Jackson Pollock, "Shimmering Subtance", 1946; oil on canvas

Jackson Pollock, “Shimmering Subtance”, 1946; oil on canvas

“All form is a face looking at us” – Serge Daney

Today there are unpredictable elusive forms of visual art, as if playing hide and seek with us, just as Serge Daney said: “All form is a form looking at us.”  If form is looking at us, how do we treat form? It’s inevitable that the exiting way of form is to run out of the restriction of time and goal. So what do people do when they deal with a form. People change their views when their artistic concept changes. It is a form today while it was considered to be “formless” yesterday.

Form VS Content

Today we consider form as a concept related to its content. The war between form and content, and the related opposition between formalism and realism, originate in the argument between Soviet Socialism and American Capitalism. Among which, there is the most representative theory from Soviet theorist Key Menov. In his essays “On Modern Bourgeois Art” (1948), he has criticized and commented on the avant-garde art in the report on modern art which was published in “Art News” magazine in the 1940s, and they all come down to the “formalism” of anti-realism.

However, Form and Formalism are the art concept and art form that developed in the 19th Century as the angel of art history. The early Formalism is an aesthetic ideal advocated by the philosophers, lead by G. W. F. Hegal, who believes that different world spirits from different times lead to a different historical status, thereby an artwork’s form embodies a specific spirit of the times, rather than by being affected by the personal behavior of an artist and the role of a social power in the creation. With the influence of the German scholars G. W. F. Hegal’s Dialectical discussions have always been eager to sum up world cultures and histories with the approach of Formalism theory. They tend to explore the form with the approach of scientific positivism, mainly including the School of Philosophy represented by Ernst Gombrich and Vienna Logic Empiricism, School of Psychology represented by Aloïs Riegl and Wilhelm Worringer and School of Language represented by Heinrich Wölfflin, which is the most influential school. In the “Renaissance and Baroque” (1888), Wölfflin initially made comparative analysis comparisons on the forms of Renaissance and Baroque art (such as painting and linear etc.). His relative clear and simple analysis style is a classic of comparative linguistics. Thereafter, most of the art form theories in art history tend to treat forms and styles as the independent evolutions of inner logic, instead of the reflection of the social, economic and political development in a certain social environment. As the art historian Donald Preziosi described: “In this sense, before the heyday formalists mainly classify objects by morphology or style and feature, which were considered to be the markers to distinguish different artists, regions and times, or different countries and ethnic groups. It is the innovation of Formalism in the Modernism that plays an outstanding role to the art theories of British aesthetes Roger Fry and Clive Bell in the early 20th Century. They perform the Formalism Theories of the Comtean School from the Literary circles of the Soviet Union to the visual field. At the same time, they weaken the scientific part of positivist of the Comtean School, to emphasize individual specific perceptions. The focus of their Formalism theories is initially transferred from the formal exploration to abstract art. In “Aesthetic Essays” (1909), Fry emphasizes the content that the abstract artworks display, firstly, it carries the emotion, and secondly, it indicates that art does not need to imitate nature. His argument is considered to be the core of Formalism theory.

The Formalism theory of Fry is not a pure formal analysis that goes beyond the social political content. Whether the work is abstract or not is not the only standard that he uses to evaluate a work. It is perhaps that the works by impressionist Whistler are more abstract than the Post-impression works by Cezanne, but Fry thinks that the awkward that applies to Cezanne’s paintings is much better than the romantic fireworks painted by Whistler for it is more real and in-depth. This tendency in itself includes a certain moral stance, and it shows that not only the significance of the form, but also the historical continuity and power of artist’s personality that embodies the meaning of an art work.

Bell deepens Fry’s Formalism, his “significant form” is also a aesthetic research of valuable judgment, he believes, in the comprehensive and developed art system of the academic school, “the meaning of form is dismissing for it is too accurate reproduction and technical decoration”. So-called “significant form” is throughout the whole history of human development, including not only the paintings by Cezanne and Picasso, but also Chinese sculptures, medieval Persian dishes, Byzantine mosaics and Peruvian potteries. Bell’s Formalism has not only an aesthetic significance but also a moral significance. He has harmonized two terrible tendencies of human thought : one is the linear historical developing thought of racial bias from Germany, another one is the demeaning to the so-called savage by the Enlightenment.

One of the most important achievements for Formalism is that it transfers the Western-central viewpoint of Western art theory to a potential global viewpoint with a geographical position and subject significance. In this sense, the revolution of Formalism is finished before the 1st World War began. The combination of Formalism and value of developing science, advocating “pure form” of general aesthetic significance: starting from Cubism, Futurism, Supremacist, Constructivist to Bauhaus…… formalists considered geometric abstraction an international Language, however, they have never abandoned the idea of pursuing the perfect, a traditional thought from the Enlightenment.

