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Yve-Alain Bois.
Whose formalism?
The Art Bulletin, New York, Mar 1996


Having recently been called a "crypto-formalist," a "new kind of Greenberg, one with hindsight," and a "nihilistic formalist," I feel it my duty, at this juncture of our discipline, to address the issue of formalism--of its uses and abuses.(1) I shall first take my cue from these various pronouncements on my work, for all appear to be based on a similar notion of formalism, never actually defined but whose standard seems to be, in this part of the world, the art criticism of Clement Greenberg. For the first author, I am a Greenberger who does not dare say his name (yet does "business as usual"); for the second, I am just short of a criminal (dishonestly repeating Greenberg's "mistakes" while I had all the tools at my disposal to avoid doing so); for the third, who does not share such a distaste for Greenberg, I deliberately perverted the enterprise of formalism by tainting it with ideology. The first purports to have courageously brought me out of the closet (while I never denied my debts toward formalism, though not so much that of Greenberg as that of Alois Riegl, Russian formalism, and Structuralism); the second misestimates his adversary (Greenberg had hindsights, even if, more often than not, I feel compelled to challenge them); the third, if I understand him correctly, believes that one can discuss works of art formally, without having any claims on their signification. All agree that this is precisely what Greenberg wanted to do. The first adds that it is what I do myself while I should know better; the second that it is what I do while I know better; the third, that it is what I should do.

Since it seems obvious that I'll have once again to try to free "formalism" from the life-insured mortgage Greenberg has been granted on its very premises,(2) I'll first take his work as an example in order to assert that, notwithstanding what he had to say on the matter (he and several Bloomsbury writers such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell who shared such a silly dream), it is impossible to keep meaning at bay. Then I'll use his work to show that if "formalist criticism" currently has a bad name, it may be because it was not practiced well enough. This will lead me to respond to the charge that formalism equals a-or antihistory (a charge common since the days of Stalin's cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov and carried to the present: it is the main argument of the "business-as-usual" critic quoted above). All along, I shall try to define the tasks of the type of formalism I have in mind with regard to the practice of its most vociferous enemies.

A word on these enemies, in passing: although they come from different factions, they share an idealist conception of meaning as an a priori construct existing before its embodiment in a form. They all speak, as Roland Barthes would say, "in the name of the Cause." Their idealist conception of meaning combines with an idealist conception of form (as existing prior to its embodiment in matter) in order to insure the apotheosis of the concept of image--an apotheosis whose current symptom is the rise of what is called Visual Studies. It is not by chance that the image was precisely what abstract art struggled against, or that it has been the main target of the Russian formalists in their literary criticism, or that Riegl's groundwork concerned essentially nonmimetic decorative arts, for in the absence of the image one is, or should be, forced to abandon the idealist concept of meaning I just mentioned. The enemies of formalism usually keep away from abstract art for that very reason--but when they occasionally approach it, it is most often in a desperate attempt to retrieve the absent image (business as usual) and thus to negate the historical specificity of abstraction.

Let me first grant Greenberg the benefit of the doubt: I am not so sure that provocation on his part did not play a major role in his ostensible lack of interest in meaning (I sometimes even wonder, in the darkest of scenarios, if such a provocation was not mounted as a screen to mask the deliberate bias of his interpretation). Whatever the case, Greenberg's own work provides ample arguments for the demonstration that, contrary to his claim, one is never a pure eye-that even one's most formal descriptions are always predicated upon a judgment and that the stake of this judgment is always, knowingly or not, meaning. And it is my contention that the reverse is also true: it is impossible to lay any claim to meaning without specifically (and I would say initially) speaking of form.

