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Post #621 • September 9, 2005, 9:46 AM • 79 Comments

Via Miami photographer and alert reader Tim Walker, Formalism and Its Discontents by Jed Perl. I haven't read the whole thing yet but it looks juicy. Modern Art Notes looks forward to not reading it at all.

Openings tonight at AI/MIUAD and Art & Culture Center. On a related note to the latter, Critical Miami considers Frances Trombly. Go See Art knows all.

Conniption fit? Moi? I'm chillin' like a cucumber Slurpee.

Urgent update: Flying Spaghetti Monster: The Game. You weren't working anyway.




September 9, 2005, 12:39 PM

As far as I can determine the Perl article is available to subscribers only, so it will cost you about $40 to read it.

Sure, no "conniption fit" here either. The article is very clearly written and presents in good detail all the reasons why I would never go near the exhibit in the first place, despite its "glam-sodden quality".



September 9, 2005, 12:41 PM

"Looking at Hélion, it is the clarity of certain lines and colors that strikes us at one moment, and at the next moment it is the subject, the symbol, the story--and at another moment we seem to hold everything in our eyes at once. This kind of looking, with all its variety and surprise, puts immense demands on the viewer, who must be constantly making judgments, none of which is final. These are the discriminations from which so many curators and collectors and critics have now fled." (Quoted from p4 of Jed Perl's article, emphasis is mine)

Alas, no one knows what they are looking at.



September 9, 2005, 12:42 PM

Bug Me Not worked for me on this one.



September 9, 2005, 12:47 PM

No, all you have to do is register.
That's all I did and I was able to read the entire article



September 9, 2005, 1:44 PM

Franklin, thanks for the Bug Me Not link...

I've started on the article, but I'm a bit discouraged. Besides an obvious distaste for:
"I am not referring to the voices of dissent that have been heard for decades from artists and critics who operate at the margins. What's going on now is that a certain disaffection and even disgust has become an insider's badge of honor, a mark of sophistication..."
(no, no, why should anyone ever refer to the decades of dissent from artists and critics in the margins? They're just not WITH it... what? Gallery insiders are pooh-poohing the scene now? Oh my god, this is news!)

...there's also the old problem with the code-word 'Formalism'... Jed doesn't define it, but just assumes that, you know, everyone KNOWS what we're talking about when we say 'formalism', right?... it always reminds me of "Family Values"... we all KNOW what that means, right? (wink wink)

The strangest part is that Jed seems to be declaring the death of Formalism... huh? Now? Why?

...guess I should keep reading.



September 9, 2005, 1:55 PM

Jed Perl:
Perhaps it is because some of formalism's greatest advocates were conscious of its limitations that they themselves used the word gingerly if at all. The term is most closely associated not with a movement in the visual arts but with a literary movement in early twentieth-century Russia, and if one attempts to trace its application to the visual arts the record is elusive. Clive Bell spoke of "significant form," not of formalism; and when Clement Greenberg, regarded by many as the arch-formalist, used the word in an essay published late in his life, he put it in quotation marks, as if to detach it from his own thinking.

Yes, Clem would only use the word in quotation marks, because, as he made the case in 1967 (which I quoted here recently) the term is generally applied as an insult, without anyone ever having to define what they mean by it.

Perl can't seem to go two sentances without using it (not in quotes, of course)... yet he still hasn't made it clear what is meant by it.



September 9, 2005, 2:01 PM

Jed Perl:
Greenberg liked to say that when he traveled in Asia he was delighted to see that his responses to the quality of works of art were close to those of Asian connoisseurs, which proved to him that artistic experience was based on a universal vocabulary of form.

Huh? This doesn't prove "that artistic experience was based on a universal vocabulary of form"... it proves (if anything) that artistic experience is based on a universal human faculty of taste.
Does this guy know the meanings of the words he is using? The forms may be different wherever you go (from North America to Asia, in this example)... what is the same is the taste, the human discrimination between what works and what doesn't.

Hell, this is only from page one...

Ok, back to reading...



September 9, 2005, 2:07 PM

Jed Perl:
When I am confronted with the Color Field paintings of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, which Greenberg thought offered a distillation or clarification of artistic experience, I find that there is no experience left. Just as romanticism had ultimately asked too much of the autonomy of the artist, so formalism asked too much of the autonomy of the work of art. The fervor of the faith spawned absurd demonstrations of faith. If the true subject of painting was flatness and the rectangular support, why not exhibit a blank canvas? And this was not uninteresting the first or second time--but the hundredth time?

Wow... Jed gets "no experience" from these works... no, not select pieces, a poor painting here or there, but the entire ouevre of these painters... and not an unsatisfactory experience, but simply none at all... brilliant.

I think Jed's just used up all his credibility coupons.



September 9, 2005, 2:30 PM

I guess somebody should tell Tyler Green that he might like the Perl article after all.



September 9, 2005, 2:31 PM

George, I tried everything I could think of, every which way and got chased all over the place when all of a sudden - bam! - there it was. Just my stupid machine I think.

Modern Art notes, on the lonk Franklin provided - states that they were looking forward to "not reading Jed Perl's 7,400-word rant in favor of closed-minded conservatism or formalism or whatever in The New Republic."

I have not read the article yet, and I dont agree with Perl's eye very often, but he does write well and thoughtfully and this is a long, well considered article about the state of art in our time.

It is disheartening to hear someone writing about art on the blog who not only reponds to such a thing with a snotty, contemptuous dismissal and feels no need to even check it out but that he feels quite assured that what he says will be greeted by enthusiastic approval by his readers, and probably by most readers. And he is probably right.



