Formalism Art Essay Questions

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There has never been a time when art critics held more power than during the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Second World War, with the relocation of the world’s artistic epicenter from Paris to New York, a different kind of war was waged in the pages of magazines across the country. As part of the larger “culture wars” of the mid-century, art critics began to take on greater influence than they’d ever held before. For a time, two critics in particular—who began as friends, and remained in the same social circles for much of their lives—set the stakes of the debates surrounding the maturation of American art that would continue for decades. The ideas about art outlined by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg are still debated today, and the extent to which they were debated in the past has shaped entire movements of the arts. Below are ten works of criticism through which one can trace the mainstreaming of Clement Greenberg’s formalist theory, and how its dismantling led us into institutional critique and conceptual art today.



The American Action Painters

Harold Rosenberg

 Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950


Harold Rosenberg, a poet who came to art through his involvement with the Artist’s Union and the WPA, was introduced to Jean-Paul Sartre as the “first American existentialist.” Soon, Rosenberg became a contributor to Sartre’s publication in France, for which he first drafted his influential essay. However, when Sartre supported Soviet aggression against Korea, Rosenberg brought his essay to Elaine de Kooning, then the editor of ARTnews, who ran “The American Action Painters” in December, 1952.

RELATED: What Did Harold Rosenberg Do? An Introduction to the Champion of “Action Painting”

Rosenberg’s essay on the emerging school of American Painters omitted particular names—because they’d have been unfamiliar to its original French audience—but it was nonetheless extraordinarily influential for the burgeoning scene of post-WWII American artists. Jackson Pollock claimed to be the influence of “action painting,” despite Rosenberg’s rumored lack of respect for the artist because Pollock wasn’t particularly well-read. Influenced by Marxist theory and French existentialism, Rosenberg conceives of a painting as an “arena,” in which the artist acts upon, wrestles, or otherwise engages with the canvas, in what ultimately amounts to an expressive record of a struggle. “What was to go on the canvas,” Rosenberg wrote, “was not a picture but an event.”


Notable Quote

Weak mysticism, the “Christian Science” side of the new movement, tends … toward easy painting—never so many unearned masterpieces! Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will. When a tube of paint is squeezed by the Absolute, the result can only be a Success. The painter need keep himself on hand solely to collect the benefits of an endless series of strokes of luck. His gesture completes itself without arousing either an opposing movement within itself nor the desire in the artist to make the act more fully his own. Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper.



‘American-Type’ Painting

Clement Greenberg


Frank Stella, Untitled, 1967


Throughout the preceding decade, Clement Greenberg, also a former poet, had established a reputation as a leftist critic through his writings with The Partisan Review—a publication run by the John Reed Club, a New York City-centered organization affiliated with the American Communist Party—and his time as an art critic with The Nation. In 1955, The Partisan Review published Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in which the critic defined the now-ubiquitous term “abstract expressionism.”

RELATED: What Did Clement Greenberg Do? A Primer on the Powerful AbEx Theorist’s Key Ideas

In contrast to Rosenberg’s conception of painting as a performative act, Greenberg’s theory, influenced by Clive Bell and T. S. Eliot, was essentially a formal one—in fact, it eventually evolved into what would be called “formalism.” Greenberg argued that the evolution of painting was one of historical determinacy—that ever since the Renaissance, pictures moved toward flatness, and the painted line moved away from representation. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were two of the landmarks of this view. Pollock, who exhibited his drip paintings in 1951, freeing the line from figuration, was for Greenberg the pinnacle of American Modernism, the most important artist since Picasso. (Pollock’s paintings exhibited in 1954, with which he returned to semi-representational form, were regarded by Greenberg as a regression. This lead him to adopt Barnett Newman as his new poster-boy, despite the artist’s possessing vastly different ideas on the nature of painting. For one, Greenberg mostly ignored the Biblical titles of Newman’s paintings.)

