Robert Morris, Untitled, 1968

Robert Morris, “Untitled”, 1968

From Anti-formal to Postmodern

It is obvious that the argument of Fried belittles minimalism with the use of the transcendentalism modernism form. In fact, at the same time minimalism also opposes the features of drama and literary styles just as Fried does, what they adore is the very modernism form as called by Fried, but on the contrary, his arbitrary critique pushes minimalism to formalism, even to the opposite side of modernism. In the late 1950s, along with the failure of Vietnam War, the formalism tide, that stood for optimism, gradually collapsed and American and European existentialists conquered the art world, challenging the abstract expressionism painting and construction of the whole modernism critique through the use of social and political content, avant-garde art became the main stream for contemporary art. It was impacted by the union of minimalists criticized by Fried and anti-formalism, absorbing the features of behavior art and body art, it focused on the process and dramatic performance, giving a new moral meaning to the later anti-art. They opposed the unity and pure form of modernism in art, while on the other hand they politically opposed the Vietnam War.

Even the minimalists who once had concerns about “good gestalt” also become anti-formalisms, for example, the early minimalist Robert Smithson turned to earth art, by using anti-gestalt by the psychologist Anton Ehrenzweig to fight against modernism formal theories represented by Greenberg, anti-distinguished perspective of Anton Ehrenzweig replaced the critical eyes of Greenberg. Under the influence of his anti-formalism theory, there is the sustainable, aimless, marginal earth art of formless entropy and waste, instead of the instant and overall modernism of the main structure and white cube that takes the city as the center.

In the tide of anti-modernism emerging from the late 1960s to 1970s, Smithson is not the only pioneer. With the influence of the Smithson, Robert Morris, an artist and theorist from the prosperous period of minimalism, published some influential papers in the “Art Forum”, discussing the transformation from “good gestalt” to “anti-form”. Morris deliberately makes use of industrial waste and some topics like “untitled”, to break industrialization, adhered to by Greenberg in modernism form during his practice. To a certain degree, because Fried sets a hallowed paradigmatic status for modernism, it is possible that modernism was an alternative.

Robert Morris, Corner Piece, 1964

Robert Morris, “Corner Piece”, 1964

Is contemporary art without form?

Art history transfers from modern to contemporary in the 1960s, presents a state of diversification.

If formless is oriented towards anti-aesthetic in contemporary art gets the upper hand, it is representative of the destructive nature of contemporary art. Behavior art and body art, concept art, and installation art, etc., fight against the formalism theory of Greenberg during the prosperous period of modernism.

The exhibition “Informe(Formless)”, held at the French Pompidou Art Center in 1996 and planned by semiotics Bois and Krauss, traced back to the spirit of the rebellion against the Bastille, re-interpreting modernism from the angel of anti-formalism. Bois and Krauss tried to use the framework of late modernism to fight against the misreading of “formless” in modernism. Bois proposed that “formless” only could be understood as “some operations that reduces modernisms true colors”, instead of “naïvely fighting against the confirmation of form in modernism by the identification of meaning”. That is to say, formless will be regarded as a kind of “operation”, instead of the fixed “iconography”, this “operation” is without reproduction, and focuses on process, instead of against form with the use of theme and concept. Under the guidance of this new idea, there was a new selection of artists related to the formless in the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. They preferred the concrete to the abstract. Vols’ photos replaced the well-known abstract paintings, and Dubuffet’s “black paintings” were replaced by the concrete portraits. People rediscovered Rauschenberg’s previous works, created before his works in pop art. In addition, some old anti-formal artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Morris, Andy Warhol, Bruce Norman, and Robert Smithson were classified into the group of “formless”.

Contemporary artists Mike Kelly and Cindy Sherman, two of the most famous post-modernism artists in the 1980s and 1990s, are in the classification of “formless”, emphasizing “operation”, not being excluded like most of the postmodern artists were. Krauss thinks that the main feature of the post-modernism period is abjection, there is the “thematic theory of nature and materialism”, completely opposed to “formless concept”, emerging in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cindy Sherman receives favor from semiotics again, is because her works quote a wide range of visual culture resources, both longitudinal in art history, and horizontal with social contact, involving different levels of meanings. The reason why Mike Kelly has not been cleared out of the group, is that he takes use of children’s trashed toys, considered to be part of the process of anti-formal “operation”: “ Because the ‘low’ appearance here, is not the nature of the theme, but is the functional factor of the (anti-formalism) operation.

Mike Kelley, “Untitled”,  1990

Mike Kelley, “Untitled”, 1990

Although Bois and Krauss tried to put formless into the path of modernism once again, with the thematic sense of “formless”, it could not deny the significance of form in modernism, when the concrete formless is usually difficult to understand, the abstract form is close to the public. The popularization and universal essences of modernism still belong to the field of formalism. In addition, Bois and Krauss wanted to backwash the tendency that postmodernism paid too much attention to the theme, by combing through modernism once again. But it is ironical that although they wish to make art “freed from the enslaved state of the thematic semantics”, once again it implies that the form and formalism oppose the principle of ideological supremacy.