Though it has not yet received the response it deserves, it so happens that the first seriously anti-Greenbergian account of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings has been offered by Rosalind Krauss in the last chapter of her most recent book, The Optical Unconscious.(3) (Tim Clark's impressive 1990 essay on Pollock paradoxically still depended upon Greenberg's formal reading and did not challenge it,(4) though that is not true of his most recent text, discussed below; as for Harold Rosenberg's bathos on the one hand and the heap of Jungian non-sense poured over Pollock on the other, I'd say that, excluding any consideration of formal issues, these texts epitomize the idealist conception of meaning to such an extent that their hoarse anti-Greenbergianism cannot be considered as serious.) Taking her lesson from the responses of Cy Twombly, Robert Morris, and Andy Warhol to Pollock's work, Krauss shows how those artists chose to underline in it the very aspects that Greenberg had decided to ignore: the fact that the drips were made on the floor, for example (that is, down to earth and away from the vertical plane of imaginary projection), and that in abandoning the brush Pollock had severed the bodily link between gesture and touch (that is, had said farewell, so to speak, to the autographic brushstroke that had marked the birth of the modernist tradition beginning with Impressionism). In short, as soon as Greenberg had firmly set his previously fluctuating interpretation in place (in the early fifties), he provided us with a sublimatory reading of Pollock's drip paintings, one that disregarded the artist's procedures and edited out anything too dangerously close to a scatological smearing of matter (no mention, for example, of the "heterogeneity of trash," to borrow Krauss's expression, that Pollock had "dumped" onto the surface of Full Fathom Five--nails, buttons, tacks, keys, coins, cigarettes, matches… ). To be sure Greenberg had excuses--he had to deal with the Hollywoodian theatralization of "angst" by Rosenberg and company, and he obviously thought that portraying Pollock as Olympian would do the trick--but what I want to underscore here is the fact that the quintessential "formalist" critic had to blind himself to several important formal aspects of Pollock's art (arguably the most important ones) in order to maintain his fiction that the drip paintings were pure optical "mirages."

It would be too long a process to discuss here the gradual transformation of Greenberg's take on Pollock--which resulted in a drastic revision of his earlier appreciation of the art of the painter, a revision that can be linked to the evolution of Greenberg's political views (tilting increasingly toward the Right) as well as to various biographical events.(5) Suffice it to say that Greenberg's formal descriptions of Pollock, though far more compelling and useful, were no less semantically charged than the cheap existentialist or Jungian copy that filled the columns of art journals for more than a quarter of a century. Greenberg would have denied that he was talking meaning, but he was: he was proposing an idealist interpretation of Pollock's art as transcendence, as an uplifting voyage away from the material world (the "Byzantine parallel," and so forth). And this implied the idealist conception of form alluded to above--to characterize it briefly, an Aristotelian one, where form is an a priori UFO that lands on raw matter, rescues it from its dark inertness, and transports it to the sunny realm of ideas.

Now comes the second lien to be placed on Greenberg's mortgage on formalism: if in order to elaborate his sublimatory interpretation of Pollock's work, Greenberg had to ignore some of its most startling formal features, it means that, notwithstanding his reputation, he was not such a great "formalist" after all--that one could do much better, and that it does no harm to try. Indeed, for all his talk about the medium as what defines the specificity of each art, Greenberg never seems to have thought about the issue when confronted with a work of art (his indifference to the actual stuff of which any work of art is made grew over the years). Almost any time he tried to use his descriptive skills on this score, he made a gross mistake. It seems odd today that so few people noticed. Painters did--for example, Barnett Newman, who was furious when in 1955 the critic alluded to his canvases as "soaked" or "dyed," implying, as Newman notes, that "the surface is as if stained by dyelike color" ("You know that my paint quality is heavy, solid, direct, the opposite of a stain").(6) But Greenberg could not care less: he did not correct his mistake in the revised version of the text in question, "'American-Type' Painting," when it appeared a few years later in Art and Culture (he only replaced "soaks" by "seems to soak").(7)

What he did omit from this text in its second version, however, is relevant to my purpose. As Clark has recently noted, the whole passage on Clyfford Still is given "heavy surgery."(8) In the earlier version, which contained an elaborate attempt at defining the term "buckeye," Still's courting of bad taste was praised as having shown "abstract painting a way out of its own academicism." In the Art and Culture text, "The word kitsch gives way to 'one more depressed area of art,' where surely 'depressed' is exactly the wrong word,"(9) and "the 'buckeye' of the Partisan Review text is abandoned in favor of 'demotic-Impressionist' or 'open-air painting in autumnal colors.'" This aspect of Still's art that Greenberg had perceived in 1955 but repressed in 1958, Clark calls "vulgarity," and his essay extends the hold of this mode onto the whole of Abstract Expressionism.