Greenberg’s formalist theories were immensely influential over the subsequent decades. Artforum in particular grew into a locus for formalist discourse, which had the early effect of providing an aesthetic toolkit divorced from politic. Certain curators of the Museum of Modern Art, particularly William Rubin, Kirk Varnedoe, and to an extent Alfred Barr are credited for steering the museum in an essentially formalist direction. Some painters, such as Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland, had even been accused of illustrating Greenberg’s theories (and those of Michael Fried, a prominent Greenbergian disciple) in attempt to embody the theory, which was restrictive in its failure to account for narrative content, figuration, identity, politics, and more. In addition, Greenberg’s theories proved well-suited for a burgeoning art market, which found connoisseurship an easy sell. (As the writer Mary McCarthy said, “You can’t hang an event on your wall.”) In fact, the dominance of the term “abstract expressionism” over “action painting,” which seemed more applicable to Pollock and Willem de Kooning than any other members of the New York School, is emblematic of the influence of formalist discourse.


Notable Quote

The justification for the term, “abstract expressionist,” lies in the fact that most of the painters covered by it took their lead from German, Russian, or Jewish expressionism in breaking away from late Cubist abstract art. But they all started from French painting, for their fundamental sense of style from it, and still maintain some sort of continuity with it. Not least of all, they got from it their most vivid notion of an ambitious, major art, and of the general direction in which it had to go in their time.




Barbara Rose 

 Donald Judd, Galvanized Iron 17 January, 1973


Like many critics in the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Rose had clearly staked her allegiance to one camp or the other. She was, firmly, a formalist, and along with Fried and Rosalind Krauss is largely credited with expanding the theory beyond abstract expressionist painting. By 1965, however, Rose recognized a limitation of the theory as outlined by Greenberg—that it was reductionist and only capable of account for a certain style of painting, and not much at all in other mediums.

RELATED: The Intellectual Origins Of Minimalism

In “ABC Art,” published in Art in America where Rose was a contributing editor, Rose opens up formalism to encompass sculpture, which Greenberg was largely unable to account for. The simple idea that art moves toward flatness and abstraction leads, for Rose, into Minimalism, and “ABC Art” is often considered the first landmark essay on Minimalist art. By linking the Minimalist sculptures of artists like Donald Judd to the Russian supremacist paintings of Kasimir Malevich and readymades of Duchamp, she extends the determinist history that formalism relies on into sculpture and movements beyond abstract expressionism.


Notable Quote

I do not agree with critic Michael Fried’s view that Duchamp, at any rate, was a failed Cubist. Rather, the inevitability of a logical evolution toward a reductive art was obvious to them already. For Malevich, the poetic Slav, this realization forced a turning inward toward an inspirational mysticism, whereas for Duchamp, the rational Frenchman, it meant a fatigue so enervating that finally the wish to paint at all was killed. Both the yearnings of Malevich’s Slavic soul and the deductions of Duchamp’s rationalist mind led both men ultimately to reject and exclude from their work many of the most cherished premises of Western art in favor of an art stripped to its bare, irreducible minimum.



How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Philip Leider


Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969 


Despite the rhetorical tendency to suggest the social upheaval of the '60s ended with the actual decade, 1970 remained a year of unrest. And Artforum was still the locus of formalist criticism, which was proving increasingly unable to account for art that contributed to larger cultural movements, like Civil Rights, women’s liberation, anti-war protests, and more. (Tellingly, The Partisan Review, which birthed formalism, had by then distanced itself from its communist associations and, as an editorial body, was supportive of American Interventionism in Vietnam. Greenberg was a vocal hawk.) Subtitled “Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Utah,” the editor’s note to the September 1970 issue of Artforum, written by Philip Leider, ostensibly recounts a road trip undertaken with Richard Serra and Abbie Hoffman to see Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in the Nevada desert.

RELATED: A City of Art in the Desert: Behind Michael Heizer’s Monumental Visions for Nevada

However, the essay is also an account of an onsetting disillusion with formalism, which Leider found left him woefully unequipped to process the protests that had erupted surrounding an exhibition of prints by Paul Wunderlich at the Phoenix Gallery in Berkeley. Wunderlich’s depictions of nude women were shown concurrently to an exhibition of drawings sold to raise money for Vietnamese orphans. The juxtaposition of a canonical, patriarchal form of representation and liberal posturing, to which the protestors objected, showcased the limitations of a methodology that placed the aesthetic elements of a picture plane far above the actual world in which it existed. Less than a year later, Leider stepped down as editor-in-chief and Artforum began to lose its emphasis on late Modernism.


