Formalism in Modern Art
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- A painting's form is composed of its basic elements: color, line, composition, and texture. These elements constitute the fundamental language used by formalist art critics to examine and analyze works of art.
- Whether an artwork is a pure abstraction or representational, a formalist looks for the same basic elements and judges a painting's value based on the artist's ability to achieve a cohesive balance in the composition.
- If a painting is deemed deficient in value, it was because the artist had failed to create a visual balance of the formal painterly elements.
Overview of Formalism in Modern Art
Philosopher Plato developed a "Theory of Forms" based on the idea of eidos, roughly translated to mean "stature" or "appearance." Plato applied the term broadly in his various dialogs to suggest a rudimentary universal language. Every earthly object, he posited, whether tangible (like a chair) or abstract (like human virtue), shared one aspect: they all had a form.
The Important Artists and Works of Formalism in Modern Art
James McNeill Whistler was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, a Romantic trend that celebrated "art for art's sake," and his ideas were important in spreading formalist approaches to art. As he once put it "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." In other words, form in art is more important than the accurate transcription of nature. Such beliefs encouraged considerable abstraction in his work, the most famous example being Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which was 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."
Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 is among the most famous of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. His pictures have invited numerous interpretations, many of which stress very different aspects of the paintings. For example, Harold Rosenberg focuses on process and technique - Pollock's encounter with the canvas. But for Clement Greenberg, the critic who was the painter's strongest advocate, the significance of his technique lay in its formal achievements. It managed to detach line from its traditional role of defined shapes and volumes, and it broke away from the rigid, shallow, demarcated space that had dominated painting since the advent of Cubism, replacing it with a loose, open web of space.
Jasper Johns is often credited with paving the way for Pop art by re-introducing recognizable subject matter into art. But the importance of early pieces such as Flag lies equally in the way he created a careful balance between form and subject matter. This created a dilemma for formalist critics such as Clement Greenberg, since while they maintained that the seat of an artwork's value lay in its manipulation of form, Johns made it impossible to deny the importance of subject matter. Artists such as Mark Rothko insisted on the importance of subject matter, but the appearance of their work made it easy to ignore it; pictures like Flag made that impossible.
Useful Resources on Formalism in Modern Art
- The Republic of PlatoBy Plato, Allan Bloom
- Framing Formalism: Riegl's WorkOur PickBy Richard Woodfield
- Art and Culture: Critical EssaysOur PickBy Clement Greenberg
- German Art History and Scientific Thought: Beyond FormalismBy Mitchell Frank, Daniel Adler