September 9, 2005, 2:35 PM

Jed Perl, like most art writers, is much better with wordsmithing than seeing. Also, like many literary types, he is better at writing than reading. Greenberg never said "the true subject of painting was flatness". Instead, he said the best painting of a certain period happened to be flat. Huge difference. Flatness, again according to Clem, evolved from a process of eliminating the unnecessary from painting - call that "clarification" if you like. But, just as packing a painting full of stuff does not guarantee a good picture, so it goes with taking stuff out. Look at Maelivich, look at Tony Smith (who made bad paintings to go with his OK sculptures). These are just methods that work for some artists in some circumstances.

But thanks for the quote Matty. Now I know that Perl doesn't see much, as well as he does not see well. "No experience left" simply does not apply to Louis, Noland, and Olitski. Indeed his credibility cupons have been cashed.

Perl can be interesting when he applies his negativity to objectively bad artists, which he often does against the grain of what's hot. So it is relatively easy to start thinking he has an eye ... until you read something like this. Then you know what he never has done is something he cannot do. See the good.

Flatboy cited some passages from Greenberg last year that praised questionable artists. He seemed real proud of himself for finding a chink in the great critic's armour. But that did not prove anything about Greenberg beyond the facts cited. Where the rubber meets the road, if you want to be a critic, is spotting the truly good, of which there is not much to spot. If you want a high percentage of being right, just say everything is bad and you will seldom get it wrong. But you will never get it right where it counts. That's why Clem was and is so important.



September 9, 2005, 2:44 PM

About the term "formalism" and Greenberg: Clem didn't like anyone putting labels on him. And he had differences with the two who originally cooined the term - Clive Bell and Roger Fry. They were almost dead flat Platonic in their theories. Clem started and ended with experience, with nothing taken for granted before, during, or after.

It is true many called him a formalist anyway. Doesn't make it so, however. Like I said before, Perl writes better than he reads.



September 9, 2005, 3:00 PM

All true, Catfish. And I cannot imagine him getting a reaction from someone in Asia and making a conclusion about a "universal vocabulary of form, either. That was just not a Clem type of idea at all. It is either some 3rd hand anecdote or something Perl cooked up on his own.

And the "no experience left" just gives away either his eye or his fear that if he says anything positive about those artists he will incur scorn from all of his colleagues.

But his take on current art, in all of its mainifestations, is not far off, I suspect.



September 9, 2005, 3:04 PM

This essay brings to mind another quote from Schopenhauer, on writers who lack clarity:

You can soon see that they are writing simply in order to cover paper: and as soon as you do see it you should throw the book down, for time is precious.

Or, in my case, turn off the computer.



September 9, 2005, 7:21 PM


...there's also the old problem with the code-word 'Formalism'... Jed doesn't define it, but just assumes that, you know, everyone KNOWS what we're talking about when we say 'formalism', right?

You keep alluding to "formalism" as if everyone either has it all wrong or doesn't know and that you do know (wink, wink) what it means.

So put me out of my misery, and give me your definition of formalism



September 9, 2005, 7:54 PM

For Bell and Fry, "form" was very much like what Plato meant by it, an entity that exists in a different realm than matter and which is superior to matter. For them, this "form" was what made art good if it was good. Kind of like the geometry that can be read into just about any shape, considered as something existing in a more important world than our everyday world. So this emphasis on form as the source of art's goodness became "formalism"

What Greenberg meant by "formalism" was simply a term he did not want people tagging him with. I once introduced him as the "father of modern criticism", which he accepted humbly and graciously. If I had said he was the "father of formalism" he would have killed me.



September 9, 2005, 8:01 PM

Sidney Tillim said "Formalism is anything Greenberg likes".

You probably can't get any closer than that.



September 9, 2005, 8:05 PM

BTW George the excerpt you entered in #2 is certainly one of the best things in the article, aside from the raptures about Helion.



September 9, 2005, 8:07 PM

I mean EXCEPT for the raptures on Helion. Sorry



September 10, 2005, 12:33 AM

I haven't read the article yet (thanks for the bug me not tip) but I'm left with the question, after reviewing the comments - who cares what writers think? Why should there be an argument or a discussion about it? If the answer is something like, 'because they shape perception', whose perception are they shaping?



September 10, 2005, 1:13 AM

Stuff: A serious contemplation on the process.

I'll use painting as the example but without the intent of exclusion.
Success/failure = subjective quality of goodness as art
Successful painting = subjective observation of good painting
Act = a quanta of action which changes the state of the object

A painting exists as an object, a thing with specific physical qualities which can be defined, enumerated and measured. It has dimension, weight, texture, color, reflectivity and any number of other physical properties. It is essentially a lump which carries the art.

The art of painting survives on its ontology, the summation of the physical acts which bring it into being as a visual object and as a work of art. Any single aspect of the process, a distinction or choice, may decide the success or failure of the object to function as art.

An act, is an aspect of the process which changes the state of the painting or the materials of the painting. An example of a simple act is the making a mark, another is erasing the mark and another is changing the color of the mark.

In itself, any single act is essentially irrelevant, it cannot guarantee success or failure in itself and achieves importance only when it is combined with other aspects of the process which result in an accumulation of actions which transform the object.

The implication of this is that one cannot construct a set of a priori rules guaranteed to create a sequence of acts which will make a successful painting. It is possible to make a copy but this is dependant on the original which is subject to the exclusion of guaranteed success.

A single act could possibly make a successful painting although it is likely what is considered a single act would be subject to subdivision, regardless this reductive set of actions must be included in the set of possibilities which result in a successful painting.

Considering a single act painting might appear excessively reductive but it can provide access to another consideration of what occurs in the process of making a successful painting. Earlier I proposed that a painting, is an accumulation of actions which transform the object successfully as art. The preceding statement assumes success or the subjective experience of art, if not then it is unsuccessful and just a lump with physical qualities similar to a painting but not art, or some degree in between.

The reason I paused to focus on the "single act" painting was to emphasize the potential for something akin to the lowest common denominator of a successful painting. It is not important to specifically categorize or define a "single act" painting, only to acknowledge that, at least in theory it can exist.