Notable Quote

I thought the women were probably with me—if they were, I was with them. I thought the women were picketing the show because it was reactionary art. To the women, [Piet] Mondrian must be a great revolutionary artist. Abstract art broke all of those chains thirty years ago! What is a Movement gallery showing dumb stuff like this for? But if it were just a matter of reactionary art, why would the women picket it? Why not? Women care as much about art as men do—maybe more. The question is, why weren’t the men right there with them?



Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Linda Nochlin

 Linda Nochlin teaches an art history class at Vassar in 1965


While Artforum, in its early history, had established a reputation as a generator for formalist theory, ARTnews had followed a decidedly more Rosenberg-ian course, emphasizing art as a practice for investigating the world. The January 1971 issue of the magazine was dedicated to “Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History” and included an iconoclastic essay by Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

RELATED: An Introduction to Feminist Art

Nochlin notes that it’s tempting to answer the question “why have there been no great women artists?” by listing examples of those overlooked by critical and institutional organizations (a labor that Nochlin admits has great merit). However, she notes, “by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications,” namely that women are intrinsically less capable of achieving artistic merit than men. Instead, Nochlin’s essay functions as a critique of art institutions, beginning with European salons, which were structured in such a way as to deter women from rising to the highest echelons. Nochlin’s essay is considered the beginning of modern feminist art history and a textbook example of institutional critique.


Notable Quote

There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s—and one can’t have it both ways—then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.
But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.



Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

Thomas McEvilley

 Exhibition view of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern


One of the many extrapolations of Nochlin’s essay is that contemporary museum institutions continue to reflect the gendered and racist biases of preceding centuries by reinforcing the supremacy of specific master artists. In a 1984 Artforum review, Thomas McEvilley, a classicist new to the world of contemporary art, made the case that the Museum of Modern Art in New York served as an exclusionary temple to certain high-minded Modernists—namely, Picasso, Matisse, and Pollock—who, in fact, took many of their innovations from native cultures.

RELATED: MoMA Curator Laura Hoptman on How to Tell a Good Painting From a “Bogus” Painting

In 1984, MoMA organized a blockbuster exhibition. Curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, both of whom were avowed formalists, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” collected works by European painters like Paul Gaugin and Picasso with cultural artifacts from Zaire, arctic communities, and elsewhere. McEvilley takes aim at the “the absolutist view of formalist Modernism” in which MoMA is rooted. He argues that the removal tribal artifacts from their contexts (for example, many were ritual items intended for ceremonies, not display) and placement of them, unattributed, near works by European artists, censors the cultural contributions of non-Western civilizations in deference to an idealized European genius.


Notable Quote

The fact that the primitive “looks like” the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counter view is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation. At one level this show undertakes precisely to coopt that question by answering it before it has really been asked, and by burying it under a mass of information.



Please Wait By the Coatroom

John Yau

 Wifredo Lam, The Jungle, 1943


Not content to let MoMA and the last vestiges of formalism off the hook yet, John Yau wrote in 1988 an essay on Wifredo Lam, a Cuban painter who lived and worked in Paris among Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque, and others. Noting Lam’s many influences—his Afro-Cuban mother, Chinese father, and Yoruba godmother—Yau laments the placement of Lam’s The Jungle near the coatroom in the Museum of Modern Art, as opposed to within the Modernist galleries several floors above. The painting was accompanied by a brief entry written by former curator William Rubin, who, Yau argues, adopted Greenberg’s theories because they endowed him with “a connoisseur’s lens with which one can scan all art.”

RELATED: From Cuba With Love: Artist Bill Claps on the Island’s DIY Art Scene

Here, as with with McEvilley’s essay, Yau illustrates how formalism, as adapted by museum institutions, became a (perhaps unintentional) method for reinforcing the exclusionary framework that Nochlin argued excluded women and black artists for centuries.


Notable Quote

Rubin sees in Lam only what is in his own eyes: colorless or white artists. For Lam to have achieved the status of unique individual, he would have had to successfully adapt to the conditions of imprisonment (the aesthetic standards of a fixed tradition) Rubin and others both construct and watch over. To enter this prison, which takes the alluring form of museums, art history textbooks, galleries, and magazines, an individual must suppress his cultural differences and become a colorless ghost. The bind every hybrid American artist finds themselves in is this: should they try and deal with the constantly changing polymorphous conditions effecting identity, tradition, and reality? Or should they assimilate into the mainstream art world by focusing on approved-of aesthetic issues? Lam’s response to this bind sets an important precedent. Instead of assimilating, Lam infiltrates the syntactical rules of “the exploiters” with his own specific language. He becomes, as he says, “a Trojan horse.”



