Formalisms and Minimalisms

January 11, 2010

‘Remember, that a painting, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order.’ Maurice Denis’ opening sentence of his 1890 manifesto is one of the best-known quotes of modern art. The Post-Impressionist painter emphasized that aesthetic pleasure was to be found in the painting itself and not in its subject. What makes art is form, not content. While a closer look at artworks will easily dismiss this antithesis, there is a formalist approach throughout the history of modern art that reflects this value system.

In many respects, formalism equals abstraction, but this class will not be a history of abstract art. The term, if not understood as a style, could be replaced with: minimalisms, reductionisms, purisms … All terms reflect an attitude that flourished in Modernism but became fiercely unpopular in postmodernism. Currently formalism is forcefully gaining ground again. This is the motivation for this course; we want to cast a new look at the modernist phenomenon, its aftermath, and its revival. And we will hopefully find some ideas for its theorization, which has not taken place yet.

It seems obvious that the revival benefits from having overcome the politicization of formalism. First, abstraction was celebrated as a universal language and even became a dogma of progress and freedom. But in the Cold War, it was cornered in the Western or “Free” World as opposed to realist tendencies that were associated with the communist regime. While the west discredited figuration as serving purposes other than art, the communist culture dismissed abstraction as self-indulgent. And today? What could make formalism popular, and relevant?

Part of the class will be a visit of the current contemporary show at the Denver Art Museum. “Embrace!” includes many artworks that have a formalist character. Students need to attend the symposium on “Embrace!” on March 13, organized jointly by the Denver Art Museum and the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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