Formalism Art

Formalism Art – Understanding Formalistic Theory in Art

Formalism art initially emerged as a response to the Post-Impressionism movement during the late 1800s. It was viewed as a critical approach to the way that art was being viewed and produced, as different values regarding aesthetic quality began to develop. This shift in deciphering what art stood for was attributed to a change in thinking, as artists practicing within this movement all attempted to answer the basic question of what art was. Thus, Formalistic theory focused on analyzing and comparing various forms and styles of art. 



What Is Formalism?

Throughout art history, artworks have traditionally been analyzed by their form and the structural elements that have been discernible to the naked eye. At certain times, additional meaning has been attributed to works of art based on their subject matters and overall intention, as well as their price value. As the concept of what art stood for developed and different movements emerged, paintings and sculptures began to be evaluated on the distinct characteristics that informed each movement as opposed to conventional methods.

When Formalism arose in the late 19th century, the movement reiterated the importance of basing an understanding of art through its conventional elements only, which included form and style. Formalism in art placed focus on a variety of elements that were seen as important when it came to appreciating an artwork, such as color, line, shape, and texture.

This led to the context of artworks being diminished and seen as a secondary characteristic, as the physical elements used to construct the artwork were emphasized.

The road to truly understanding the concept of Formalism art is both philosophical and extremely revolutionary. The theories of Aristotle, Plato, and Immanuel Kant have worked to inform the abstract notions behind Formalism, while experimentations within the avant-garde have led the way for the development of socially engaging and conceptual art.

The combination of these ideals has fundamentally encouraged the formation of the type of art that attempts to answer the most basic question: what is art?

As the art world has continued to flourish, finding an answer to this question has been challenging. Through the presence of every new art movement, a universal way to determine the quality of an artwork has attempted to be created. Formalism’s approach to deciphering artwork helped introduce the concepts of science and criticism into the art world, which solely focused on the level of skill present within a work. While many other critiques exist today, the concepts introduced by Formalism art are still in use today.



Formalism in Art

During the late 1800s, Formalism emerged as a critical approach in response to the Post-Impressionism movement that was dominating art culture. This shift was mainly informed by philosophy and the statements of artists at the time, who started to view art as merely a canvas covered in colors and arranged in specific patterns. This idea helped to build the initial foundation of what Formalism art stood for, despite it being considered a quite narrow-minded concept to begin with.

The major focus of Formalism was the visual and aesthetic quality of an artwork.

This was determined by the basic aspects of artmaking and through assessing the work’s visual and material aspects. In painting, as well as other art mediums, Formalism referred to the understanding of basic elements like color, shape, line, and texture. These perceptual aspects were deemed to be more important than the actual content, meaning, or context of the work, as its value lay in the relationships between the different compositional elements.

Formal Art Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-1875) by James McNeill Whistler; James McNeill Whistler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Formalism essentially proposed the idea that everything needed to comprehend an artwork was present within the actual work of art itself. Although Formalistic theory mainly indicated a way of interpreting art rather than actually making art, influential artists like Jackson Pollock and Paul Cézanne were associated with the approach, which demonstrated its great influence.

As the school of thought that was Formalism began to gain traction, it was viewed as both an art movement and a facet of art critique and appreciation.

The rise of Formalism was seen as inseparable from the rise of abstracted painting during the 19th century, as both movements became intertwined due to their similar ideas. Formalism and Abstraction focused on the significance of compositional elements like shape, texture, and color relationship, which rose to prominence in the viewer’s recognition of art. The later emergence of Cubism in the early 20th century helped Formalism go on to reach even higher levels of fame than it already had.


L ‘Art Pour L ‘Art (Art for Art’s Sake)

The initial formation of Formalism art was advised by the philosophy of l’art pour l‘art, which translated to “art for art’s sake”. While this phrase was first used by the French philosopher Victor Cousin during the early 1800s, French novelist Théopile Gautier’s 1835 novel captured the earliest declaration of the idea that art was valuable as art.

By the middle of the 19th century, several literary and visual artists were influenced by the idea that art existed only for its own sake and attempted to pursue this notion in their works.