The Challenge from Anti-form

Since the World War I, Dadaists initially put forward their challenge to the traditional formalism and its aesthetic, with a nihilistic attitude. Duchamp’s “Urinal” and “Mona Lisa Wearing a Beard” are recognized as the representatives of the anti-form of aesthetic works. Surrealists represented by French scholar Georges Bataille initially challenged the formalism in theory. In 1929, Bataille wrote the absurd words of Dada’s style: “Universe is similar to the formless …something like a spider or saliva.”

The surrealists oppose phenomenological formalism of the local Bergson and the Science of Dialectical Formalism of Wölfflin School. There are two meanings to this formless (informe): one is formless, another is to inform people. But it is ironical that, although the Surrealists oppose Formalism, they have something in common with British Formalism theory. “Absent of representation” is the key factor of ideal formalism in Bell’s theory. The Utopian ultimate ideal is also the token use of by the anti-formalist focusing on content and concept. “Negative Reproduction” is an important turning point in both theories of formalism and anti-formalism. Bataille had outlined what he called the formless connotation: Formless (informe) is not only an adjective of some kind of off-the-shelf significance, but also a vocabulary that can bring something to the world, but anything (in the world) has its own form.” It is obvious that even Bataille, founder of the anti-formalism, also admits that, like all perceived reality, the form itself has its own “meaning” form.

Jean Arp(Hans Arp), Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest, 1932, cast circa 1953-8

Jean Arp(Hans Arp), Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest, 1932, cast circa 1953-8

Jean Arp (French, 1886-1966), “The Sculpture Lost in the Forest”, 1932, cast circa 1953-8, the Tate Modern.

The works by Surrealist artists Arp embodies the coincidence of form and formless’ meanings: see form in the formless. “Absent of representation” is an important turning point in both theories of formalism and anti-formalism.

The opposition between formalism and anti-formalism officially emerged during World War II, especially after the era of fascism and postwar and destruction by the atomic bomb, Europe regained the mantle of the Surrealist, and abstract art of formalism was revived in USA. After World War II, anti-formalism was the result of the collapse of the optimistic worldview in Paris, the anti-formalism artists represented by Wols and Dubuffet, adhering to the stance of “anti-culture”. They combine the thoughts of surrealism and existentialism, Firstly, they oppose academic programs and dogmas as the avant-garde, and secondly, they oppose the historical view of progress represented by the geometric abstraction.

These anti-formalists think that it is impossible for the beautiful appearance of the formalist to explain why people are evil in a war, and they reveal the dark side of human nature by using dim and strange pictures.

Jean Dubuffet, "Large Black Landscape", 1946

Jean Dubuffet, “Large Black Landscape”, 1946

The black paintings by Wols and Dubuffet reflect the stance of European cultural circles with a pessimistic attitude and “anti-culture” of the anti-formalism after World War II.

However, the optimism and formalism value that advocates technological progress are recognized again by USA. The European formalism influences American art largely when they were exiled to USA.

On the insistence of Iiya Bolotowshy, abstract art groups were re-established in USA in 1936, such as the new Bauhaus which was opened in Chicago in 1938, and Mondrian’s artistic creativity reached a new summit in the 1940s, creations including his famous abstract paintings “Jazz Series” (Boogie-Woogies).

Piet Mondrian, "Broadway Boogie Woogie", 1942-43, oil on canvas, 127x127cm at the Museum of Modern Art

Piet Mondrian, “Broadway Boogie Woogie”, 1942-43, oil on canvas, 127x127cm at the Museum of Modern Art

Modernism: Victory over Formalism?

Clement Greenberg uses formalism to criticize and interpret that the so-called “Modernism” is concerned with art form itself. He believes that it is modernism painting that is transferred from Impressionism to Cubism, early Abstract and Surrealist styles become really important art, in the 20th Century, and some artists make breakthroughs in art forms, such as Monet, Seurat, Cezanne, Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Miro become the most important Modernism artists. A new generation of Abstract Expressionist painters from New York including: Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and abstract sculptor David Smith are the best artists to show Modernism forms, they are the true inheritors of the masters of Cubism.

Impacted by Jungian’s prototypes in psychology, abstract expressionism emphasizes the cultural and emotional common features of humanity. But even if we stress the abstract expressionism of form, there is also clear political content, moral standards and spiritual direction. Standing on the stance of the American liberal modernist, abstract expressionists oppose both artistic tendencies of realism: firstly, political realism posters from Nazi Germany, secondly, realism from Soviet socialism. To American abstract artists, these realism is the symbol of totalitarianism, regarding art as a political propaganda tool.