There is no doubt in my mind that the vulgarity hypothesis reshuffles the cards (it helps me understand why, for example, I have never been able to stomach Hans Hofmann or Adolph Gottlieb). Clark's short description of Hofmann's surfaces rings much truer to me than the bombastic claims Greenberg used to make in order to avoid discussing their crassness (remember: "you could learn more about Matisse's color from Hofmann than from Matisse himself,"(10) or "no one has digested Cubism more thoroughly than Hofmann, and perhaps no one has better conveyed its gist to others").(11) In short, Clark is a much better formalist than Greenberg when he needs to be, and the reason is simply that he has more respect for form--for the range of issues it addresses even at the most detailed level of its nuts and bolts. For Greenberg, form gradually became morphology; for Clark, and formalism at its best, it is a generative structure.

I am not certain however, that Clark's extraordinary foray into the meanings of vulgarity--its link to the petty-bourgeois class formation--and its particular tenor in the production of Abstract Expressionism holds for Pollock (Clark himself exonerates Newman). In fact, Clark's essay provides a brilliant confirmation of something I have been thinking for quite a while without being able to articulate it: that Pollock (and Newman, but I'll keep to Pollock here) might not have much in common with the school he is ultimately identified with. Although Pollock shared a whole range of beliefs with his Abstract Expressionist colleagues (all of what Michael Leja has called the "Modern Man discourse,")(12) the serious attack of his drip paintings against the autographic "expressive" brushstroke and against the notion of composition (through the allover) makes it hard, if not impossible, to see them as tokens of petty-bourgeois individualism (and it is individualism, particularly the brash individualism of the Modern Man, that lies at the core of Clark's definition of vulgarity). In severing the indexical link between the bodily gesture and the pictorial mark and in letting such nonsubjective forces as gravity and fluidity be the main agents in his pictorial process, in undermining the type of order that had prevailed in painting since the days of Alberti (composition), Pollock, consciously or not, assaulted the very individualism that his peers were celebrating, and he did so in painting, that is, with the best tools he had at his disposal. (The "consciously or not" is important here, since in his numerous statements Pollock was as brash and "individualistic" as the rest of the gang--but the extent to which these statements were "ventriloquized" is subject to discussion.)(13) Whatever the case, it may be because he felt that his single-handed onslaught on the individualist tradition he came from was too daunting a task that Pollock picked up his brush again and abandoned both horizontality and alloverness in his black-and-white canvases of 1951.

Yet Pollock's pre-1951 art is not devoid of a certain kind of vulgarity, though this may not be the right term if we are to accept Clark's use of it (and I don't see why we should not). As I have noted above, following Krauss, Greenberg never gave a thought to the actual process of dripping (the "severing" and the horizontality), and he was far more embarrassed by the allover than is usually believed.(14) Given his will, more and more marked over the years--especially after he had declared that by 1952 Pollock had "lost his stuff"--to reinscribe Pollock into a tradition of Old Masters, it comes as no surprise that he gradually toned down his own dislike for Pollock's strident clashes of saturated color-lashes that bring to mind Odilon Redon's "psychedelic" pastel hues more than the austerity of Analytic Cubism. Greenberg even managed to rewrite his initial distaste for the obdurate materiality of Pollock's silver paint into a jubilant appreciation of its miragelike opticality. But my claim is that Pollock's "vulgar" color (silver paint; unharmonizable, shrieking color chords; etc.), which Greenberg at first hated and then sublimated, was also part of the painter's strategy against individualism--against the cogito ergo sum and its idealistic pretense to subjective unity.