The next logical question would be, if a single act can generate success how to we qualify a multiple act painting which achieves success? Are the two experiences of success the same? I believe this is a pivotal question and the answer is no.

At this point I want to introduce the concept of resonance. Resonance occurs when multiple events act in a way which mutually reinforce one another, increasing their effect. There are a number of simple examples with certain color combinations but this is only a small part of the process I am referring to.

In a painting which is an accumulation of acts, a more complex set of relationships occur perceptually but more importantly they occur experientially. A painting is seen but it is also experienced and experiencing encompasses more than just visual observation. It includes visual memory, visual reference, symbolic reference, representational reference, in short all of the visual-psychological situations which occur in the experience of being. Many of the visual cues to psychological experience are extremely subtle, potentially personal and frequently come into being in the process of painting without direct intent but as a result of a subconscious decision.

My contention is that in a successful painting this accumulation of acts are resonant with on another and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. If we compare a successful "single act" painting with a successful painting which is a resonant accumulation of acts, we say experientially they are both "good" but the latter is "better" The phrase "resonant accumulation of acts" is not a trivial description, it is difficult to achieve because multiple experiential events can interfere with one another in a dissonant way. Never the less, when the process is successful the result is a joy to behold.



September 10, 2005, 7:20 AM

George, I think it would be more clear if you considered judgements rather than actions. This locates the source more accurately.

You can't really hypothosize a "single act" work of art succcessfuly without an example, and I am fearful that all this will do is once again raise the specter of the dreaded porcelain pisspot.



September 10, 2005, 8:59 AM

Op. I thought about judgments, actually a decision choice, as linked to the action.
The problem here is that while the act is a discreet event, which changes the state of the painting and therefore visible, even if only momentarily, the decision behind the act is essentially invisible, often indescribable or subconscious and therefore difficult characterize. In essence the act or change of the paintings state is the residue of the decision.

If you mean judgement in the sense of contemplating whether or not an act would make the painting successful or good, then I would suggest this is just a characteristic of a decision with the same caveats.

Regarding the "single act" work. For example, load the brush with white and make a white mark on an unmodified surface. Simplistic, yes but in theory one has to consider such a possibility could occur. Further, an action, something which changes the paintings state is not guaranteed to make the painting successful.

An act inherently has no built in qualities which guarantee success. For example, making a blue mark could as easily make a painting successful as it could ruin it. Again, this distinction might seem simplistic but what it does is separate the act from the context. An act only causes a state change, like making a mark where one didn't exist before so the painting now has this mark.

It is only in the context of the painting that the act has significance. It's potential to make the painting successful or not exists only in a context and therefore cannot be a quality or characteristic of an action itself. I think this is a crucial distinction which explains the difficulty in describing how an action or sequence of actions could make a painting successful. What works in one context, might not work in another, because what has the potential to make a painting successful is the accumulation of actions which transform the state of a specific object not any specific act.

While it is possible to mentally construct conditions or a sequence of acts which might appear to possess the potential of guaranteeing success I would disagree. The sequence of acts which accumulate to make a painting, successful or not appear to be somewhat like the weather, describable but unpredictable. What I am suggesting is that all artworks are subject to the butterfly effect (see also) which describes how minor changes in the initial state can have a large affect on the final outcome.

The implication here is that if an initial sequence of actions are not identical they will force the outcome to be different. From a mechanical standpoint, the accumulation of actions occur as a sequential set of responses to the prior painting state. Decisions are made based on the current state and this sequence of events very quickly becomes unique.



September 10, 2005, 10:13 AM

I understand that the act is visible where the judgement is not, but the acts which create a work remain just about impossible to follow unless they are actually followed, like ART NEWS did years ago with the "so and so paints a painting" series. I say this not to invalidate your observations but to indicate that the analysis may not be subject to much further particularization.

Arising from this observation of yours about "actions" within "context" is a further observation that every action derives from its given "context", which is the sum of a series previous actions, made visible, and that successive works will build on accumultated memories of procedure gained thereby.

Clearly when a discipline - such as painting, music, poetry etc - requests this kind of procedure it means that creating an such entity reflects a great density of choice, however simple it may end up being.

Perhaps it would be interesting to compare this procedure to one which bypasses virtually all of this working-out in favor of simply selecting a few things which when joined refer to an "idea".



September 10, 2005, 10:14 AM

Good questions, Timothy. I think we should pay attention to what writers have to say for one main reason: for fun. That may sound flip, but really, art would continue to function more or less in the way that it does without people writing about it. But as with most experiences, the writers are the ones doing the most work to record, interpret, argue, and explain those experiences. It all happens as a subsidiary project to the art project, but it helps to hammer a few pitons into the vagueness and emotionalism of art so that we can climb around it more easily.

I strongly recommend to everyone to sign up for Timothy's newsletter.

George: I think that everything becomes a unique event no matter what. Even so, I agree that nothing guarantees success of a good artistic outcome. Even strategies that work for a while eventually run out of gas, for mysterious reasons. In an attempt to figure out how all this works, I came up with a Four Element Theory. Hope it works for you.



September 10, 2005, 10:35 AM

Agreed, Franklin, for fun indeed, because it interests you. If other people are interested you have a discussion and that is more fun.

I think Timothy might well be asked "Why write about politics?". If you do an effectiveness analysis according to volume i think the ratio might be much lower than ours is.


Just thought

September 10, 2005, 11:08 AM

this might interest some of you.




September 10, 2005, 11:28 AM

Op, #24 to indicate that the analysis may not be subject to much further particularization. I would agree.

The initial impetus behind my observations was to examine to what degree an analysis of the object could reveal a set of constructs which would lead to a successful painting. While such analysis might be capable of retrospectively enhancing an understanding of the painting it cannot provide a path which guarantees a successful painting.