Jackson Pollock is the most respected abstract expressionist artist for Greenberg. However, he has never distinguished the differences between Pollock in painting and producing painting. But, Harold Rosenberg, an existentialist of the Sartre school, finds the feature of behavior art of anti-formalism from Pollock’s non-figurative paintings. He described Pollock’s art as “events” rather than paintings in the “American Action Painters” (1952).

In fact, Greenberg an existentialist from Paris experienced the same postwar situation, everything is all over again. His conclusion is similar to the anti-formalism theorists: “There is a big problem in the future of easel painting, and even more the painters who have to use easel painting are destroying it.” However, the apparent anti-formalism argument becomes the basis of the formalism myth. When the surrealists treat unconscious and formless art exploration as the approach to break through the fixed psychology of optimism, abstract expressionism treats unconscious and formless abstract art as the symbol of the value of universal significance, to reconstruct art and the society of post war.

Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood"(1967)

Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”(1967)

The myth of linking Formalism with a sense of Stylistics and Modernism together was not independently completed by Greenberg, and American art historian Michael Fried played a decisive role in this. He has linked all the formalism theories from Roger Fry’s, Clive Bell’s to Greenberg’s together, considering the trends of Formalism and Abstract as the only way to Modernism. In his famous Declaration of anti-minimalism “Art and Objecthood” (1967), Fried put forward the specificity form in the art category. The form of painting is different from the form of the sculpture, just like the rhythm of poetry is distinguished from prose. He believes that the form of modernism has struggled from traditional painting, and it is possible for it to fight the dramatic effect of the “literalism” of Minimalism on painting and sculpture because of its “presence” and “presentness”. Fried has a famous conclusion “Presentness is elegant”, which has sublimated formalism specification to a morally significant level and even to the moral attitude.


1. Cited in Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Reel, Dijon, France, 2002 English version, 1998 French version.

2. В.Кеменов, translated by Bo Yuan, and Shui Fu, in Bao Quan (ed), “On the Modern Bourgeois Art”, Times Press, 1948, there are two articles “Two Faces of Cultures” and “Recession of Modern Bourgeois Art” in the book, including the illustrations of Picasso, Henry Moore, Matisse, and Braque, etc.

3. Hegal, Aesthetics-Lectures on Fine Art, Vol.2. English Translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford, 1975, 614.

4. Heinrich Wölfflin, Renaissance and Baroque originally published in German, 1888, Reprinted in 1984, The Classic Study.

5. Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History: Meditation on a Coy Science. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, 83.

6. Roger Fry, An Essay In Aesthetics, in Vision and Design, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

7. Clive Bell, Art, New York, Frederick A. Stocks Co., 1914, 23.

8. Ibid.

9. See Bernard Smith, “Modernity and Formaleque”, In the Visible Touch, Sydney: Power Publications, 179.

10. George Bataille, “Informe”, in Documents 1:7, 1929, 392, translated by Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

11. George Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 31.

12. “Anti-culture” is the title of a series of lectures, held at the Art Club of Chicago and later in New York in 1951 by Dubuffet.

13. Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting’, 1961, Art in Modern Culture, in Francis Frascian and Jonathan Harris (eds), London: Phaidon, 1992, 310.

14. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”, 1960, in J. O’Brian(ed), The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol.4, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

15. Greenberg, April 1948, reprinted in John O’Brian(ed), The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol.4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, 59.

16. Michael Fried, 1967/1998, “Art and Objecthood”, originally published in Art Forum, reprinted in M. Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 148 -72.

17. Anton Ehrenzweig (1908-1966), the Austrian-born British art psychologist, proposed the concept of “Inarticulate form”, opposite to “significant form” by Clive Bell, in his book “The Hidden Order in Art” (1967).

18. Robert Morris, “Note on Sculpture”, Parts 1-4, Art Forum, Vol.4, No.6, February 1966, 42-44, Vol.6, No.2, October 1966,20-23, Vol.5, No.10, Summer 1967, 24-29, and Vol.7, No.8, April 1979, 50-54.

19. Bois, “Introduction: The Use-Value of Formless”, in Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books and MIT Press, 1997, 16.

20. Krauss, “Conclusion: The Destiny of the Informe”, in Bois and Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books and MIT Press, 1997, 245.

21. Ibid. 249.

22. Ibid. 252.

23. Assume vivid astro focus is the pseudonym of the Brazilian artist living in USA, coming from the names of the two bands “Throbbing Gristle’s album Assume Power Focus” and “The band for Ultra Vivid Scene-works.

24 See Shao Yiyang, “Does History Return to Painting?”, “World Art”, Vol.3, 2006.

25. Pernille Albrethsen, “Platform Formalism”, Nordic Review, 16 April.

Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

To be continued …

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

This article was published in “Art Research” in April, 2007.

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