Such a claim is consistent with the strategy that Twombly, Morris, and Warhol read in Pollock's work and that Krauss has analyzed in great detail: an antihumanist, antisublimatory strategy of debasement that has been coined by Georges Bataille as that of the informe (formless, formlessness), and conceived by him as a radical attack on the dualist oppositions that are at stake in Western metaphysics (including the opposition between form and meaning).(15) But most important here, because it will bring about my last argument against Greenberg's mortgage on formalism, such a claim conveys a historical point. Indeed, this informe quality of Pollock's color is most manifest in his latest works, those following the very black-and-white paintings of 1951 whose stained effect would be sorted out by Greenberg, in retrospect, as anticipating Helen Frankenthaler's and Morris Louis's illusionistic opticality. In some of these latest works (and this makes the sharpest contrast with the calligraphic brushwork of the black-and-white paintings), Pollock returns to the dripping and the pouring with a vengeance. Not only are the peculiar hues he chose to mismatch more strident than ever, but their mode of encounter on the canvas is also strikingly directed against any possibility of optical mixing. I am thinking of Convergence, with its kitsch, Paul Jenkins-like bleeding of the primary colors in the white pools, or of Blue Poles, with its similarly "disgusting" bleeding of silver and industrial Donald Judd-like orange. Is it impossible to imagine that in these works--in which Pollock explores a new color chart and advocates a material, tactile mode of pigment relationship that he had until then used very discreetly(16)--the painter is at last sticking his tongue out at the omnipresent, kingmaking Greenberg, who has recently failed to support him and who is on the verge of championing Louis as his (Pollock's) true heir? Until now these last works have elicited only embarassed comments (if not pure myth):(17) they were not readable according to the book (and the only book worth reading about them was Greenberg's). But it is not because the book was formalist: it is because it was not attentive enough to form. Failing to notice that Pollock was attempting something formally new in these late works, one could not but fail to ask why and at which juncture he would have had to do so; one could not but fail to be a historian.

Thus, I would certain agree that Greenberg's criticism, which sees art as evolving in a continuous present, is militantly ahistorical, but such is not the case with the work of Riegl, with that of the Russian formalist school of criticism or, say, with Barthes's. And it is certainly because I am interested in the historical signification of works of art (what I would call their conditions of possibility--what makes any work of art possible at any given time) that I confer a preeminent importance on close formal analyses in my own work: missing the detail, one misses the whole--and the whole is not, if one speaks of Picasso's Cubist papiers colles, for example, this artist's highly improbable interest in the Balkan War, but the much more complex issue of the status of signification in a world where the illusions of unity condoned by the episteme of representation are being dismantled. Failing to address the interrogation raised by Picasso's papiers colles on the very nature of the sign and its function of communication, and wanting to make of them the equivalent of nineteenth-century history paintings, are sure ways of remaining blind to their historical specificity.

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.

1. Patricia Leighten, "Cubist Anachronisms: Ahistoricity, Cryptoformalism, and Business-as-Usual in New York," Oxford Art Journal, XVII, no. 2, 1994, 91; Joseph Kosuth, "Eye's Limits: Seeing and Reading Ad Reinhardt," Art and Design, no. 34, 1994, 47; and Jed Perl, "Absolutely Mondrian," New Republic, July 31, 1995, 29.

2. See "Resisting Blackmail." in Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, Mass., 1990, xviiff.

3. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge, Mass., 199S.

4. T. J. Clark, "Jackson Pollock's Abstraction," in Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal, 1945-1964, ed. Serge Guilbaut, Cambridge, Mass., 1990, 172-243.

5. See Francois-Marc Gagnon, "The Work and Its Grip," in Jackson Pollock: Questions, Montreal, 1979, 16-43; and John O'Brian, "Introduction," in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism: III. Affirmation and Refusals, 1950-1956, ed. J. O'Brian, Chicago, 1993, xv-xxxiii. See also Yve-Alain Bois, "The Limit of Almost," in Ad Reinhardt, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1991, 11-33; and my intervention at the Greenberg symposium held in the Centre Pompidou in Paris in May 1993, "Les Amendements de Greenberg," Les Cahiers du Musee National d'Art Moderne, nos. 45-46, Fall-Winter 1993, 52-60.

6. Barnett Newman, "Letter to Clement Greenberg" (Aug. 9, 1955), in Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O'Neill, New York, 1990, 203.

