The Curse of Formalism

In the skirmishes that define institutional histories of visual art, minimalism has had some significant victories. Its early proponents successfully challenged the dominance of the Clement Greenberg school of formalism in the mid-1960s by reacting against what they saw as the excesses of expressionism in the ‘all-over’ painting that Greenberg championed. Minimalism quickly became an accepted and perhaps favoured institutional style. Nearly four decades later, in 2001, Madonna presented Martin Creed with the Turner Prize for his work The Lights Going On and Off, an empty room in which the lights do as the title says on a ten second cycle. Another small victory for minimalism? Yes, but we might also argue that by 2001 minimalism had itself become part of a broader and thoroughly institutionalised formalism.

The 2001 Turner Prize is a useful example in thinking about the characteristics of the formalist-minimalist alliance and how it might continue to be a dominant mode in contemporary art practice. In the lead up to the announcement of the prize, Mike Nelson had been touted by some as a potential winner for his work The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent. In this case, the title doesn’t say it all. But it does say quite a lot and it is appropriate, in a poetic way, as a title for the awkward and dusty configuration of windowless rooms that Nelson built from salvaged materials within the walls of the Tate gallery. Nelson’s spaces were genuinely perplexing, not least because they were so convincing that it was difficult to see them as artifice. You were forced to try to make sense of the tangible reality of the spaces, to work out what might have happened there. Why the shabby chair and desk at the end of the corridor? The racks of doors and the odd assortment of items behind a floor to ceiling chicken wire fence – what to make of that? The spaces were at once disturbing and full of poetic allusion. Call it what you like, but it wasn’t minimalism.

So why did Martin Creed’s rehashing of 1960s minimalism carry the day over a far more intriguing and elaborate work? And what can this example tell us about the art world more generally? Creed’s Turner Prize victory caused the kind of superficial controversy that people like Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, must love. Tabloids and average punters can scream that ‘this isn’t art’, while Serota can count all those extra inches of press coverage in publications that don’t even have an arts section. No one is really offended and you get free publicity. Perfect.

Despite the superficial controversy surrounding the selection of Martin Creed by jurors (who included Serota), the decision can be seen as deeply conservative. The clean shaven, well-dressed, charismatic Creed was himself a highly marketable shiny minimalist surface, whereas Mike Nelson’s awkward, baroque, literary approach drew the following question from the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones prior to the announcement of the prize: ‘Nelson is being touted as the next big thing in British art. But is he just too strange?’ For the Turner Prize jury the answer appeared to be yes.

While this example is meant to be illustrative in a general sense, I don’t want to make too much of it. Despite the fact that he was snubbed for the Turner Prize twice (he was nominated again in 2007), Mike Nelson’s work has been widely praised and he is without doubt a successful artist. The larger and more important question is whether the formalist-minimalist alliance has had a broader and more insidious discursive victory that has led to a continuing marginalisation of certain types of art practice in contemporary art institutions. This is an altogether thornier question than that of the relative merits of the Turner Prize nominees in any given year, and it provokes a series of other questions. What structures and practices might support an institutionalised formalist-minimalist alliance and how did we arrive at this discursive formation?

One of the explanations for minimalism’s success in challenging formalism in the 1960s is that it wasn’t really a challenge at all. Minimalism may well have functioned as a clean critique of abstract expressionism’s perceived excesses, but it wasn’t a great rupture with formalism. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth summed this up in describing his relationship to minimalism: ‘Minimalism – as important as it was to us – still functioned as sculpture … which meant that its dispute with formalism could be trivialized as one of taste.’

I think we can argue that, from an institutional point of view, the dispute of taste was a rather minor kerfuffle and that minimalism quickly became another chaos-slaying arrow in the formalist critic’s quiver. Minimalism won institutional acceptance because it found a way to dance to the formalist tune. But why, half a century later, is the formalist-minimalist alliance still a dominant discursive formation?

