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Piet Mondrian
Composition with Red,
Blue, Black, Yellow, and
, 1921
Oil on canvas,
29 7/8 x 20 5/8 inches
Museum of Modern Art,
New York
John Goodrich

Formalism: It Ain't What It Used to Be


“The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” 1

The words are Clement Greenberg’s, and a half-century later, it still seems curious that the most eloquent champion of Jackson Pollock—the personification of the leap-into-the-void, paint-slinging artist—wrote in such clipped, school-marmish prose. Greenberg, however, was probably the twentieth century’s most influential art critic, and certainly the most formidable advocate of a certain kind of formalist theory, as forceful and creative in his verbal medium as the Abstract Expressionist painters were in theirs. Who else could make a notion like “firm entrenchment in competence” sound exalted? Since the peak of his influence in the ’50s and ’60s, the question for formalist artists has been: what comes after Greenberg?
          Greenberg’s view of Modernism as a self-criticizing discipline was actually rooted in Kant’s theories of aesthetics and the perception that, starting with Manet and Courbet in the mid-nineteeth century, artists increasingly acknowledged painting’s essential, two-dimensional materiality. Cubism, in its tinkering with the picture plane, held a special place in Greenberg’s heart, and for him it was not only the last great European movement but also the launching point for the new American painting that came of age in the ’40s.
          Besides the brilliance of his argument, Greenberg’s point of view had another formidable aspect: its moral stance. We were to understand that there was, inherently, a logical progression to art, that artists were to be judged in its light, and that this evolution was to be towards an ever closer embrace of art’s unique and elemental properties.
          Pop Art and succeeding postmodernist movements resoundingly rejected this argument, but such was his authority that formalist artists of the ’60s aligned themselves either with or against his viewpoint. Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis won his seal of approval; he never warmed to the way that Frank Stella and Donald Judd tried to add their own links to his chain of thought.
          Viewed as a whole, Greenberg’s writings are nevertheless full of fresh observations and roving interests—and more than a few contradictions. In 1940, he sees form and expression as separate attributes—“I am still able to enjoy a Rembrandt more for its expressive qualities than for its achievement of abstract values—as rich as he may be in them.”2—but by 1957, they are one and the same: “Where art is sure of itself, formal discipline and expression operate as one—as much in Rembrandt as in Mondrian.”3 Which Greenberg should a formalist artist take as a model?
          Greenberg’s arguments indeed have limitations as roadmaps for making art, and even for its appreciation. He loved logic—and the possession of it—no less than art itself, and sometimes he seems to deduce rather than perceive. Occasionally even the logic wobbles. In 1962, he asserts that rectilinear forms and thinly painted, non-tactile surfaces are the most conducive to what he calls “color-space,” and continues: “[Color] speaks for itself by dissolving all definiteness of shape and distance. To this end—as Still was the first to show—it has to be a warm color, or cool color suffused with warmth.”4 Bad news for thick-painting de Kooning, and countless other accomplished colorists who used a cool hue or two.)
          And in 1960 there’s: “The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly.”5 And here we’re liable to finally throw down our Collected Greenberg and say “Oh, really,” because, judging from Rembrandt’s drawings and paintings, this artist positively thrived on such “limitations.” Everything memorable in Rembrandt’s work—everything that makes him that one painter in ten million— depends upon his exploitations of those most fundamental elements of painting: those flat bits of line and color, and, yes, their rectangular arena. Like other great masters, he was a formalist—though the conventions of his time (and ours) may make this difficult for modern viewers to perceive. Upon closer examination, however, Rembrandt tells us more about the actual working of lines and colors than Greenberg.
          During the course of long walks around Amsterdam, Rembrandt produced hundreds of drawings that capture the landscape with remarkable intensity. Often they do this with startling economy as well. If the seven inch- wide View over the IJ with ‘Het Baluwhoofd’ (c. 1645-49) feels far larger than its actual dimensions, it’s because simple locations and directional impulses of lines work complexly to elasticize our experience of space. Layered horizontals will always lead the eye, step by step, into the distance, but here Rembrandt’s pacing of their intervals gives a sense of land rolling rapidly to the horizon, where they become the launching point for the sky swelling slowly and luminously through the sheet’s upper two-thirds. In the mid-distance, boats huddle, releasing delicate rays of masts abruptly into this charged air. Observed in isolation, the ground plane’s horizontals hover crazily forward and back of the “picture plane;” there’s nothing logical about their function, only a powerful coherence in their interactions. Mere implications of contours turn areas of blank paper at the bottom to solid ground, and others at the top to distant, open space.
          Approaching art as a mobile experience of static elements, Rembrandt works in tensions, not signs, to produce an image far more persuasive than a passive, point-by-point recording. In short, he draws rather than illustrates. The easiest way to measure his achievement is to compare it with a lesser work: leaf through a book of Dutch drawings and compare to the skillful but less eloquent efforts of, say, his contemporary Philips Koninck.
          The term “Formalism” today usually applies to modern, geometric abstractions, and suggests an aura of austere and cerebral purpose. But some modern abstractionists capture much of Rembrandt’s vitality, demonstrating the permeability of the divide between abstraction and representation, and showing as well that a lively temperament can reside within an ascetic style. Mondrian brought to his geometric paintings the same sense of wonder and mysticism that’s apparent in the early landscapes marking his long, incremental journey to abstraction. His Composition with Red, Blue, Black, Yellow, and Gray (1921), in MoMA’s collection, is an arena of minutely adjusted intervals. It shows, as directly as possible, the way colors— retiring, interruptive, elusive, arresting—multiply every impulse of drawing, deflecting or accelerating their rhythms. At the right, two compact events—a weighty, radiant orange-red pressed to the very top, and a small bright yellow rectangle shouldering an impenetrable black at the bottom—stretch and contain an airy column of gray. The left side approximately reverses this, with a blue holding the middle portion. The grays in-between, quietly humming in varied pressures, are more than mere background; like every other element, they hold particular colors and intervals. While it is the most retiring of the colors, the blue is also the darkest and covers the most ground, and it deftly counterweights the farflung brighter hues. Colors condition the relationships of lines, and vice versa, in a climactic rhythm of tensions.
          A Rembrandt painting presents the incomprehensible: a vastly greater number of elements of line and color, and their countless interdependencies. But even though we can’t count them, we still sense their workings— in fact, we do so all the time in museums, when we register the remarkable columnar presence of a figure, the conviction of an extended arm, or the intensity of the figure’s gaze, and know that these were all communicated by Rembrandt with singular vitality. We find, too, a quality that Mondrian only partly exploits: startling shifts of internal scale, in which broad movements prepare for moments of minute focus.

1. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 85.
2. Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” in vol. 1, Perceptions and Judgments, 1939 -1944, p. 37.
3. Greenberg, “Picasso at Seventy-Five,” in vol. 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957- 1969, p. 32.
4. Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” p. 130-131.
5. Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” p. 86.

JOHN GOODRICH is a painter who exhibits at Bowery Gallery in New York City. He has also written regularly on art for Review Magazine and The New York Sun. In the mid-1970s he attempted to copy several Rembrandt paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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