Formalism Definition Le Jardinier Vallier (The Gardener Vallier) (1906) by Paul Cézanne; Paul Cézanne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Formalistic theory viewed the value of art through specific aspects, this doctrine of artistic principles at the time believed artworks should not serve any social or moral purpose. Art adhering to this ideal needed no purpose other than its inherent beauty, as the value of an artwork was thought to be found mainly in its structural elements.

As this idea was closely related to the Formalistic view of art, all of the elements seen outside of the primary aspects were viewed as having no integral purpose to the meaning of the work.

Seen as possibly one of the most well-known lines in all of art history, “art for art’s sake” truly epitomized the Formalist way of thinking within art. As all artworks make use of the same basic elements, Formalistic theory emphasized the creation of a basis for understanding art in general, no matter its style or context. This theory of understanding allowed art to be seen as an independent domain of human creation, which took the pressure off of artists to come up with an explanation to their works based on any set standards.


The Bloomsbury Group

Clive Bell and Roger Fry, who were both members of the groundbreaking Bloomsbury group, established and expanded the concept of Formalism in the early 20th century. As an artist, Fry was most notable for his involvement with developing Formalistic theory. One of his pioneering artworks, Art (1914), demonstrated the theory of “significant form”, as Fry went on to ask what common qualities were shared by all types of artworks that provoked one’s aesthetic emotions.

What Is Formalism River with Poplars (1912) by Roger Fry, which was inspired by his interest in the works of Paul Cézanne; The original uploader was at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When considering the ideals of Formalism, the Bloomsbury group stated that the only elements in an artwork that was capable of stirring our emotions were related to form. Artists, no matter the movement they came from, were all thought to produce an artwork that related to the concept of Formalism at one time or another, as their creative use of lines and colors helped build onto Formalistic theory.


Clement Greenberg’s Advocacy of Formalism

During the middle of the 20th century, iconic American critic Clement Greenberg defined the Formalism art approach through its unequaled levels of detail and rigor. This led to him being seen as one of the most well-known supporters of Formalism in the modern era, with the term generally being associated with him as time went on. Additionally, the artists that Greenberg praised, such as the Abstract Expressionists, were also associated with the concepts of Formalism due to the elements seen in the artworks that they produced.

According to Greenberg, Formalism encompassed everything that was intellectually refined and progressive within art, as opposed to what was seen as ostentatious, tasteless, or vulgar.

Greenberg believed that the purpose of avant-garde art, the likes of those that were produced during the Formalism movement, was to provide secret analyses of the formal limits of artistic expression itself. This understated form of self-reflexivity was said to only be made possible through the daring compositional elements made popular by Formalism in art.

Describing Formalism in his 1960 essay, “Modernist Painting”, Greenberg advocated for the detachment of context and subject matter from the form of art, as he believed that abstracted artworks exemplified the truest expressions of art.

His opinion on Formalism remained resolute for some time, with his influence only beginning to fade during the early 1970s. This was led by his followers who started to rebel against the concepts of Formalism, which led to Greenberg’s theories being criticized for being too dogmatic in the modern world of art.



An Appropriate Formalism Definition

Formalism existed as an artistic concept that attempted to find out what art as an idea essentially stood for. Formalism in art sought to understand how one could determine an ordinary work of art from a masterpiece, which led to a great focus being placed on the primary elements within artmaking. Thus, the term “Formalism” has been used to describe a technique of art critique to examine works of art, with this method being seen as one of the oldest methods ever used to evaluate art.

What Is Formalism Art Paul Cézanne’s Maison devant la Sainte-Victoire près de Gardanne (“House in Provence”) (1886-1890) was one of only two modern works included in Clive Bell’s Art (1914); Paul Cézanne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The approach that made up Formalism helped form the basis of what is known as art criticism today and has been seen as one of the reasons that artists aspired to learn more about and improve upon their natural abilities. Further emphasized by its name, Formalism placed its sole focus on the compositional elements of an artwork.

As no attention was given to the content and context of the work, as well as the artist’s intended meaning, the Formalism definition branded it as a movement that only valued the formal aspects of an art piece.