A retrospective analysis is made on a fixed set of accumulated actions which use only a subset of all the possibilities. In the process of creating a painting, the artist has access to all possibilities and an infinite number of paths, or sequences of acts, which lead to the final result and I am suggesting there can be no set of procedural rules which guarantee a successful painting. I remember the "so and so paints a painting" articles you refer to but ultimately they potentially only reveal something about the specific work documented

Arising from this observation of yours about "actions" within "context" is a further observation that every action derives from its given "context", which is the sum of a series previous actions, made visible, and that successive works will build on accumulated memories of procedure gained thereby.

This is correct.

I described something similar in #21 A painting is seen but it is also experienced and experiencing encompasses more than just visual observation. It includes visual memory, visual reference, symbolic reference, representational reference, in short all of the visual-psychological situations which occur in the experience of being.

The idea of complex experience, including both visual observation and memory, along with the concept of resonance seem to be the factors guiding the sequence of actions which result in a successful painting. If one just considers the transformation of the physical object, from a lump to a successful painting one might be willing to speculate that all the information necessary for understanding the painting is contained in the object. While this is true as far as it goes, what you see is what you get, it deals ineffectively with the complex experience of the painting. It is the complex experience which makes the painting transcend its objecthood.

Op: Re:of simply selecting a few things which when joined refer to an "idea". Can you elaborate on this?



September 10, 2005, 11:38 AM

"of simply selecting a few things which when joined refer to an "idea".

In other words, most postmoderist work. The postmodernist rejection of the visual allows this to happen, in fact encourages it.

Where the :"information" is located may be a kind of red herring. A painting is like a vitamin pill; until it is absorbed by a person it is just stuff. the value is within the interaction.



September 10, 2005, 11:42 AM

Many thanks for the Golden Foundation info, Just Thought. I knew about Golden, of course, but not their foundation.

I guess if you get a grant you will be able to buy more of that excellent but expensive Golden paint & medium. Pretty slick.



September 10, 2005, 12:08 PM

Quick comment, season's started, I'm off to look at art.

Since I was using painting as a model, I'm not attempting to reconcile work which rejects the visual. The question of the "idea" as an external referent is irrelevant as long as it directs the decisions of an act which changes the paintings state. In this case it cannot guarantee a successful painting only progress in the accumulation of acts which may or may not produce a successful painting.

An external idea or set of ideas may be applied to the process without prejudice, either for or against a successful painting and the final result will end up being the accumulation of all the acts.
An "idea" or "issue" does not posses the capability of guaranteeing a successful painting



September 10, 2005, 12:21 PM which rejects the visual

What, like Braille?

Visual art that 'rejects' the visual makes about as much sense as audible art (music) that 'rejects' the audible.



September 10, 2005, 12:24 PM

George, I think my comment was more directed toward an assessment of the potential for making good art when the judgements are non-visual and the density of choice is severely reduced.

Anyway, have fun looking at art.



September 10, 2005, 12:31 PM

It was an oversimplification, Matty. I meant art which deemphasizes visual factors of the art as factors of quality, usually by reducing their function to one of identification. In other words, if you have a face of a famous person it matters less how it is done or what it looks like than who the person is. I think it is safe to say that most postmodernist work operates on this premise.



September 10, 2005, 2:03 PM

I quite like looking at Braille.



September 11, 2005, 7:00 AM

Some postmortem conclusions on lump analysis.

Brief: In the real world, the painting is the residue of a sequence of accumulated decisions which aspires to existing as a stimulus of something more that the simple combination of its pictorial and physical attributes.

Criticism: One can categorize and analyze the pictorial and physical attributes of a painting, its color, composition, texture etc in retrospect and postulate a critical response, a post mortem analysis on the corpse. Formalist criticism is allowable

Theory: On the other hand, the construction of the painting, it's process of creation, the accumulation of discrete acts which change the paintings state, is a chaotic process, at least in part, and resistant to the construction of a programmatic theory to produce success. Formalist theory is not

next, those pesky decisions.



September 11, 2005, 7:37 AM

I think the process is anything but "chaotic", George. It is by nature non-formulaic, but this is not the same as chaotic.

"Formalism", as it is used now when talking about visual art, is, ironically, completely non-threoretical. In fact I would say that the hallmark of the "Greenberg type" of approach to art, which is what is meant by Formalism right now, is that it rejects theory of any kind in favor of intuitive response. This is why it is hated so much.



September 11, 2005, 8:54 AM

Yes oldpro, "formalism" as the "Greenberg type" approach is detested. It certainly rejects theory and that goes against the grain of the majority. But it also leads to beauty, which is not where taste in decline wants to go.

As much as Greenberg and Rosenberg aruged with each other, "hate" did not enter their contest. Both approaches wound up liking the same good artists and the system caught up rather quickly - measured by today's standards, anyway. After 30-40 years of sinking to one new low after another, the art system has lost most of its capacity to accomodate the best art, so it instinctively hates anything that would make it begin the now overwhelming task. The intuitive approach you speak of, whether used to address Duchamp's urinal or Hirst's sliced up shark, leaves the art establishment holding an empty bag. They don't want to face that either.



September 11, 2005, 9:28 AM

By chaotic, I do not mean disordered which is how I think people view the word chaos. I was using the term in the way Lorentz was using it to describe the weather, where small changes in the initial state, can have a potentially major effect on the final outcome. This is not the same as disordered, most mathematical examples of chaos theory, like the pictures you see of the Mandelbrot set are produced from mathematical formulas and produce an ever changing set of images.

I understand your general objection to the word chaotic but I still think that it is correct but subject to the concept granularity, which allows for cases where the final overall result appears predictable and ordered, but all the little details would fall under the unpredictability implications of chaos theory.

As I am using the term "chaotic" it would include the concept of non-formulaic.