Black Culture and Postmodernism

Cornel West


Cornel West


The opening up of cultural discourse did not mean that it immediately made room for voices of all dimensions. Cornel West notes as much in his 1989 essay “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” in which he argues that postmodernism, much like Modernism before it, remains primarily ahistorical, which makes it difficult for “oppressed peoples to exercise their opposition to hierarchies of power.” West’s position is that the proliferation of theory and criticism that accompanied the rise of postmodernism provided mechanisms by which black culture could “be conversant with and, to a degree, participants in the debate.” Without their voices, postmodernism would remain yet another exclusionary movements.

RELATED: Kerry James Marshall on Painting Blackness as a Noun Vs. Verb


Notable Quote

As the consumption cycle of advanced multinational corporate capitalism was sped up in order to sustain the production of luxury goods, cultural production became more and more mass-commodity production. The stress here is not simply on the new and fashionable but also on the exotic and primitive. Black cultural products have historically served as a major source for European and Euro-American exotic interests—interests that issue from a healthy critique of the mechanistic, puritanical, utilitarian, and productivity aspects of modern life.



Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power

Anna C. Chave

 Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981


In recent years, formalist analysis has been deployed as a single tool within a more varied approach to art. Its methodology—that of analyzing a picture as an isolated phenomena—remains prevalent, and has its uses. Yet, many of the works and movements that rose to prominence under formalist critics and curators, in no small part because of their institutional acceptance, have since become part of the rearguard rather than the vanguard.

In a 1990 essay for Arts Magazine, Anna Chave analyzes how Minimalist sculpture possesses a “domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric” that was aligned with “both the American military in Vietnam, and the police at home in the streets and on university campuses across the country.” In particular, Chave is concerned with the way Minimalist sculptures define themselves through a process of negation. Of particular relevance to Chave’s argument are the massive steel sculptures by Minimalist artist Richard Serra. 

Tilted Arc was installed in Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981. Chave describes the work as a “mammoth, perilously tilted steel arc [that] formed a divisive barrier too tall to see over, and a protracted trip to walk around.” She writes, “it is more often the case with Serra that his work doesn’t simply exemplify aggression or domination, but acts it out.” Tilted Arc was so controversial upon its erecting that the General Services Administration, which commissioned the work, held hearings in response to petitions demanding the work be removed. Worth quoting at length, Chave writes:

A predictable defense of Serra’s work was mounted by critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and some fellow artists…. The principle arguments mustered on Serra’s behalf were old ones concerning the nature and function of the avant-garde…. What Rubin and Serra’s other supporters declined to ask is whether the sculptor really is, in the most meaningful sense of the term, an avant-garde artist. Being avant-garde implies being ahead of, outside, or against the dominant culture; proffering a vision that implicitly stands (at least when it is conceived) as a critique of entrenched forms and structures…. But Serra’s work is securely embedded within the system: when the brouhaha over Arc was at its height, he was enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art…. [The defense’s] arguments locate Serra not with the vanguard but with the standing army or “status quo.” … More thoughtful, sensible, and eloquent testimony at the hearing came instead from some of the uncouth:

My name is Danny Katz and I work in this building as a clerk. My friend Vito told me this morning that I am a philistine. Despite that I am getting up to speak…. I don’t think this issue should be elevated into a dispute between the forces of ignorance and art, or art versus government. I really blame government less because it has long ago outgrown its human dimension. But from the artists I expected a lot more. I didn’t expect to hear them rely on the tired and dangerous reasoning that the government has made a deal, so let the rabble live with the steel because it’s a deal. That kind of mentality leads to wars. We had a deal with Vietnam. I didn’t expect to hear the arrogant position that art justifies interference with the simple joys of human activity in a plaza. It’s not a great plaza by international standards, but it is a small refuge and place of revival for people who ride to work in steel containers, work in sealed rooms, and breathe recirculated air all day. Is the purpose of art in public places to seal off a route of escape, to stress the absence of joy and hope? I can’t believe this was the artistic intention, yet to my sadness this for me has become the dominant effect of the work, and it’s all the fault of its position and location. I can accept anything in art, but I can’t accept physical assault and complete destruction of pathetic human activity. No work of art created with a contempt for ordinary humanity and without respect for the common element of human experience can be great. It will always lack dimension.