In fact, either formalism or formless is capable of representing all of modern art. If the rebellion of formless is the inner power of art development, through the avant-garde features of contemporary art, form and formalism that have never left the track of avant-garde art, with some superficial reformations. Since last century, form has gradually lost its purity, and it is already not a simple concept, corresponded to the content, related to style, while its meaning is melted into different aspects of contemporary art. Form and formalism not only bring the aesthetic or style of the modern art, but also the Utopian ideas and optimism: no grade, no difference and no border, everyone can understand art, be close to art.

Installation = Anti-form?

It is installation that dominates contemporary art, instead of painting, sculpture and photography until the 21st Century. Because installation stands in the position of postmodern for a long term, against the form of modernism, completely classified into the “formless” camp, it seems that form is not a topic for the rules of installation art. Greenberg considers the pure sensory nature of art as the goal, postmodern then treats complexity as the rule, which has been embodied in a large number of international biennales. Food scrapes and waste often appear in the installations. And even more, some factors that are difficult to capture, such as light, taste and sound, are commonly used in installations.

In 2004, American artist AAVF (Assume Astro Vivid Focus) displayed a new combination of multimedia and acousto-optics in Whitney Biennale USA, the collection of variety of the features of graphic design, music video, large installation, T-shirt design, American culture, and medieval art, etc. and have a similar display mode of “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” by Andy Walter, performing under the velvet and accompanied with rock music in the 1960s, a collection of form and anti-form, it has a formalism appearance, but in fact is an anti-form behavior that focuses on process and experience.

Janine Antoni, "Slumber", 1993

Janine Antoni, “Slumber”, 1993

On the other hand, there is another one called new concept installation, represented by “Slumber” (1993) by Janine Antoni. During the day, the artist sat at the front of a very primitive loom, the EEG with a record of her sleep pattern during the previous night which was transformed into simple patterns, woven on the cloths of torn pajamas. As a blanket, the cloths were used to cover her body at night, at the same time, recording again the brain activities while sleeping by CT. Antoni performed this work several times at big Museums in all around the world. Now her blanket is of more than 200 feet long. The idea of Antoni is based on minimalism, feminism and behavior art, but never repeating anti-formal tendency of avant-garde, but using the unconscious of surrealism to break the board between form and formless.

There are two kinds of abstract actions to perform the formlessness of the works: scientific records and the traditional female textile work, neither belonging to formalism, nor belonging to the concept of anti-form. The third way establishes a link between the form and formless. The design of form presents a pure concept in the process of production, and “formless” the feature of the works unfolds in the process of form production. The process of Antoni weaving cloth is similar to Pollock’s action painting, presenting ultimately an abstract form. There is not a universal significance in this kind of form, and only neuroscientists are capable of reading it, it is formless to other people. In this works of new concepts, either the universal fantasy of pure form, or the significance in breaking the constraint represented by formless, is broken. It declares that art creation has never been global and universal, it is impossible to separate it from a certain objective structure.

Tim Noble and  Sue Webster, "Real Life is Rubbish", 1998

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, “Real Life is Rubbish”, 1998

British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster find a breakthrough of form again in a pile of industrial waste of anti-form. Daily life waste is projected to be the two lovers who are back to back, looking forward to the future, through a careful design. The formless and ugly waste in the prospect is the obvious contrast to the beautiful illusion of fine form in the background, form is confirmed again on the basics of anti-form. It is indeed that real life is very ordinary, even garbage, but after all, it is the function of art to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Maybe, art is still able to change the world, to transform the ugly into the beautiful, let’s share fantasies once again.

Is this a revival of Formalism?

It seems that there is a revival of form in the first years of the 21st Century. “New Formalism” emerges again in various fields of art. In poetry, there is a rebellion to free body poetry of anti-form with new formalism expression in the 1960s, in architecture, the architectural design of human symbiotic replaces the international style, being always popular since the end of World War II, and in fine art, painting is back. Cultural exchanges replace the political opposition in the postmodern period. As a tool to promote cultural communication, formalism embodies today’s popular biennale. In the 11th German Documentary 2002, planned by the general curator Okwui Enwezor, is known as the “Platform Formalism”. The curator hopes to display the local culture resource from different countries and districts all round the world with the use of biennale, an international platform. However, it is strict standardization, although it aims to challenge the western centralized power, it may not be out of the whole system. Provided by biennale, the “platform” is still a symbol of formalism, is never free from the bondage of form.

In fact, it is impossible to avoid such bondage. Only when the artists in the 21st Century are aware of the constraint of the local, they have the capability to strive for internationalization and universality. In philosophy, form and anti-form is symbiotic forever, formless is always covered by form, like destruction is implied by rule, and form is an ideal structure of universal significance, a premise of cultural construction. The development of contemporary art constantly reminds people that art is in need of irony and exposure, as well as in need of construction. In the new formalism platform, form and formless, a contradiction of the past, are the symbiotic and fusion of each other. Art is developed and culture is constructed in the shift of power between form and formless.


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

 The end.

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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