Conventionally (academically) the word “formalism” has very specific meaning:
“Formalism describes the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world.“
Formalism as an ethos is to be credited with much of the development of abstract painting- Widewalls has a very good summary of this development and correlates the epistemological grounding of it within the Arts (IE between the visual arts, music and literature).
As a description of an approach to object-making in the visual arts, “formalism” elicits images of work and words related to the ideas of many artists we classify as Modernist. The Tate (source of the quote above) clarifies that this tendency points towards a culmination rather than a beginning. Most likely, schooled, American artists will think of the second generation of abstract painters (Frankenthaler, Olitski, Poons) who advanced ideas imported from Europe by their predecessors (who valued process and intuition), eschewed gesture and surface and focused on color and shape (form), as well as later artists who followed through on a general reductionist mission for its own sake (Stella, Downing, Kelly et. al.).
The notion that art could be – was, at its highest level of intended function, only to be- understood “on its own terms” is a distinctly Modernist idea that is very humanist and therefore Euro-centric, by proxy being associated with most of the evils that propelled the dominance and embedded supremacy of Western civilization from the last century (pick one- militarism, Capitalism, racism) and often with good reason. Because of the association of this cause célèbre with the often acerbic and always arrogant Clement Greenberg, formalism as an ethos is out of fashion, to the point that “clembashing” is still an activity that causes practitioners of the modality headaches even today. The contemporary painter Andrea Marie Breiling has commented that she finds herself asking (in the context of wanting viewers to see and experience with purpose) “How could I make work that sucked people in and lifted them to a higher state? A spiritual place itself and not a place of painting for painting.” Tldr- the specter of Modernist formalism is real.
I’ll note here that the larger, meta-cultural question of “what is art” of which formalism is a progeny, also lead to so many investigations which diverged creative activity from not only abstraction (eg Warhol) but from painting itself (eg Duchamp). While formalism begat reductionist tendencies and was certainly in vogue for a non-trivial amount of time, its dominance was not total. In particular those of us who are instructors must be clear with our charges that figurative painters like Jack Levine and Romare Bearden were active and making important art during this era. The conclusion that formalism as a response to the question “what is Art” was either inevitable or the most logical response is just a silly position to take, then, or now.
I found Adam Simon’s recent review on Two Coats of Paint (a legit source of love for painting) of Tom McGlynn’s work enlightening in the context of these considerations. Adam notes that, for the contemporary artist considering reductive forms “these basic shapes are historically weighted signifiers, no longer free of association. One cannot now make a geometric abstract painting without it also being a depiction of a geometric abstract painting.” Shorter- no form used today can be considered bereft of “content.”
It’s also worth noting that most artists who practiced “painting for painting’s sake” (or at least were celebrated by the art critical community for doing so) did so out of a commitment to a broader, cultural mission to create new ways of seeing, suited to a new world that needed to abandon outdated institutions and mores (avant garde anyone?). I would argue the cultural context of this activity is definitely part of its content, even if it was not to be considered primary.
The forms used in this work were quite often personal, too- one need only look as far as Wikipedia to read about the influence that surrealism (a movement centered on unlocking and releasing the subconscious) had on Abstract Expressionism vis’a’vis Robert Motherwell.
One of the distinctions I am quite interested in, as a way to understand artists who leverage formalism as either a generative strategy or an ends, is exemplified by the North Carolina-born painter William T. Williams. WTW is known for his process-based approach to painting that engages motifs drawn from personal memory and cultural narrative to create non-referential, abstract compositions. He is known to have said that “my art is about my experience which, by nature, makes it about other people’s experience . . . I’m trying to evoke human response. My demographic is the human arena. I hope my work is about celebration, about an affirmation of life in the face of adversity, to reaffirm that we’re human, that we’re alive, that we can celebrate existence.”
I think this illustrates a very humanist and therefore Modernist tendency within William’s oeuvre. The Concrete Art movement, as described by the historian Werner Hartmann in this excellent Wikipedia article, summarized their ethos thusly- “Art should endeavour to give form to life itself.” BTW, I’d also be remiss if I mentioned Williams and didn’t nod to an amazing talk he gave with Sam Gilliam (RIP) and Melvin Edwards in 2010.
For this writer, I find the phenomenological musings of Robert Irwin of greatest influence on my approach to making work which seeks to engage the imagined viewer in a sense experience distinct of narrative and subject. This is possible or at least conceivable for Irwin, and myself, because of bracketing. He also elevates questioning in his practice (for this creative, questioning- probing a form or strategy until it reveals a direction or intention- is also central).
If a (revised? reformed?) formalist strategy can exist in 2023, I think it’s clear it isn’t in the way that we are taught to use the word in academia**. If there is an example of what practice which centers the “language” of color and shape looks like I would offer it is Stanley Whitney’s color-rific practice, with his strategy of “following the painting.” James Sienna’s ongoing modus as a developing theme also comes to mind.
**It’s worth considering what Saul Ostrow wrote about Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe’s Paintings from 2009 to 2022 at David Richard.
Jason Stopa hints as well that there is a possibility for a sub-set of the activity of painting to exist in a way that allows space for contemplation which is sort of parallel to “traditional” formalism- he calls it “self-reference.” He also sees the act of making the work as a reference to the world of ideas because the context of the activity is our very non-utopian society (I think this is very much like the way Williams approached painting). In an Instagram post (of all places) he dropped this gem (in reference to his exhibition Joy Labyrinth for which Raphael Rubenstein penned the catalog essay): “I see self-reflexiveness in painting as a means toward criticality. The utopian architecture I’m referencing in these paintings is about the impossibility to create ideal conditions, but our pursuit of idealism persists nonetheless.”
I really love the group discussion Jason put together just before the start of the pandemic with Katherine Bradford, Sharon Butler, Thomas Micchelli, and Craig Stockwell, who has this wonderful quote: “When things get real and very difficult, I need to turn to something that is sustaining. I think painting in all its forms is remarkably engaging as a thoughtful activity, as a thoughtful and physical activity. Personally, to go to the studio and have the experience of making, spending hours in this thought process, and responding to difficulties, seems so small in certain way, but it’s incredibly sustaining in a difficult time.” I don’t think Craig Stockwell would ever say he paints solely for “paintings’ sake” and I can’t think of anything else to call the impulse he describes other than a belief- faith?- that painting is valid as an activity that centers itself, full stop.
All of these words lead me to this series of thoughts, that are nothing more- or less- than the reason I am comfortable referring to the object-based part of my own practice as “formalist:” primarily, that the activity centers form, line and color; the contemplation and reflection by artist and audience is an intentional activity that elevates and preferences the senses; the act of said contemplation and reflection is a social construct and a subject of philosophical inquiry and therefore can be both distinct of and content of the work itself; and this act of contemplation, bracketed outside of our utilitarian social institutions, is imbued with the very spirit of the human condition and relates by default to identity, to politics, and to the striving of all people for connection and transcendence.