The terms Katz associated with Serra’s project include arrogance and contempt, assault, and destruction; he saw the Minimalist idiom, in other words, as continuous with the master discourse of our imperious and violent technocracy.



The End of Art

Arthur Danto


Andy Warhol carries a Brillo box in his Factory


Like Greenberg, Arthur Danto was an art critic for The Nation. However, Danto was overtly critical of Greenberg’s ideology and the influence he wielded over Modern and contemporary art. Nor was he a follower of Harold Rosenberg, though they shared influences, among them the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Danto’s chief contribution to contemporary art was his advancing of Pop Artists, particularly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

In “The End of Art” Danto argues that society at large determines and accepts art, which no longer progresses linearly, categorized by movements. Instead, viewers each possess a theory or two, which they use to interpret works, and art institutions are largely tasked with developing, testing, and modifying various interpretive methods. In this way, art differs little from philosophy. After decades of infighting regarding the proper way to interpret works of art, Danto essentially sanctioned each approach and the institutions that gave rise to them. He came to call this “pluralism.”

RELATED: What Was the Pictures Generation?

Similarly, in “Painting, Politics, and Post-Historical Art,” Danto makes the case for an armistice between formalism and the various theories that arose in opposition, noting that postmodern critics like Douglas Crimp in the 1980s, who positioned themselves against formalism, nonetheless adopted the same constrictive air, minus the revolutionary beginnings.


Notable Quote

Modernist critical practice was out of phase with what was happening in the art world itself in the late 60s and through the 1970s. It remained the basis for most critical practice, especially on the part of the curatoriat, and the art-history professoriat as well, to the degree that it descended to criticism. It became the language of the museum panel, the catalog essay, the article in the art periodical. It was a daunting paradigm, and it was the counterpart in discourse to the “broadening of taste” which reduced art of all cultures and times to its formalist skeleton, and thus, as I phrased it, transformed every museum into a Museum of Modern Art, whatever that museum’s contents. It was the stable of the docent’s gallery talk and the art appreciation course—and it was replaced, not totally but massively, by the postmodernist discourse that was imported from Paris in the late 70s, in the texts of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Lacan, and of the French feminists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. That is the discourse [Douglas] Crimp internalizes, and it came to be lingua artspeak everywhere. Like modernist discourse, it applied to everything, so that there was room for deconstructive and “archeological” discussion of art of every period.



Editor’s Note: This list was drawn in part from a 2014 seminar taught by Debra Bricker Balken in the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts titled Critical Strategies: Late Modernism/Postmodernism. Additional sources can be found here, here, here (paywall), and here. Also relevant are reviews of the 2008 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” notably those by Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, and Martha Schwendener.


June 4, 2017

Widewalls Editorial

Deeply invested in contemporary art, Widewalls magazine aims to provide a unique experience for its readers in form of in-depth and quality journalism.

How do we judge the value of the work of art? And, no, we are not talking about its price on the market. One of the oldest answers to that question is that we judge it by its form, by those structural elements that are always discernible to the eye – that which we call formalism in art. This approach to deciphering artwork gave birth to art science, art criticism, as well as a specific way of creating art by focusing on its visual, aesthetic quality.

The road to understanding what formalism in art really is about takes us from philosophical ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, through the experiments of the avant-garde, all the way to contemporary ideal of socially-engaged and conceptual art. At the same time, at its heart, formalism holds that one question which stands above all others – what is art? How can we know when we are standing in the presence of something truly magnificent? Is there a universal way to determine the quality of any single work and use it to recreate the sublime?

Many believed that there is. They postulated that artistic excellence can be found in the structure of its elements, that it can be dissected and measured, like with all good science, but more importantly, that it unveils the very essence of human creativity.

L’art pour l’art – What is Formalism in Art?

