The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Art Quality and the Formalist Controversy (1974)

Quadrille, Bennington College, Fall, 1974, pp. 4 - 7.

High art, good art, art that has lasted, has been made in the Western world for the last 500 years or so. I mean art that had a sense of "being art," as well as being decorative, or religiously inspiring, and the like. We can encapsulate the overall evolution of painting during this time as: development of realist depiction, exploitation of realist depiction, and a rather rapid change to abstraction. In my opinion this is what the best painting did, and does not include continuances of older forms, which usually recede, actually or qualitatively.

Innovation was usually encouraged as long as it was in the service of realist depiction - not accuracy: that's a different matter, as Rembrandt found when he unveiled the Night Watch, and as the Impressionists found some 200 years later. Painting took pains for hundreds of years, with ups and downs, to evolve a made thing which the eye could take in easily as representation of other things. When perspective and modeling were perfected, painting became a "box" of illusory deep space which had a very strong structure and which enabled the easy relationship of large and small parts across the "air-filled" interior. This was the basic system for painting.

The only fault of the system, if it can be called a fault, was that the basic materials of the art - paint and flat surface - were hidden behind depiction. (This is a problem music never had, and may be part of the reason that formal experimentation in music in recent time seems not to have amounted to much.) Perhaps it was inevitable that materials would force themselves upon painting as the explicit bearers of content, or quality, or whatever it is that painting has that makes it valuable for us. And perhaps it was inevitable that it would happen by means of a type of art - Impressionism - which would cover itself with an explicit devotion to every nuance and detail of natural reality. Every new move in art seems to have at heart a conservative, or conserving, cover.

When the Impressionists looked hard at nature they did not see the smooth modeling of the old masters; instead, they saw patches of light and shade. They put these patches in their paintings and made the most exquisitely realistic paintings ever made - more realistic than photographs, certainly more realistic than Wyeth. Not more detailed, but more realistic, more what the real scene was when it came to the eye. But when these patches came on the canvas they became patches of paint: the medium was thus inadvertently asserted, and painting was on the road to the explicitly material art we call abstraction from Seurat to Cézanne to Picasso.

I mention these artists not because they invented abstraction but because each felt the threat of "formlessness" coming in Impressionism, a "formlessness" which appeared in the later paintings of Monet and is coming up in some painting today. Each, in his own way, tried to bring "form" back into painting. By "form," I mean clearly discernible picture parts, just like the old masters, as Cézanne said. In his determination to bring order to Impressionism, Cézanne rendered his pictures in a series of flickering frontal planes; his rigorous "constructivism" served the picture and moved away from realist depiction. Paint came out from behind depiction, and the relationship of "pieces" of paint took over the burden of carrying quality.

As a highly ambitious artist, Picasso took in the best art around him. He and Braque, deriving from Cézanne, brought painting into abstraction through Cubism. (This derivation cannot be overemphasized and in no way reduces the accomplishment of Cubism. For example, compare Picasso's Ma Jolie and Cézanne's Pines and Rocks, both in the Museum of Modern art. If the Cézanne is reversed - by using color slides - the similarity is astonishing.) By doing so they gave painting a new constructive basis which persisted in high art - with some notable exceptions - through Abstract Expressionism. But they also brought painting a new set of problems. In the absence of realist depiction, deep space - the deep space that gave the box-like structure and easy relatability of parts to the old masters - was squeezed out of the picture. The illusion of deep space requires shading, modelling, and the like, and would have countered the fresh and surging power of "materialist" abstraction.

When deep space is gone and the parts come up flat against the picture plane a new problem arises: how to integrate the picture, how to relate the parts and make it look like a believable whole. Remember that the old masters had this all made-to-order. They started with a box full of air, and whatever they put in it could be made to relate without too much trouble. This was no guarantee of quality, of course; that depends on what an artist does with what he's got, not on given devices. Flat painting, the resistant flat surface, does not have this resource, and the obligation of the abstract painter, the first job of modernist innovation, is the invention of a device to assure the visual relationship of painted parts. This is why innovation, conception, is so much and so evidently a part of modernist painting, and it is also why today so much bad art is done deliberately, insistently and compulsively in the name of innovation.