September 11, 2005, 9:53 AM

cha0os (kE2Äs1) n.
1. A condition or place of great disorder or confusion.
2. A disorderly mass; a jumble.
3. Often Chaos. The disordered state of unformed matter and infinite space supposed in some cosmogonic views to have existed before the ordered universe.
4. Obsolete. An abyss; a chasm. —cha0ot2ic (-Ät2≤k) adj. —cha0ot2i0cal0ly adv.



September 11, 2005, 9:55 AM


"But it also leads to beauty, which is not where taste in decline wants to go."




September 11, 2005, 9:57 AM

Catfish, re #38, while I know what you are implying in the remark:
It certainly rejects theory and that goes against the grain of the majority. But it also leads to beauty, which is not where taste in decline wants to go.

Here the word "it" refers to "formalism" as the "Greenberg type" approach in the prior sentence. I agree that formalism cannot produce a theory in the sense of providing a set of decision based events that are guaranteed to lead to a successful painting. Since this is the case it cannot necessarily lead to beauty or anywhere else. It can be used in an iterative, reflexive, self critical process to guide the outcome of the accumulated actions which potentially can produce a successful painting.

In itself, there is no guarantee that the analysis of any single act in the process will or won't lead to the making of a successful painting. The problem exists because the set of choices which produce a state change are binary in nature. That is you can paint something blue or not and inherently this is only a bifurcation point in a sequence of accumulated acts which change the state of the object and not an observation or rule which will guarantee success at the end.

Part of the problem here exists because as a painter one knows there are a huge set of possible decisions or , more importantly, reasons for decisions which can exist at any particular point in time in the process of making a painting. Frequently the decision itself will appear trivial, paint it blue, but I suggest that it is not because it is an act which produces a state change and therefore all of the following acts include this seemingly trivial decision-result in their context.

From a practical point of view a painter makes "formal" decisions all the time in the process of making a painting which is probably where the discussion should have been left, in the studio and not in print.



September 11, 2005, 10:06 AM

Oldpro, We agree on what chaos means, I tried to push the viewpoint towards "chaos theory" where the term "chaotic" is used in a slightly different way.

In chaos theory the term chaotic is implying that the end result is highly dependant on decisions made at an earlier starting point. These variations can appear in a way which can produce behavior which may appear chaotic or disordered (as to where it ended up) but in fact is NOT and is the result of an orderly process from a slightly different starting point.



September 11, 2005, 12:05 PM

Geroge, "formalism" or "the intuitive approach" (which I like better) is a way of getting to art, not making it. And you are right, it does not necessarily lead to beauty - nothing does as far as I can tell. But it is nonetheless a necessary condition for enjoying art. The analysis of art does not lead to beauty because it artifically breaks down art's integrity; intuition takes things in all at once, as they are.



September 11, 2005, 12:12 PM

About painting: Deborah Butterfield once told me she didn't like painting because there were too many decisons and they came in almost every instance of working. But these decisions are not often rational. True, we may have an understanding of our methods, but their application is largely intuitive. We "paint from the heart" is a sentimental way to put it. "We just paint" is more direct.



September 11, 2005, 12:58 PM

Yes, Catfish (#38), when people or systems become heavily invested in, committed to, and/or disciples of what amounts to a false doctrine, and this goes on long enough and deep enough, it's probably beyond ordinary human capacity to admit such a degree of error, let alone correct it. It's sort of like forcibly uprooting a tree, tearing it out of its long-accustomed ground--something like Katrina can do it, but it's not nice and it's not pretty, and the typical human impulse is to avoid such disruption by any means available.



September 11, 2005, 1:24 PM

... more Schopenhauer:

It is quite natural that we should adopt a defensive and negative attitude towards every new opinion concerning something on which we already have an opinion of our own.
For it forces its way as an enemy into the previously closed system of our own convictions, shatters the calm of mind we have attained through this system, demands renewed efforts of us and declares our former efforts to have been in vain.
A truth which retrieves us from error is consequently to be compared with a physic, as much for its bitter and repellent taste as for the fact that it takes effect not at the moment it is imbibed but only some time afterwards.



September 11, 2005, 1:45 PM

Very good Matty. A "Physic" is what we need. And somewhere to flush the results.

George - logic again. You say that because Formalism cannot produce a theory it cannot necessarily lead to beauty or anything wlse. Although you wisely interjected the qualifier "necesasarily" the strong implication is that something lacking theory cannot lead anywhere. As Catfish says, Formalism may not lead to anything, but the attitude it embodies may be a necessary condition for beauty, good art, or whaever you want to call it.

(For those who wish to disagree with me as a matter of course I am referring to #42, paragraph 2)

I have no "general objection to the word chaotic" at all. I objected to your redefinition of it. Again, you are putting words in my mouth. if we are gojng to discuss these difficult matters, can we please use dictionary definitions? Otherwise things just get very confused. (#39, paragraph 2)



September 11, 2005, 2:19 PM

Chaos theory has an unfortunate name; it refers to its ability to create chaotic looking organizations via strange iterators that exist in non-integer dimensions, like 4.3. "Systems that exhibit mathematical chaos are deterministic and thus orderly in some sense; this technical use of the word chaos is at odds with common parlance, which suggests complete disorder." I defer to George's considerable numeracy but we're still talking about a regular system.

Whereas intuition seems to derive from true chaos, or at least some inaccessible lake of consciousness that you can take handfulls of water from, but can't dive into and still operate normally. Chaos theory may have much to tell us but I doubt it will shed much light on art. At the same time, we need order as artists. I have been thinking a lot about modeled form lately, and even abstraction comes down to some specific variables.



September 11, 2005, 2:49 PM

Franklin, I'll agree on "chaos thoery" is an unfortunate choice of a name.

