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