I wrote an essay for Studio International, due to come out in the Summer of 1974, and I'm going to borrow from that and from an article I wrote about Jules Olitski's 1972 paintings. This is about Morris Louis, but also, perhaps more so, about modernist stylistic innovation and the working-out process of a genius.

Morris Louis was always a deeply dedicated artist. He began painting seriously when he was a teenager and devoted himself to it for the rest of his life. But for most of that time he was not making particularly good paintings. His nature was somber, secretive, reserved and confident, and he was highly resistant to influence. But finally it was influence, direct and specific influence, that pushed him up.

Louis' visit to New York in April, 1953, in the company of Clement Greenberg and Kenneth Noland, has been well documented in the literature. Louis saw a lot of art in these few days, but he was particularly impressed by Pollock's work, and by Frankenthaler's Mountains and the Sea. He ingested these paintings, let them stew, and about a year later painted the "veils," a brilliant synthesis of the styles of the two artists and a complete repudiation of his previous work.

Louis is known to have said that Frankenthaler showed him the way "beyond" Pollock. Dynamically, in reference to his feelings as an artist, this was true; he had been painting very much under the influence of Pollock, and the use of Frankenthaler's techniques was a way out. But Pollock is still there in the "veils;" they are not Frankenthaler beyond Pollock but Pollock plus Frankenthaler, and the elements of the process can be literally described.

In his great paintings of the late '40s Pollock retained Cubist planarity and the Cubist insistence on centripetal integration of forms, but he threw out the opacity of the plane and the Cubist manner of balancing, placing, truing and fairing and plotted variations of density. (I described this process in much more detail in two essays in Artforum magazine: "Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and David Smith" - originally titled "Cubism, Pollock and Smith" - and "Touch and Scale: Cubism, Pollock, Newman and Still.") But the real impact on Louis, what he really took in, was Pollock's continuous pressure across the picture plane, and the consequent realization that "composing" - the most cherished and conservative factor of the Cubist style - was expendable.

Frankenthaler's Mountains and the Sea is almost the converse of the typical late '40s Pollock. The composition is classically gathered, centered and arranged, the painted areas relatively extensive and opaque, and, most important, the colors, including the raw, unpainted canvas, are pale, delicate, "washed-out." Although it wouldn't come out on his paintings for another year, Louis intuitively saw that relative uniformity of value (light-dark difference) across a canvas surface could effect pictorial unity despite a lack of full visual interconnection of pictorial ports.

So there were the "veils": Pollock's continuous pressure plus Frankenthaler's continuous value. At least, there it is in hindsight; doing it was something else: a year of relentless pressure, of thinking, rethinking, doing and redoing, of painful, persistent working-out.

But Louis had pictorial innovation of a grander sort to come. Though there are many masterpieces among the "veils," one technical problem would remain until "unfurleds." Louis can be [seen] struggling with it in picture after picture in the late '50s. The "veils" brought out his great talent as a colorist, a talent hidden in him (and to a great extent, hidden, or implicit, in modernist art), and a talent that would drive him, or be driven, to expose and relate pure hue. But the compositional technique of the "veils" suppressed the clear exposition of hue, which is the most affective component of color. Pure, strong, fully saturated and varied hue was kept from the "veils" because running different (complementary or near-complementary) colors together greys them; running similar colors together allows greater saturation but limits hue variety; running different colors down different parts of the canvas reduces the power of the all-over image. In the later "florals" pure, separated hue was exposed around the outside of the image but muddied at the center. Louis also tried separating the runs of color in a kind of non-connecting "veil," but while hue showed pure the imagematic coherence of the "veils" was lacking.

The "unfurleds" were Louis' second big jump. They have the curious simplicity and obviousness in retrospect of all great invention, and they offer painting a fresh constructive basis which is still too fundamental, perhaps too "radical," though I use the word advisedly, to be taken up by most of our serious and ambitious artists now. The obstacle to relating pure hue had always been pictorial coherence. When colors are combined pure hue is lost; when colors are separated, coherence is lost. Suddenly, it seems, Louis saw, by intuitive inspiration, that pictorial coherence could be established, and strongly established, by reversing the centripetal bias natural to image-making and apparently necessary to painting for hundreds of years, by rejecting interconnection, by dispersing rather than converging pictorial elements, by grasping the terrific binding power of the rectangle itself, by giving the whole job over to the edge. By sending banked streamers of pure hue down apposite edges of a large canvas, and by keeping the center blank, Louis forced the canvas itself to hold the picture together. Separation of pictorial elements became a virtue instead of a liability. The overlapping of color areas, so ruinous to pure hue, was left behind, and the banked streams of color were set free to flow and spread relaxed, random, slightly meandering, splendidly casual, charged with the seeming ease of genius.