What you are describing as non-integer dimensions is a description attached to fractals. The surfaces in my bent metal pieces are fractal with a dimension somewhere around 2.2. There are a lot of geological things that are fractal, coastlines for example, which exhibit the property of invariance under scaling. This means, that although the scaled views are not congruent with one another that exhibit similar "bumpiness" and in that respect look the same.

Pictures like the Mandlebrot set which I linked earlier are peculiar mathametacal mappings. The X-Y coordinates of the plot are in the imaginary plane where numbers have a real component (1*1=1) and an imaginary component (i*I=-1). The paisley looking diagrams are made bu looping a function, starting at an X-Y point and counting the number of loops before the number escapes to infinity, or hits an "attractor" The color of each point is assigned, well what mathematicians think of as artistically = arbitrarily. It is really quite remarkanble to see the kinds of patterns which show up.



September 11, 2005, 3:05 PM

Op re #48, nope, I used the qualifier "necessarily" specifically. And, to the contrary, I seriously doubt that any "theory" can be shown to guarantee it will produce a successful painting. That was my point.

Formal analysis, the analysis of the characteristics of the form (in the extended sense) of painting, I think is a valid process. It is what painters do to one degree or another. In the sense that knowledge of the practice, and intuition allows one to make "better" formal decisions which can potentially lead to a successful painting it has value but it is not a theory.

On the other hand, I view the term "formalist" or "formalism" as only applicable in a critical discourse, after the fact of a paintings existence. This is a type of retroactive analysis which uses aspects of the studio practice to critique the work. While limited in scope, I consider it a valid method, but not a theory.



September 11, 2005, 3:17 PM

So George, if I read you right, you are using the word "Formalist" to decribe a type of criticism, not a type of art.
Oui ou non?



September 11, 2005, 3:52 PM

Matty, I'm not sure how the term "formalist" is generally used.

To me it makes the most sense when applied to criticism.

Saying painting is "formalist" would imply to me that, in the practice, the artist is choosing to limit the focus of the decision making process to the formal characteristics of painting. This seems like it is a subset of the form.



September 11, 2005, 4:14 PM

Like my posted Greenberg quote on the term, back on the "herald" page, noted, the term "formalist" is generally used as an insult, signifying not much more than an antagonism to the art and artists who get tarred with it. Unfortunately it continues to be used by people who otherwise cannot adequately define it. Oh well, so be it.

I was interested in your use of it though, as it seems you are not calling a work "formalist", or an artist a "formalist", or even a critic as a "formalist", but are instead simply labelling a certain approach to art as "formalist"... this seems acceptable, as long as by "Formalist", we are using the dictionary definition, also noted in my orginal Greenberg post on the "herald" page. (ie. "Emphatic or predominant attention to
arrangement, esp. to prescribed or traditional rules of composition, in
painting and sculpture." )

If this is all we're talking about when we speak of "Formalism", then I admit it does describe my approach to both art criticism AND art making (art making, of course, implies art criticism, as the artist is the first critic of the work-in-progress). Of course, it also describes the approach to art taken by virtually all of human art history, up until postmodernism.



September 11, 2005, 4:22 PM

"Formalism" therefore, is misleading when used to specifically describe the artwork of the 50's, or the contemporary artists' championed by Greenberg, or its other common uses... when it would serve just as adequately to describe the work of Vermeer, or any other number of artists who clearly give 'emphatic or predominant attention to arrangement'.



September 11, 2005, 4:36 PM

Matty #54: …as it seems you are not calling a work "formalist", or an artist a "formalist", or even a critic as a "formalist", but are instead simply labeling a certain approach to art as "formalist"…

First off, I wouldn't use an "ism", any "ism", to insult someone. This is one of the major mistakes one can make in discussing art, dismissing an entire category or body of work in one broad swoop. Life isn't like that, there are good things mixed in with the bad and bad things mixed in with the good, you have to look closely.

To me "formal issues" always referred back to the practice of painting, its characteristics and how they were used. Color, line, shape, composition, surface, edges, boundaries, repetition, texture, transparency, opticality, tonality, saturation, direction, speed, accident. I don't care how anyone else defines them because, for myself, I use this type of analysis or decision making intuitively in the process of working. For the most part it is just part of the studio practice and not the focus of the work.

I think you make the fell swoop mistake when you dismiss postmodernism the way you do, I believe this is a naive assumption and incorrect.



September 11, 2005, 5:11 PM

"Formalism" is a word in search of meaning. Clearly it is a curseword for most of the art world, devoted as they are to being "open-minded" sorts, like the unfortunate Tyler Green, who smugly declares on his blog that he looks forward to "not reading Jed Perl's 7,400-word rant in favor of closed-minded conservatism or formalism or whatever." To them the word signifies all that is close-minded, elitist, judgemental, and, even worse, outdated and not with-it. Something not even worth hearing about.

There is a much smaller but very stubborn and determined group, many of whom float on the sea of Postmodernism surrounded by preserved sharks, crowding on tiny rafts like, waiting to be rescued.

They deplore the word, but realize it is the only living term that stands for that they treasure in art: simple delight in visual form. Not just "arrangement", but everything that is there; as George says above "Color, line, shape, composition, surface, edges, boundaries, repetition, texture, transparency, opticality, tonality, saturation, direction, speed, accident." and of course anything else.

To them art is an incomparable pleasure that is increasingly rare.

Sooner or later people will demand the real thing again. Who knows when.



September 11, 2005, 6:36 PM

Oldpro said it all: There is a much smaller but very stubborn and determined group, many of whom float on the sea of Postmodernism surrounded by preserved sharks, crowding on tiny rafts like, waiting to be rescued.

That is our posture. We know what we see when we see it. It is that simple.

It looks like we have a long wait, though.



September 11, 2005, 6:54 PM

Well, I slogged through the whole Perl article. Formalism doesn't serve him well as a trope for his gallery crawl, and he all but admits as much on page 3 with:

And when the painting as a whole is discussed, it is frequently in terms of how a sense of three-dimensional space can be rendered on a two-dimensional surface, so that formalism (if we can call it that) becomes not an end but a means to an end.