7. Clement Greenberg, "'American-Type' Painting" (1958), in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, 1961, 225. For the original 1955 version, see the reprint in Greenberg (as in n. 5), 232.

8. T. J. Clark, "In Defense of Abstract Expressionism." October, no. 69, Summer 1994, 42.

9. Clark's sentence continues (ibid.): "Kitsch is manic. Above all it is rigid with the exaltation of art. It believes in art the way artists are supposed to--to the point where the cult of art becomes a new Philistinism. That is the aspect of kitsch which Still gets horribly right."

10. Clement Greenberg, "New York Painting Only Yesterday" (Art News, Summer 1957), reprinted in The Collected Essays and Criticism: IV. Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O' Brian, Chicago, 1993, 21.

11. Clement Greenberg, "Hans Hofmann: Grand Old Rebel" (Art News, Jan. 1959), in Greenberg (as in n. 10), 70.

12. Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, New Haven, 1993, passim.

13. I borrow the notion of a ventriloquized Pollock from Krauss (as in n. 3), 322.

14. This is one of the most precious lessons we owe to Gagnon's meticulous step-by-step reading of Greenberg's texts on Pollock (as in n. 5).

15. The quickest way to underline the antihumanism of the informe strategy is to cite the definition of Man given in the "dictionary" published in Bataille's journal Documents. This definition, published anonymously, is a quote (almost certainly chosen by Bataille) from the very official Journal des Debats, a government publication reporting on the sessions of the French Congress (the "quote" could also possibly be apocryphal, I have not checked): "A famous British chemist, Dr. Charles Henry Maye, tried to determine exactly what man is made of and what is man's chemical worth. Here are the results of his scholarly research. The amount fat found in the body of an average human being would be enough to make seven pieces of soap. There is enough iron to make an average nail, enough sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. The phosphorus would yield 2,200 matches; the magnesium would be enough to take a photograph. There is also some potassium and sulfur, but the amount is too small to be of any use. Those various materials, at the current rate, would be valued at around 25 francs"; "L'Homme," Documents, no. 4, 1929, 215, translation mine.

16. Color sometimes bleeds in the classic drip paintings, particularly the great canvases of 1950, but the effect of this tactile mode of chromatic encounter is always attenuated: the bleeding is either tonal (a light beige, say, bleeds into white, a dark brown into black) or affects only hues that are close on the color spectrum (a dark beige bleeds into a light brown).

17. Such as the ridiculous story, implicit in an article by Stanley P. Friedman based on an interview with Tony Smith, that has Newman helping Pollock out with the placement of the "poles" In Blue Poles. I presume that it is the noun Poles much more than their referent in the painting that elicited such a fantasy, for the "poles" of Blue Poles are not vertical and, unlike Newman's zips, they do not run from top to bottom. Furthermore, they are not entirely painted with a brush but are (at least partially) imprints of a two-by-four dipped in blue paint: this mode of indexical tracing, new in Pollock (with the exception of the imprint of his hands), is a further indication that he might have tried "something new" in his later works, and that this might have to be seen as an explicit criticism of Abstract Expressionism. As often, a true event seems to have been the starting point for the Blue Poles story: according to Thomas B. Hess (who reported this to Friedman who, in turn, distorted and amplified the information), Newman stated that during a visit he made to Pollock's studio in the company of Tony Smith, the painter had demonstrated to them, on the canvas that would later become Blue Poles, how he could force paint from a tube in a single squeeze, letting them try the technique as well. Contrary to the authors of the catalogue raisonne of Pollock's oeuvre, Francis V. O'Connor and Eugene V. Thaw, who categorically deny such an account, Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond conclude, in their recent and excellent technical study of the painting that it is supported by material evidence. See Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings and Sculptures, 1870-1970, in the Australian National Galley, Canberra, 1992, 236-45.

Yve-Alain Bois, educated in France, has been teaching art history in the United States since 1983. He has published numerous articles on twentieth-century art and co-curated the Piet Mondrian retrospective seen recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Department of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. 02138