Much has been written about the empty centers of the "unfurleds;" most seems somewhat defensive, trying to maintain that the white expanse has some kind of positive "charge", reflecting the ancient bias that a picture isn't a picture unless there is something "in" it. But the centers of the "unfurleds" are simply empty and the paintings remain great art. That is the astonishing fact. The "unfurleds" are revolutionary, but unlike the pictorial discoveries of Cubism. What Louis laid down for us has been taken up slowly, in the main by one artist, Jules Olitski, who has been filling and enriching what Louis invented and refined. Future painting may well spread its roots in the fertile soil of the "unfurleds." It doesn't look like it now; the "unfurleds," at this point in the history of Western Art, still look isolated. But they are the mainstream.

In this brief discussion of Morris Louis' art I point to pictorial innovation of the highest order, material innovation, innovation with and within "traditional" materials and limitations, not away from these materials and limitations but with them. I can say "innovation of the highest order" only, and I repeat only, because that innovative process produced art of the highest order. And that's my judgement; there's no proof.

Painting has been practiced as medium on a rectangular surface for hundreds of years. Sculpture has been (usually) articulation of the human figure, until Cubism opened it up, but always the formulation of connected shapes in space. These have been the "givens" that artists have worked with and against. Now there is no intrinsic reason - none that I can come up with anyway - why it must stay that way. But if the formal givens are to be changed or abandoned in the name of art, the succeeding forms have the obligation to produce art of equal quality: if they do not, then the changes cannot be justified. So far, in my opinion, "anti-formalist" art has produced nothing of high quality and very little of any interest at all, except as a phenomenon. Let me emphasize so far; if something appears which looks good to me I'll not hesitate to say so. But my guess - not my bias, but my guess - is that it won't happen. I say this because I see certain mechanisms at work in "anti-formalist" art that I feel are artistically self-limiting, a feeling that comes less from reasoning than from my experience as an artist who has looked hard at art for the last 20 years. And I say I feel it because, although I can describe these mechanisms, I can't demonstrate that no good will come of them. No one can; at least, no one has. The "formalist"/ "antiformalist" controversy, insofar as it is really about art, must be seen in terms of things existing within art, particularly materials and innovation. As I see it, "antiformalist" art either adopts new materials, relegating or excusing them explicitly in terms of "ideas," or takes the pose of rejecting materials, in each case in the name of "innovation."

I'm going to quote myself again, again with some amending, this time from a review of Jack Burnham's book, Beyond Modern Sculpture.

A work of art is the result of art-making activity by an artist. This activity is a series of choices actuated to construct a certain kind of discernable entity. Art quality "comes out" of a work as a reflection of the artist's activity. A great work of art always reflects a high density of choice, within the work and preceding it. Because art-making is a process of building and evolving, like the evolution of life itself, the simplest basic units of construction will lend themselves most readily to the making of the most complex and highly developed art. This is in line with plain material facts. A more complex house can be built from bricks than, say, motorcycles. The simpler and more familiar a unit is the more easily it can be handled and the more quickly it will fit an invented scheme. Also, the intense pressure the best artist will put on his work, the rough working-out, giving everything a chance, the willingness, even inner necessity, to go through painful change, quite naturally breaks up preexisting, involved units of material or process, as would a hammer pounding rock into sand.

It has been my experience that most "new material" or "anti-formalist" artists - Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, or whatever, are lazy, desperate and afraid. They want to make it as artists, but they don't want to put on the pressure and serve their apprenticeship with themselves. So they turn from making a thing to convincing an audience, from construction to theater. The audience for art is always much larger than the audience for good art, and the best way to get to them is to give them what they want. This has always been true, perhaps now more than ever. The current vogue in so called advanced art is obvious, aggressive, pseudo-difficulty, pseudo-innovation, pseudo-revolution. So the "new-material" artist reaches out for a ready-made, already complex unit of construction, already laden with cultural meaning. This unit hampers thorough working-out. It is already too much its own thing. It's hard to handle, hard to fit in, too unyielding to accommodate fresh ideas that spring from the brain. That's why so much "anti-formalist" work is so dumb and simple, so raw and unpressured by the human temperament, such dull, unfinished structure. That's why it never amounts to much as art.