To answer this question we might consider another reason for the institutional success of 1960s minimalism. Minimalism was a style that fit neatly with the pristine white cube and modern architectural trimmings of large galleries and museums, a bit like the painting that goes well with the sofa. This might seem flippant but there is a point to be made here, a point that might be illustrated with reference to Wangechi Mutu’s recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (23 May-14 August 2013). This exhibition eschews any aspiration to formalist-minimalist cool. Rough and raw grey felt replace the clean gallery walls as a video projection surface. Brown packing tape is used to create strange sculptural forms that grow from the floor of the gallery. Wine bottles are suspended above a table, with what was once their contents staining its surface and lending the whole space a wine-soaked scent. There is a kind of material intensity here that I appreciate, but that sits a little uneasily in the white walls and impeccable institutional surroundings of the MCA.

Regular gallery goers in Sydney have come to appreciate how much the grimy industrial surrounds of Cockatoo Island can add to the work of artists like Mike Parr and or even William Kentridge (whose work would rarely, if ever, feel out of place in the white cube). And yet a pokey corridor and an uneven and unpainted wall gave his animations and video projections in the 2008 Sydney Biennale an affective dimension that would be impossible to replicate in a pristine gallery. The broader point here is that the institutional white cube is in no way a neutral space. It is sympathetic to a particular kind of formalist-minimalist art practice and is far from being the best context for other kinds or work, including, perhaps, the work that Wangechi Mutu presented at the MCA.

Another reason for the dominance of the formalist-minimalist alliance is the commercial imperatives that continue to operate on art and its institutions. The formalist discourse, with its clear subject-object distinction, continues to be the most useful language for contemporary art commerce, which is still dominated by the sale of objects.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Mike Nelson’s first show as part of 303 Gallery’s star studded stable of artists in New York presented the viewer with a series of old-fashioned caravans on wooden pillars that were knowable and comprehensible as objects from the outside, unlike many of his installations that subject you to an experience and never allow you occupy the position of detached observer. Yes, the caravans were unwieldy objects and the language of formalism was no doubt inadequate to describe your experience of the worlds inside, but Nelson gave his gallery a formalist hook that perhaps helped them in the task of selling the work as sculpture.

There is another kind of selling that often does not involve a financial transaction but still relies on the formalist discourse. I am talking about the soft sell of the curatorial or catalogue essay and a significant proportion of reviews. Curators often attempt to provide the art in their show with an intelligible curatorial rationale and in so doing attempt to sell us on the merits of their selections. Reviewers working in this way often echo the form of the curatorial essay without offering any depth of analysis or serious critical engagement.

So what is this formalist art writing? What are the forces that shape it? What are the alternatives? Generally speaking, what I am describing here is the kind of writing that starts with a description of objects, images and surfaces, then offers a reading of what has been described, perhaps with an opinion tacked on at the end. For this type of writing there is nothing outside of the artwork, or at least nothing that cannot be summed up in a sentence or two, and certainly nothing that is worth dedicating any amount of time to researching. There is also a very clear subject-object distinction, which means that the writer is always clearly separate from what is being described and evaluated.

In a culture that has been subjecting us to intensities of experience for over a century, why is it that so many critics are still so heavily invested in a formal reading of works that relies on a clear subject-object distinction? Contemporary art criticism needs to find ways to kick the ‘reading’ habit, or at least subjugate it slightly. Unlike literature, reading in visual art is often a secondary activity. In many artworks, experience is primary. So why are we still acting as if we are detached subjects able to read objects unproblematically, rather than subjectively experience works of art?

I think this sort of writing dominates for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is an established form and therefore, like all habitual modes of thought, it does not require a great deal of effort or careful reflection on the part of the writer. Secondly, is an economical form in terms of both time and space. There are expediencies associated with getting the review out while the show is still on, and the constraints of space apply to both the curatorial essay and the review. The curatorial essay forms part of an art institution’s educational materials around a particular exhibition and for this reason it often needs to be a single A4 page or less, as is the case when part of the essay appears as a wall text in the gallery. Where the curatorial essay takes a longer form, the extra space is often used to cover more of the works in the exhibition, rather than going into greater depth about an individual work. In the case of the review, old measurements of column inches still dictate, to some degree, the expectations of the form. All of which leads to an impoverished discourse, particularly around the sort of work that does not fit neatly into this rather limited formalist framework.

