Update: in response

The Curse of Formalism

Written in response to:

The Curse of Formalism

There are a number of aspects of Ben Denham’s article ‘The Curse of Formalism’ that trouble me. The most significant one is that he never actually tells us what he means by a formalist-minimalist alliance, nor does he attempt to describe how this alliance came about. He argues vaguely that ‘minimalism quickly became another chaos-slaying arrow in the formalist critic’s quiver’ and that ‘Minimalism won institutional acceptance because it found a way to dance to the formalist tune.’ But he never explains what this really means.

Denham does, however, attempt to illustrate the formalist-minimalist alliance in action by citing the example of Martin Creed’s work winning the Turner prize over the arguably more interesting work of Mike Nelson. While it is clear that Creed’s work engages with minimalism’s legacy, it is not clear how strict formal analysis of his art was a factor in the jury’s decision making.

The author also argues that ‘Minimalism was a style that fit neatly with the pristine white cube and modern architectural trimmings of large galleries and museums.’ He even extrapolates that the institutional white cube is ‘sympathetic to a particular kind of formalist-minimalist art practice’. But the relationship between minimalist art and institutional spaces has not always been so harmonious. During 1970, minimalist artist Robert Morris demanded his exhibition at the Whitney Museum be shut down. As Julia Bryan-Wilson explains:

[Morris] declared himself ‘on strike’ against the art system and further demanded that the Whitney close for two weeks to hold meetings for the art community, to address both the war and a general dissatisfaction with the art museum as an agent of power. In Morris’s view: ‘A reassessment of the art structure itself seems timely – its values, its policies, its modes of control, its economic presumptions, its hierarchy of existing power and administration.

⎯ ‘Hard Hats and Art Strikes: Robert Morris in 1970,’ The Art Bulletin, 89.2  (June, 2007).

This history of minimalist art and institutional critique is not mentioned in the article.

Denham also casually dismisses formalist criticism as ‘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.’ He goes on to argue that this form of writing dominates for two primary reasons:

1) because ‘it does not require a great deal of effort or careful reflection on the part of the writer’


2) because ‘it is an economical form in terms of both time and space’.

With regard to the first point, I would direct the author toward the incredibly detailed and thoughtful work of a number of writers whose criticism is grounded in formal analysis, for example, Michael Fried or Rosalind Krauss. The work of these critics is rigorous, highly detailed and well researched.

With regard to the second, the author makes no attempt to explain why a formalist critique of an artwork is necessarily more ‘economical’ than any other approach. Once again, I would point him to the dense and wordy analysis of the formalist critics cited above.

Denham argues for what he calls a ‘post-formalist’ writing that both ‘engages an understanding of the philosophical, poetic and political dimensions of how things are produced’ and ‘seeks to engage with the specificity of each work on its own terms.’ Here again, I would point the author to the work of art critic and historian Yve-Alain Bois, who clearly articulates why a critical approach rooted in formalism can produce the kind of art writing that the author champions. In his defence of formalism, Bois notes:

I have no bigger qualm about the enemies of formalism than their casual dismissal of the formal singularity of the artworks they wish to analyze. This dismissal produces, more often than not in the name of difference, a generic discourse that for all its grand claims leaves us ignorant and deskilled as to what to look for in any work of art and as to how to determine the questions it raises in particular. Dotting the i’s in observing the way in which Pollock’s paint bleeds might look trivial–but in the end it might reveal as much, if not more, about the history, context, ideological constraints, and so on, of postwar American painting than any analysis of its market and institutions.

Finally, the author argues for art writing that ‘treads very carefully on the ground of making general pronouncements’. The author understands that ‘too much generalising inevitably reduces specific works to examples of style or categories’. Unfortunately, Denham’s own arguments rely on numerous generalisations; he fails to cite specific cases where they would significantly strengthen his argument. For example: ‘Reviewers working in this way often echo the form of the curatorial essay without offering any depth of analysis or serious critical engagement.’ It would be useful to know which reviewers he is referring to in this instance.

I tend to agree with Bois when he says, ‘I think that if you want to write something about works of art then you better see the ways they have been made and the way they function in themselves first.’ I still think formal analysis has an important role to play in art writing. What’s more, I don’t believe that formalist criticism sufficiently explains why certain types of artistic practices are elevated within an institutional context.

Anna Taylor

Thank you to Anna Taylor for her carefully considered response to my article. On one level I had always intended the piece to be a provocation, so it is gratifying that it has provoked such a thorough response.

To define a little better what I mean by the formalist-minimalist alliance: I would say that it is an ideological position that values clean and concise visual statements that deploy a formal language over complex configurations of materials and experiences that upset formal categories.

While I see this position manifest in art institutions in various ways, the question of whether or not it is dominant could be the subject of a book length thesis. For this reason, I will only suggest that someone who is interested in a pluralist and expansive notion of art needs to be aware of this ideological position as potential pitfall when developing practices and forms of public discourse.