"Formalism" is a word which has come up now and then in art-world vernacular. It is difficult to discuss because no one is sure what it is. Perhaps this is natural, given the predilection of "antiformalist" critics for imprecise writing. And it's all the doing of the "anti-formalists"; the "formalists" use the word only in self defense, if at all. The Oxford Dictionary defines formalism as "strict or excessive adherence to prescribed forms," which, if anything, would tend to describe the "anti-formalists" more than the "formalists." The word had some currency in theology now and then in the 19th Century. It was used as a literary term in the early part of this century, first as a defense of and then as an attack on certain kinds of writing. But the current use of the word does not continue from these earlier uses, though there may be some coincidental similarity. "Formalism," in current critical literature, first came up as a pejorative, or as Rosalind Krauss said to me, accusatory, term, not clearly understood in itself, as a word, but useful as an emotive term within the compass of art-world doings, particularly art-world politics. This was brought home to me at a panel at Harvard some time ago. I was doggedly searching for a strict definition, which is the only useful kind. But Sidney Tillim, who was also on the panel, had a simple way out. "Formalist art," he said, "is anything Clement Greenberg likes."

He wasn't far wrong. But if this is the case, then it should be stated as such, and made explicit as a matter of the ongoing art-world tug-of-war. What happens to art after it is made is different from how it is made and the ultimate human value it has. In the everyday business of the art-world art objects are only pawns. One can say things about the art business, and write about it, and write well about it. But my interest is what the art is, not what gets done with it. In the long run, for humanity at large, that is what counts. The marketplace bustles, changes, and is lost in history. But art, good art, is as persistent as it is fragile.

There is something about art which we value not because it is expensive; it is expensive because we value it. It has something for us which nothing else can hold and give. I'll not say what it is, because I can't. I'll only say that it is there, and that it is very precious to us, and that it has been put there by the person who made the art. I've used the phrase "working-out" several times here, and described one instance of it. When an artist comes to art, as a young person, he or she is faced with the best art of the past, particularly, and most poignantly, with the art of the recent past. Then choices are made, as art is made, but the big choice, the crucial one, is to measure up to what has been done before, not to repeat the art, but to repeat the process. And I think that process, indefinable as it may be, has always been pretty much the same. It is taking real risks, not the fake ones we see today. It is to ingest the best art around you; art is not made in a vacuum. It is taking influence, of the right kind at the right time, but it's also going your own way. It is marking thousands of choices over many years; today, particularly, we have no prodigies in painting. It is getting yourself, or that special part of yourself which is making art, up and up further, inventing, discovering, rejecting, stewing, "working-out" and working up. It's tough, no doubt about it. There are a million-and-one ways to cop out, and there is no moral sanction that says you mustn't. It just depends on what you want. It is more persistence than talent, whatever "talent" is, and it is more character than ability. Your job is to make something which has esthetic value, human value, which gives and keeps on giving. It is not easy, there are no ready-made answers, and be wary when you are told there are.

I would like to suggest that the "anti-formalists" are just "formalists" in disguise. They innovate, even if it is deliberate and hollow. They produce something, even if it is new material, immaterial or "anti-material." The real motivating reason there is a controversy is that it all came up in the gallery-museum context; it's like kids fighting in a family - sooner or later they grow up, go their own way and write Christmas cards to each other. Painters should paint, sculptors sculpt, conceptualists conceptualize, earth artists pile their dirt. There's no real issue, none. In the long run, as always, no matter what you are doing or how you are doing it, there is only good art and bad art.

I have a friend who often invokes the legend of Tittivillus, a minor demon in the "Age of Faith" some 500 years ago, whose thankless task was to carry the ever-heavier burden of all the words people wasted. My final words on the "formalism" controversy (and I hope they are not wasted) are "poor Tittivillus."

The article credited Bannard: "Walter Darby Bannard is a color-field Abstractionist and a critic whose writings embody the formalist concern with quality. He and Bruce Boice have differed pointedly in articles and letters in the pages of Artforum magazine."