What happens to the art that operates outside of this framework? I would suggest that it is dealt with in a number of ways. In some cases, work that cannot be neatly summed up in a catalogue essay or review is simply excluded from art institutions. In others, the work is included but the discourse around it is either reductive or generalising to the point of being utterly useless in furthering our understanding. Mike Nelson’s The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent is novelistic in its scope and deserves an equal level of engagement in the critical responses it provokes; instead, critics (seemingly more concerned with the cult of personality) ask whether Nelson is ‘just too strange’ to be ‘the next big thing’.

Work like Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off is great fodder for reviewers, art-bashing tabloids and curators alike. The title is the description, the art history references are many and close to hand, reading the work is a straightforward exercise, and opinions can be categorical and unproblematic. The review, the curatorial essay and the press release practically write themselves, and none of these forms need be any longer than a couple of paragraphs.

While I have chosen Creed’s work to illustrate my point, I do not want to give the wrong impression about what I am describing as the formalist-minimalist discourse. It is not something that applies to a particular style of work. Stylistically, there are many kinds of work that can be described and written about in a relatively straightforward way, and there is work that might present us with an outwardly minimal surface but that may require a sustained critical engagement to do it justice (James Turrell’s comes to mind here). What I am trying to suggest is that there are institutional structures that favour work that can be neatly summarised in a paragraph or a one page essay or – as is the case with the Australia Council’s ‘New Work’ grant applications – projects that can be easily described in two thousand characters or less and communicated in ten images or two minutes of video.

But the broader question here is finding the means to enrich the often impoverished discourse around contemporary arts practice, a question which leads us to ask: what are the strategies of post-formalist art writing and what are its ethics? Post-formalist art writing might start by taking seriously the task of thinking with and expanding on the artist’s use of physical and conceptual materials. Rather than simply reading objects, surfaces and images, post-formalist art writing makes an effort to recognise the conceptual, corporeal and perhaps mechanical thinking in a work, and then attempts to take that thinking a little further than the artists have done themselves. This sort of writing then becomes a contribution to the discursive space of the work, a kind of gift given by the writer to the artist (although not necessarily always one that the artist might want to receive).

Taking the thinking of the artist further can often mean going beyond the visual arts for references and interpretive strategies. Contemporary artists thoroughly research other art forms – the humanities, sciences, engineering and popular culture. Post-formalist art writing might do the same. Thinking further along these lines, post-formalist art writing also makes an effort to get inside of the processes that produce the work. Surfaces, objects and images do not arrive as if by some strange form of immaculate conception. Post-formalist writing engages an understanding of the philosophical, poetic and political dimensions of how things are produced.

The post-formalist art writer might also thoroughly describe their empathic connection to the body in performance, video, figurative and gestural art. What does the body behind this work feel? How do I come to know the experience of that body? The post-formalist art writer might also start with the idea that all art is interactive and we are users as much as we are viewers of the work. Here the emphasis is on the post-formalist art writer paying close attention to their own experience of the work and asking what does this work do to me? How do I use it or participate in creating the experience I am having? It then becomes useful to ask, in a slightly anthropological vein, how do other people use this artwork? Or to put slightly differently, what can I come to know about the work by observing the way others interact with it? Which leads to the question of how the context of the work, institutional or otherwise, influences the way people engage with it.

And from here we return to the question of space. For the post-formalist art writer there are no neutral spaces. All spaces are marked by their institutional affiliations, their history, their creative possibilities and their geographical contexts. At times, it becomes important to ask not only how do I experience this work and what does it mean to me, but also what does this work mean in this specific space and time? Indeed, specificity is crucial for post-formalist art writing. The writer seeks to engage with the specificity of each work on its own terms (i.e. the terms of the artists themselves) and treads very carefully on the ground of making general pronouncements about styles, movements and broad aesthetic categories. This is a writing that knows that too much generalising inevitably reduces specific works to examples of style or categories rather than seeing them in all of their specificity.

The ethics of post-formalist art writing are not limited to the idea of making a meaningful contribution to the broader contemporary art discourse. This sort of writing is important because its strategies can address the questions of how and why certain types of artistic practice are included or excluded by art institutions and how the very process of institutionalisation changes our experience of the work.

Read the correspondence for this article.


Mike Nelson, Quiver of Arrows, 303 Gallery.
Joseph Kosuth, ‘No Exit,’ Artforum 26, no. 7 (March 1988).  
Jonathan Jones, ‘Welcome to my worlds,’ The Guardian (5 September 2001).