The Important Artists and Works of Formalism in Modern Art

Progression of Art
James McNeill Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875)

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

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."

Oil on panel - The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

Paul Cézanne: Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904)

Mont Sainte-Victoire

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."

Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia


The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows

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."

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Piet Mondrian: Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921)

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue

Artist: Piet Mondrian

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

Jackson Pollock: Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (1950)

Autumn Rhythm: Number 30

Artist: Jackson Pollock

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

Jasper Johns: Flag (1954-55)


Artist: Jasper Johns

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


Soft Spoken

Artist: Josef Albers

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

Artist: Lucien Smith

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

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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]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 01 Sep 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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