Key Elements and Characteristics of Formalism

Based on the Formalism definition, the movement’s approach stated that art could only be truly analyzed after considering the elements of form and style within a work. As the content and context of artworks were made into secondary characteristics in terms of their importance, Formal art focused on the level of skill that was displayed by an artist.

Thus, the key characteristics of Formalism that proved to be essential in evaluating an artwork were the veracity of the materials used, as well as its medium specificity and flatness.


Truth to Materials

A central principle of Formalism in art was the emphasis that was placed on the materiality of an artwork. This was known via the term “truth to materials”, which went on to become a fundamental concept within 20th-century art in general. The materials used to create art were all thought to have their own individual qualities, which were further highlighted when combined together. This concept of the importance placed on the type of materials used dated back to the 19th century, which helped inform the emergence of Formalism itself.

Formal Art Sculpture Reclining Woman (1930) by Henry Moore. In 1934, British sculptor Henry Moore stated the following about the concept of truth to materials: “Every material has its own individual qualities … Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh … It should keep its hard tense stoniness.”; Gbuchana at English Wikipedia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Within Formal art pieces, materials were traditionally used that went on to elevate the elements of line, color, form, and shape. In doing so, the characteristic of “truth to materials” helped to focus the attention onto the aspects that were considered to be of the utmost importance within Formalism artworks. While the truth that was paid to the type of materials used helped in the development of Formalism, this concept also gave way to the rise of the Minimalism movement after Abstract Expressionism.


Medium Specificity and Flatness

When art critic Clement Greenberg arrived on the scene, he introduced his renowned concept of medium specificity into art. Also known as medium purity, Greenberg expanded on a notion of the movement from a wider Formalistic theory, which he went on to detail in his 1960 essay titled Modernism. While developing the theory of Formalism, Greenberg defended the primary and formal elements seen within Formal art pieces, as well as the distinctiveness that was paid to the mediums used.

Additionally, Greenberg spoke about the aspect of flatness that could be seen within Formal art pieces, which was essentially linked to the concept of medium specificity.

Formalistic Theory in Art Plum Brandy (1877) by Édouard Manet. In Greenberg’s view, modernist painting began with Edouard Manet’s compression of space and use of a frontal light source that minimized chiaroscuro and denied the illusion of mass;
Édouard Manet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He viewed flatness as a defining element in Formalist painting, as it was considered to be a unique and exclusive medium to pictorial art. Medium specificity and flatness were seen as interrelated concepts, as they were both eschewed any attempts at suggesting three-dimensionality or sculptural form in artworks, which was exactly what Formalism stood against.


Zombie Formalism

Formalism ruled the modern art scene until the 1960s when it arrived at its peak and began to be challenged by the ideals of Postmodernism. However, in 2014, Formalism entered the art world again after artist and critic Walter Robinson came up with the term “Zombie Formalism” to describe a new trend in abstract painting that was emerging.

In an economic sense, Zombie Formalism was possibly one of the biggest movements in the past decade, as it went on to transform the art market and what it meant to be an inexperienced artist.

The name of the movement was first presented in Robinson’s 2014 piece, Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism. This artwork addressed the trendy behavior of art collectors at the time, who were snapping up certain types of paintings at low prices before flipping these works for a higher price at auctions. Beginning in 2011, the art market demonstrated a voracious appetite for a specific type of painting that paralleled the theme of undead cinema, which gave rise to the development of Zombie Formalism.

The types of artworks favored during the Zombie Formalism era appeared to be quite ubiquitous, as the majority of them looked the same. Zombie Formalism emerged as a brand of abstraction through the types of artworks that were made famous. Despite most of the works appearing to be indistinguishable from one another, they tended to waver between either resembling a haphazard semblance of a drawing or a careful Minimalistic approach to a type of Color Field painting.

The method of creation used by artists within Zombie Formalism echoed the original Abstract Expressionist principles that were championed by Greenberg. What made this style different was that artists did not advance on the principles of Formalism but instead incorporated exaggerated and unnecessary theatrics into their works. This stagnant creation explained the addition of “zombie” to the name, as the movement was revived in the modern era without any attempt to further it, much like the inactivity associated with zombies.

The social media platform of Instagram helped Zombie Formalism grow in popularity, as it often led to certain paintings and artworks going viral.