I see part of my role as an artist-writer as agitating on behalf of a pluralistic vision of art and doing what I can to introduce some of the more challenging contemporary art practices to a broader public. There are many practices that are not served by the kind of formal analysis that can be summed up by the idea that ‘if you want to write something about works of art then you better see the ways they have been made and the way they function in themselves first.’ There are many practices that do not function in themselves first, but function in relation first. This has always been problematic terrain for the formalist critic and is one of the reasons why a critic such as Michael Fried might insist on the importance of the autonomy of the artwork and place a higher value on what he calls anti-theatrical art.

In some the most innovative contemporary art, relation is primary. For example, Sydney artist Diego Bonetto’s practice involves leading foraging tours that draw people’s attention to the edible weeds that grow in their area. This is not an autonomous artwork that functions in itself first. Relation is primary because the social relations of the foraging tour are the art. This idea is not confined to works that might be considered under the rubric of ‘relational aesthetics’.

Or take the example of Joyce Hinterding’s antenna drawings. On a formal level, they might be described as a series of parallel graphite lines drawn on to paper or printed on glass. But the way these works function visually in themselves is far less interesting than the way they function in relation to the viewer and listener and the surrounding electro-magnetic fields. In this case, the fact that graphite both conducts and stores electrical charge means that the drawings provide us with the means to both listen to the electromagnetic fields that surround us and (in the case of the drawings on glass) contribute to and alter the charge that builds up in the drawing by touching. Relation is once again primary. While the work can be apprehended on a purely visual level it is only really understood when we recognise that it is an interface that allows us to tune into the drawings relation to the surrounding electromagnetic fields and to our own capacity to alter those fields.

What I am advocating is not an anti-formalist art writing but rather a position that recognises that the tools of a narrow kind of formal analysis are inadequate to writing about many types of practice that do not employ a well-defined formal aesthetic language or that resist formalisation. In this regard, I would also acknowledge that a narrow formalism is perhaps still the most useful way of looking at particular kinds of work in media that operate though a kind formal language (such as painting and sculpture).

The problem that I see here is that a narrow formal analysis is also deployed to write about media that cannot be reduced to formal elements. An example of this can be found in John McDonald’s review of the performance art exhibition 13 Rooms (April 2013). McDonald tells us that ‘13 Rooms is a celebration of performance art that conceives the human body as a portable sculpture’. While this might be a position that Gilbert and George subscribe to (McDonald cites them later in his article) this certainly is not the way that the majority of performance artists see their work.

Fortunately for McDonald, calling performance art ‘portable sculpture’ makes his job as a formalist critic a lot easier. Rather than having to develop new critical tools to apprehend work that has not been formalised to the degree that painting and sculpture have, he can simply transfer his understanding of sculpture onto another medium. In this sense, this sort of  writing requires less ‘effort or careful reflection on the part of the writer’. I would argue that this kind of formalism can be  ‘an economical form in terms of both time and space’ because it does not have to do the work of developing critical tools, or at least finding those that are most appropriate, to look at work that resists formalisation.

It is easier for the formalist critic to stick to a sculpture or painting-centric view and to filter their criticism through the parameters of those media. An example of the painting-centric mode of formalist criticism can be found in this article by Jed Perl in the New Republic. It starts out as a discussion of the waxing and waning of the importance of formalism in our understanding of visual art and ends with examples drawn almost exclusively from painting. So it is not at all surprising that Perl suggests that what one of his exemplary artists ‘teaches is that far from rejecting formalism, what we must do now is embrace formalism as well as its troubles’.

I acknowledge that I may have done a disservice to my argument by not including the examples I have discussed here in my original article. My rationale was that I would rather be agitating on behalf of the kind of writing that I think is important to the current contemporary art culture, and that I do not see enough of in the public discourse on art, rather than spend too much time critiquing examples of the approaches that I consider problematic.

In this positive spirit I would like to offer a two recent examples of what I think is particularly good writing about practices that resist formalisation. George Quasher and Charles Stein’s writing in An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works and Writings (2009) is exemplary in this regard. Both Quasher and Stein are friends with Gary Hill and their writing has the quality of a highly developed conversation with and around Hill’s practice. Douglas Kahn’s Earth Sound Earth Signal (2013) is also exemplary. In it he provides us with a comprehensive scientific and cultural context for the work of artists whose materials include natural and man-made radio frequencies and the electromagnetism that I mentioned with relation to Joyce Hinterding’s work.   Agitating on behalf of this kind of writing is motivated by the fact that I think it can be done not just in academic circles, but also in ‘mainstream’ publications where I think it has an important educational role in building a broader understanding of the culture that I value. Formalism did some important work in building a broader understanding of the new trajectories in modernist practice in the 1950s and 60s. How we do the same for the new modes of practice that are currently emerging is a pressing critical question. I would argue that while the tools of formalism may at times be a useful starting point, more often we need to look elsewhere to find the most effective ways of looking at newer modes of practice. This is why we need a genuine post-formalist approach to art writing and public criticism.

Ben Denham

Published December 3, 2013