I think at this point we're talking about form, not formalism. Just plain form-making. And yes, the contemporary art world slights the receptive, reflective act of form-making for its own sake, but that doesn't have much to do with formalism as a practice or belief system or critical stance.

Modern Kicks just cited Green's previous exasperation with Perl. I agree I that I wanted to stab an editorial pencil through my screen a few times and the whole thing rambles, but he did produce this: " I will gladly go to see Hassenfeld's and Burns's work again. At least they know the ticklish fun of making things." Well said.

And too, that opening about the new vogue of knocking the art world looks like an astute and fruitful observation, as something potentially indicating an ennui that has infected the core of the trendiods. If he could drive around formalism he might end up at a better conclusion.



September 11, 2005, 6:57 PM

There is a much smaller but very stubborn and determined group, many of whom float on the sea of Postmodernism surrounded by preserved sharks, crowding on tiny rafts like, waiting to be rescued.

I don't want to be rescued. I want a nicer boat.



September 11, 2005, 6:59 PM

So yesterday, I itended to go to the galleries with my friend Biff but I got sidetracked looking at the paintings he had started in the mountains of North Carolina last month, studio talk The midday passed over a bottle of wine and a bottle of home-brew beer before we decided to go to see the Helion show at The National Academy, sounds so, well sigh.

Anyhow, it was kind of a mixed bag but one thing was for sure, Helion was out of sync ten years ahead of his time. It is a curious problem and a possible curse. Well, the only reason I brought it up was because of his earlier abstractions. There were these shapy abstract paintings (remember those oldpro, housepaint and all?) and the ones which were in that constructivist style like Mondrian.

Have you ever noticed that Mondrian made the most perfect paintings in that style and that all the others always "sort of look like a Mondrian" That's greatness.



September 11, 2005, 7:01 PM

Franklin That was really funny ;-)



September 11, 2005, 7:50 PM

That's right Franklin, but not the Titanic. That's what all those other folks are riding. The ship that cannot sink.

Modern Kicks says Jed Perl is the worst art writer going. No, that is just wrong; there is way too much competition for that distinction. Perl has his faults, and like all critics who don't have a good eye he is good then he is on the attack, as with Richter some time ago. In fact I would put him above the middle of the pack. At least you can understand what he is saying.

Helion was "ahead of his time" Like de Chirico, because he started making really bad paintings before a lot of other people began making similar really bad paintings.

The Mondrian phenomenon is interesting George, because it can be an good object lesson for someone who doesn't understand modern art very well but want to. Just lay out Mondrian and all the rest of that ilk and even though it is just squares and lines and saturated colors pretty soon they see the light.



September 11, 2005, 8:02 PM

Hey oldpro, whatever happened to those early paintings of yours, 68-70'ish? As I recall they were made up with these abstract polygons that had one side curved and were painted using tonalities found in commercial paint. I always thought that was an interesting body of wor, but they don't google.



September 11, 2005, 8:28 PM

They were from the early - the mid 60s, George. They are all in collections & museums.

Because I did (very) minimalist paintings way before just about all of those guys i am trying to get some gallery to do a "rediscovery", because I still have a couple dozen of them and they are damn good, if I do say so myself. With the current interest in minimalism and a big omnibus book on 60/70s minimalism just published in France which features them I think it would be a gold mine for them. But I am the worst promoter there is, and gallery owners are not all that imaginative or businesslike.


E. Gibbons

September 11, 2005, 9:06 PM

I have been a reader of your site and came upon some art I think you might like and may even want to write about. This artist works mainly with the male figurative nude, but in a VERY classical way. You can see his PAINTINGS (some people think they are photos) at You can even write to the artist at this address and I will forward it to him.

He is very good about representing a variety of ethnicity in his work and it shows. He does paint the female form as you'll see in the link but focuses on the less seen 'male nude' Please feel free to click on any image for a web-publishable copy. His work is on display, right now, in Paris, London, Provincetown, Princeton, Philadelphia and coming to Los Angeles (Hollywood) Columbus Weekend in a few weeks.

I hope you find it interesting as I find your site a pleasure to read.




September 11, 2005, 9:45 PM

These paintings make me sick to my stomach. Please don't do any more!



September 11, 2005, 10:13 PM

think you make the fell swoop mistake when you dismiss postmodernism the way you do, I believe this is a naive assumption and incorrect.

I didn't mean anything in my post to be an accusation, I was just trying to be clear on what you were describing... so thanks for that.

I also wasn't making any accusations (or dismissals) of postmodernism, I don't think anyway, in my previous post. The suggestion that postmodernism represents 'a break from the past', or the notion of so-called 'postmodernism' being diametrically opposed to so-called 'formalism', is not something I've projected onto the postmodernists... rather it is what they say themselves. Unless I'm mistaken... if I am, I'm sure someone will be happy to correct me...



September 11, 2005, 10:28 PM

Old Pro
Mitchell Algus would be a great resource for you, 511 25th St.



September 11, 2005, 11:04 PM

I don't mind the raft as a characterization too much. It seems this craft's resources are stretched a little thin by this point, as the analogy will be if I follow this thought any longer. I sympathize with Franklin's desire for a better boat, just a good boat would suffice.

Sorry, George. I won't be following your prescription for making good paintings. I'm a sculptor, see, not a painter. Seriously, though, the particularization of process which you have attempted to describe (formalize) is both too particular, and not particular enough. Observing the act of painting (your act of painting) changed it perforce - conflicts of interest are of the same nature as quantum leaps.

You may call me a goodist if you want.