This element of instant gratification made collectors want to buy the famous piece in order to resell it so that they were able to stay relevant in the art world as well. With that being said, the type of artworks to reach such dizzying levels of fame often appealed to those who had almost no artistic background or knowledge, as these works were seen as offensive to the standard of art by critics.

This rise in Zombie Formalism was led by the sudden surge of wealth disparity in the economy that was not seen since the likes of the Gilded Age. Suddenly, new and profit-hungry individuals whose power was essentially driven by their wealth attempted to enter into the art market and chose to follow the most relevant trend at that time. These buyers were referred to as “COINs”, which meant “Collectors Only in Name”, and were made up predominately of stoke brokers who unexpectedly entered the art market.

Through the financial backing of society’s wealthiest individuals, Zombie Formalism saw the rise in the value of paintings reach more than 3000 percent above their price thanks to “Zombie Collectors”.

By the end of 2015, the demand for the Zombie aesthetic had completely faltered, with the majority of the artworks plummeting in price and becoming completely unsellable. As the rise of this movement was dictated by those who were clueless as to what art was, it seemed fitting that this group would mark the period’s decline.



The Most Famous Formalism Art Pieces and Their Artists

As the Formalism movement proved to be a notable time within art history, several artists experimented with its ideals in their artworks. This led to some incredibly well-known artworks being produced, by equally important artists. Below, we will be taking a look at some of the iconic Formalism art pieces to come from the movement.


Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) by James McNeill Whistler

Painted by British artist James McNeill Whistler in 1875, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket is widely considered to be a significant artwork from the Formalism era. Whistler believed that all art should be independent of any nonsensical aspects and should stand alone, so as to truly emphasize the important elements.

Seen as a leading figure within Formalism, the Aesthetic movement, and Tonalism, his “nocturne” artworks became influential examples of a Formalist approach.

Formalism in Art Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) by James McNeill Whistler; James McNeill Whistler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket depicted a night-time firework display that was taking place at the Cremorne Gardens in London. Existing as the last artwork in his “nocturne” series, this painting presented a lively explosion as opposed to a concrete image. By conveying the effects of the fireworks over the river, Whistler captured the great sense of excitement and celebration that could be felt as the rocket burst into a myriad of colors. As the darkness was lit up, a few figures along the shore could be seen in the foreground.

Whistler painted Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket in a very loose style with sweeping brushstrokes. The gloomy blues and greens, which made up the predominant color palette, were interrupted by tiny bursts of bright color. Whistler described his colors as adding to the idealistic and pensive mood of the painting, as no clear narrative was made known.

As this artwork embraced ideals of art for art’s sake, it was ill-received when it was first exhibited, as it was thought to be an incredibly reckless and careless painting.


The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows (1916) by Man Ray

An extremely famous artist who emerged during the Modernism era was American sculptor, painter, and photographer, Man Ray. As an artist who was well-known in both America and Europe, he was considered to be a significant figure in representing the interaction between the artists of these countries, especially when the Formalism movement entered America.

Ray stated that the creative force and expressiveness of a painting resided in the material, color, and texture in a work, all of which were able to come together on the flat plane of the canvas.

Formal Art Creator A photograph of Man Ray, 1934; Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Within The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows, a vaudeville tightrope dancer can be seen. Portrayed with a petite gray and white figure, the dancer can be seen at the top of the painting on top of the large abstracted planes of bright colors. These colors were said to indicate the shadows of her graceful movements, but they went on to resemble a type of collage instead as they overlapped one another. This painting came to be through several initial experiments and by Ray’s chance finding of the designs his cutouts made.

Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York today, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows demonstrated the abstract representations of the dancer’s movements. These went on to control the entire canvas, which placed the emphasis on the primary elements.

In doing so, Ray was able to make his formal effects the main focus within this work, which was what the Formalism movement stood for.


Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921) by Piet Mondrian

Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was an important member of the European art scene, as he was one of the founders of the iconic De Stijl movement. He was known for his portrayals of the world through vertical and horizontal lines, with this singular vision demonstrating his preference for abstraction. Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue, painted in 1921, exists as an important example of Formalism art.

The entire focus of the work is placed on the lines used to create the various boxes of primary colors.

