389,000, and finally...reduced to unsellability two years later." A few artists, including Oscar Murillo, Tauba Auerbach, and Alex Israel, as Schneider noted, "survived the Zombie Formalist apocalypse to earn a long-term seat at the art world's table," but, in general, the movement and its decline made a new opening for art with sociopolitical concerns. The trend also continues to fuel questions about the value of art and the relationship of art institutions to art markets. As art critic Chris Wiley wrote in 2018, "[i]n an economic sense...zombie formalism was perhaps the biggest story of the past decade, transforming the art market and changing what it means to be a young artist. It's a story about art's fraught relationship to finance, and also, I want to argue, about the way debt has become subtly inextricable from discussions of contemporary aesthetics."