So, what are those compositional elements formalism places at the front? Or, better yet, what is not formalism? Every time you stopped to appreciate the ultimate irony of Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life (1908-16) or profound social commentary of Banksy’s Rage Flower Thrower (2003), according to formalism doctrine you are missing the point. Everything in the work of art which is related to symbolism, context of any kind and iconography can only be secondary to what constitutes its form – line, shape, color, brushwork. Why is this so important? First, these are the elements that all artwork ultimately share, and so the only elements which can provide a basis for understanding art in general. And secondly, putting these elements in focus means that art can become an autonomous sphere of human creation – L’art pour l’art.

“L’art pour l’art without purpose, for all purpose perverts art.” – Benjamin Constant, 1804

L’art pour l’art is perhaps one of the most famous lines in all of art history and it is closely related to formalist movement. Meaning art for art’s sake, it was an idea that went perfectly in hand with formalist view of value of art. Art needs no purpose other than its intrinsic beauty. If value of art can only be found in its structural elements, then surly nothing outside those elements can present motive for creating art. These ideas of form at the center of artistic creation had different manifestations in different art movements. For Romantics, form was where you search for art’s essence; For Symbolists and Impressionists, it was its superior power to convey artist intention; For Abstract Expressionists, it was the raison d’être – for meaning in art, one should look no further than the form.

The Definition of Formalism in Art

History of Formalism – The Question of Aesthetics

Plato was the first thinker to introduce the concept of form. For him, form or appearance, was that one element shared by both tangible and abstract phenomena in the world. His ideas framed how we understand human perception, why is a portrait or a shadow equally important to us as the real thing. Plato’s theories were the basis for birthing the aesthetic discipline – the study of beautiful. Aristotle believed that catharsis in art can only be achieved if the work is dominated by its structure. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, was more concerned with universality. His philosophical quests for universal truth lead him to conclude that only form of an art object can be judged equally by different people, equally leading to pleasure. For what kind of world it is we live in, if we all see things differently, if there’s no objective knowledge? From Kant we inherited that idea of form as shape, which will later lead to analysis of what today we call style. It was through reading of Kant that aesthetics of art, and art criticism with it, was gradually formulated by Eduard Hanslick (1891), Clive Bell (1913) and Roger Fry (1920).

As an idea, formalism reached its peak in the period of high modernism, between the last decades of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. This is not surprising if we remember that first works of abstract art appeared during this period. Non-representational art brought this new way of expression where often nothing is discernible except its structure, inspired greatly by evolution of aesthetic thinking on the expressiveness of form. Works of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock, together with their thinking about art, pushed an American art critic Clement Greenberg (1960) to fortify this formal approach for analyzing modern art only through those elements used to create it.

Philosophy of Formalism – Form in Literature and Music

A big part of philosophy of formalism is related to 19th century striving for scientific truth. People then believed that in art, like in physics or architecture, we need to learn to recognize formalistic aspects of the work in order to study art as a scientific discipline. Such discipline would study how art is made in order to understand what it is we are looking at. Formalism is the reason why today we can enroll into Literary Theory, Musicology and Art History programs and courses at universities. It is the reason why there are still people around who are trained to trace back every brushstroke of Mona Lisa. This philosophy, governed by 19th century logical thinking, enabled us to understand the syntax in a literary masterpiece, succession of chords in an orchestral symphony, every breath in actor’s performance. Formalism brought discourse of color, texture, rhythm, composition and flow into the world, concepts we all use when we try to describe the beautiful.

Formalism was an attempt on philosophical inquiry into the very nature of art, and as such was one approach among many others, like Voluntarism, Intellectualism and Naturalism. But, it took all of the arts with a storm. Formalism was particularly strong in music. It positioned music itself as above history, composers and even text which is often present in vocal works. It was much easier to celebrate the abstraction in music than it was with the other arts, but also to diminish the value of anything outside the work itself. In literature, formalism meant focusing on exploring the meaning of a literary work only from what we can experience while reading it, and then only considering those elements inherent in the text – grammar, syntax, tropes etc…

The Art Critics: Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg

One of the most important figures in formalism was Bloomsbury writer and art critic Clive Bell. His 1914 book Art was first attempt to define the form in visual art which he did through his notion of significant form. Reflecting the L’art pour l’art ideology, his goal was to give irrefutable proof that art form is different than what we find in all other objects. Bell believed that emotions we experience when looking at an artwork are incited by its formal quality and not its subject matter, sensation he called the aesthetic emotion. Significant form is actually a combination of formal elements, primarily lines and colors which Clive Bell thought are building blocks of all visual art.