September 11, 2005, 11:09 PM

For the record, ModKix was citing Tyler Green saying that Perl "is almost certainly, the worst writer on art in North America." Although his diagnosis doesn't hold up, Perl at least knows that something doesn't smell right in the art world, which puts him ahead of many writers who've become used to the stench. I think he's getting Helion wrong but what an interesting painter to get wrong! Some artists have such power that you get more out of seeing them fail than you get watching other artists succeed. Perl may have a similar quality as a writer. I haven't decided yet for sure.

Goodism! Sign me up.



September 11, 2005, 11:44 PM

Sorry about the wrong attribution. I should have checked more carefully..

What you said about Helion reminded me of a review Greenberg write about a Masson show. He said it was “a debacle, in which there is little that is second-rate.”



September 11, 2005, 11:50 PM

Thanjks, Elizabeth. I talked to Algus two years ago. Nada.

Besides, I am angling for more of a heavy-duty gallery at this point.



September 12, 2005, 12:15 AM

Oldpro re#65. That sounds right, I think I first read about them in 68 or so. I asked because I had looked awhile back to see if I could find pictures but I couldn't. Regardless, I still have a vague memory of them and that says something. It would be interesting to see them shown together again.

Matty re #68. Sorry, I didn't meanto be accusatory, more just cautionary. I'm not sure if your assumptions about postmodernism are correct, but aside from a few specific topics which we've discussed here I haven't actually thought about it that much.

ahab re#70 That's cool. I explained in the first comment that I was using "painting" because it was what I knew and what I had thought about. What I wrote was intended to be general "painting" could be replaced by "art" and "successful" is synonymous with "good art" (as used here) What I was writing was definitely not a "prescription for making "good paintings", to the contrary I essentially am arguing that there can be no formula which does this. My discussion of the process was intentionally abstract and generalized in an attempt to consider all possibilities without knowing them in advance.

It was serendipitous you brought up the term "quantum".
Roger Penrose, the famous mathematician has written two books The emperors New Mind and Shadows of the Mind which are concerned with consciousness (among other things) In the second book he ask the question whether or not consciousness is a Turing process or a Quantum process. The idea that consciousness is a quantum process has interesting implications and I thought the notion might be substituted for the "chaos theory" concept I alluded to earlier. I read these books when they were first published and I'm going to finish rereading "Shadows of the Mind" before I make any further comments on the subject.



September 12, 2005, 2:40 AM

I retract my willingness to be called a goodist. Even the word 'good' is treacherous. Just drop in on B. Yoder's blogsite. I'm sorry I did.

I'm a discernist, judgist, inventist, creationist - nope already taken, workist, experimentist, cut-it-in-halfist, norulesist, attitudist, retryist.

Nothing left but giveupism.



September 12, 2005, 7:35 AM

oldpro: Modern Kicks says Jed Perl is the worst art writer going. No, that is just wrong; there is way too much competition for that distinction.

As Franklin said, those were Tyler's words I was quoting. But while I agree with the rest of what he said (that's why I posted it), I'm with you here. Too much competition indeed.

While I'd agree that the term "formalism" isn't entirely useful or accurate, I think we do have a "know it when we see it" understanding of it. And Perl has always been extremely hostile to it. Aside from the comment on color field in this article, check out his negative assessment of Abstract Expressionism in his Gallery Going anthology. I can understand the impulse to cheer his attacks on a lot of what's out there, but it seems to me that he's working from a very odd perspective that distorts his judgment. Or rather, too reliable: knowing his ideal of a blend of School of Paris aesthetics with an Old Master aura, I have a pretty good sense of what's he's going to write on any issue or artist. In fact, I've read variations on this article a couple of times already.

For the bloat and repetition, however I do blame his editor. The New Republic's back of the book remains excellent in many respects, especially regarding philosophy and history reviews. But I don't feel the same level of interest toward the visual arts. That's a whole other topic, however.



September 12, 2005, 8:15 AM

I have a feeling that if I read more of Perl's writing my opinion of it would descend rapidly. When you find yourself defending a critic because once in a while he criticizes something no good and overblown it means art writing in general is meager. Greenberg said the test of an eye is what the person likes. There are not many eyes around, not getting into print, anyway.



September 12, 2005, 8:32 PM

Op, (re #9) I don't know if they can or can't stand him, or if it even matters.

Unless someone new takes up the gauntlet, Greenberg will continue to be read in an academic context only, historically contextualized like Bell and Fry and not part of the current dialog.

Further any building on the foundation set down by CG will have to deal with art in the current context and I mean deal with it, not dismiss it. It is easy to say "that sucks" in enough words to get paid. It is a significant task to discuss the work in such a way that both its strengths and weaknesses are revealed to the audience on a case by case basis. You can't just go out and say "that sucked" and expect to change anything, change comes through understanding.

In my opinion one of the roles of the critic is to provide a path to understanding of a by work revealing its strengths and weaknesses. If the critic takes the position, "I know best and this is good and that sucks" in 500 words followed by a period, what does the reader get? What do they learn or are they doomed be an outsider of an elitist group? Err on the side of generosity it's a position with little risk relative top the potential reward.

We live in a culture cursed by the sound bite. You would think that the art world would be beyond that but alas it is not. The line I quoted from Perl This kind of looking, with all its variety and surprise, puts immense demands on the viewer is about close looking, like close reading, not just skimming over the surface but taking the time to unravel the relationships. People don't do this, they walk in and they walk out, badda bim, badda boom. Why? because they don't know what to look for. This Jed Perl guy wants to be a hotshot, but he doesn't have the moxi to get down in the mud and find the pearl. That makes him just another (expletive deleted)

Somebody should send Jed Perl an email inviting him to come over here and trade punches, I'll bet he doesn't have the balls.



September 13, 2005, 10:01 AM

Franklin, In my speed reading glossed over the link in comment #25 on your Four Element Theory. I took a look at it this morning and it has some potential as a starting place because it is inclusive.



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