Following Bell’s influential ideas, it was American critic Clement Greenberg who proved to be the strongest advocate of formalism and modern art inspired with it. It not for his striving to codify the expressive elements in non-representational art, it is questionable whether works of Pablo Picasso, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionist artists would be so quickly accepted in the U.S. art community. For Greenberg, the rejection of representation by abstract artists was a natural evolution of visual art. The manipulation of form was the king of artistic expression.

The Formal Analysis of a Painting – What Constitutes the Form

As pertaining to the meaning of the word “formalism”, the formal analysis of the work of art refers to description of purely visual elements. The Formal analysis role is to locate all the elements of art’s form and explain their arrangement – the work’s composition. So, what are those elements? Explanations which can be found differ in number, but all agree on the most important: line, color, shape,space and texture.

When we try to describe the line, we ask ourselves is it straight, curved, flowing, and thick or thin, horizontal or vertical. Shape and space represent the relationship of objects in the painting and space behind them. The main question is whether the shape is geometric or organic, how many shapes are used to produce the desired image? In what dimension, form of space, are they placed? Color is, besides the line, the most important element of a painting. We describe the color through concepts of hue (red, blue, yellow etc.), value (brightness), intensity (purity), saturation, delineating between primary and secondary colors and considering their complementarities. Texture is that last piece of the puzzle which gives us the idea of surface quality of an object. Is it silk the man on the portrait is wearing? What would the object feel like if we could touch it? In order to make a successful analysis we must ask that most important question – What is the composition of the painting? It is the collective dance of all of these elements that constitutes the significant form, that which provides its expressiveness.

Formalist Art – Creating the Absolute

The works of art that we could dub as formalist already achieved fame by other names – modern art, abstract art, the avant-garde, yet they here are presented in the context of their philosophical origin. After all, Clement Greenberg’s famous essay Modernist Painting (1960) uses works of Jackson Pollock as The example of formalism. Greenberg saw Pollock’s style as maybe the greatest example of that manipulation of pure form. But perhaps, the best example of formalist art would be compositions of Piet Mondrian like his Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937-42). Working with simple geometrical lines and primary colors, his paintings are the purest manifestation of that which Clive Bell considered significant form. Formalist approach to music, which produced the concept of absolute art, as unattached to anything outside itself, was a great inspiration for abstract artists who strived to achieve this lack of referentiality.

Even though formalism stared in many other arts, it was the painting that both Bell and Greenberg had in mind while formulating their theories. Great works of formalist art were produced by Expressionism, Cubism, Geometrical Abstract Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Informal Art by artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malewitsch, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Jean Dubuffet and many others. But this purified painterly approach to form also inspired artists in other media and continues to do so today: Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling and their Abstract films, Minimalism of Yves Klein and Frank Stella, Vsevolod Yemilyevich Meyerhold‘s Formalist theatre, Land art etc.

Welcome to the Age of Post-formalism

Like with all good social theories, there is usually more criticism involved, than the actual content discussing the theory. Anti-formalism opinions appeared almost instantly after first attempts of canonization. Questions demanding more detailed description of the form, disputes over the historical function of art and what constitutes its value continue to inflame art critics and historians.  But the biggest challenge to formalism came with Postmodernism and Conceptual art. Works of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol brought the question of concept in play when nobody could’ve guessed that it would come to rule contemporary art. Postmodernism on the other hand introduced that hard critical reflection into the inner workings of the art world, tearing down all big narratives and search for universal truth. But in 2017, we live in a truly Post world, where Postmodernism is also something we had to overcome, leading us to a whole new appreciation of the form.

Written by Vera Mevorah.


  1. Karin Ulrike Soika, Abstract Painting, Abstract Art, Absolute Art, [June 1, 2017]
  2. Clive Bell, Art, Chatto & Windus, 1916
  3. Robert Stecker, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – An Introduction, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010

All images used for illustrative purposes only.


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