Formalistic Theory Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921) by Piet Mondrian; Piet Mondrian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By offsetting the multiple boxes of color against a backdrop of black and white, Mondrian went on to create what soon became known as his signature style. The level of abstraction seen within this work is noticeable, as Mondrian simply created a canvas full of lines and colors. The thick, black horizontal and vertical lines worked to mark out the outlines of the various boxes, which effectively kept the colors separate from one another.

This composition demonstrated a type of abstract art that differed greatly from Cubism and Futurism.

The simplification of the pictorial elements that can be seen within Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue became essential aspects in Mondrian’s other artworks. Greenberg acknowledged Mondrian’s work as an important example of Formalism, as the strict geometry present in his paintings helped imitate the varied rhythm of modern life. This painting of Mondrian, along with several others of his, went on to influence subsequent generations of Formalist artists and artworks.


Flag (1954 – 1955) by Jasper Johns

American painter, sculptor, and printmaker Jasper Johns went on to affect nearly all artistic movements from the 1950s up until the present day. His playful and mysterious artworks were known for the way in which they questioned how the world was viewed and interpreted. Flag, which was painted on three panels between 1954 and 1955, exists as Johns’ first major artwork that broke away from the Abstract Expressionist style of the time. Portraying the American flag, his painting was a representation of an instantly recognizable object.

Made up of a collage of newspaper pieces, Flag was created over three plywood panels that were combined. The method of creation for this artwork added to its uniqueness, as the scraps of newspaper were painted over with pigment and melted wax to stay together. Johns’ style, along with this specific artwork, has often been thought to have paved the way for the emergence of Pop Art through re-introducing immediately identifiable subject matter into modern art.

Despite the simple elements of line and color being present in this work, Flag presented a dilemma for Formalist critics like Greenberg. While the artwork itself maintained the aspects of Formalism, Johns’ made it virtually impossible to deny the presence of an obvious subject matter. The American flag jumps out at audiences the moment they view this work, as this symbol was designed to stand out through its Formalist terms.

Although Greenberg and other critics rejected this work, Johns’ followers did not, which led to its fame.


Soft Spoken (1969) by Josef Albers

Another well-known American painter and sculptor was Josef Albers, who was instrumental in bringing the notions of European Modernism over to the United States. Located at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York is his artwork, Soft Spoken, which he painted in 1969. Committing to abstraction in his early works, Albers went on to experiment with a variety of color juxtapositions in a scientific way, which created distinctly inflected forms of pictorial space.

In Soft Spoken, four squares are depicted in teal blue, light green, dark green, and dark purple. Based on the order of the above colors, the squares have been arranged in diminishing sizes and have been placed quite low down on the canvas in an obviously asymmetrical way.

This painting formed part of Albers’ Homage to the Square series which he began in 1949, with Soft Spoken demonstrating his continued dedication to the formal investigation of color through the addition of a fourth square. The four variations of blue seen within Soft Spoken implied Albers’ consistent repetition of form and delicate color juxtaposition, which adhered to the notions of Formalism.

One of the most striking aspects of his work, which existed as an experimental variation of true Formalism, was the idea that his formal experimentation with color and shape could have a moral and culturally liberal value.


Two Sides of the Same Coin (2012) by Lucien Smith

An artist to come out of the Zombie Formalism era was Lucien Smith, who created Two Sides of the Same Coin in 2012. This artwork exemplified the trend of contemporary Formalism that was known as the Zombie period, as it was an artwork whose value catapulted in price between art collectors and bidders. Resembling rain or mist from a distance, Smith spray-painted black paint onto a blank canvas to create this work. Up close, the dots appear to be splattered and are viewed as small and individual explosions on the canvas.

As the painting process for Two Sides of the Same Coin was thought to be incredibly modern, it was emphasized as a truly abstracted work when Smith exhibited it. Forming part of his Rain Paintings (2011) series, this artwork was made by using fire extinguishers to spray the paint.

Smith said that his process of creation was heavily inspired by the various graffiti artists in New York who also made use of old fire extinguishers, which sprayed water as opposed to powder, to make compositions.

Smith created Two Sides of the Same Coin, along with the series, while he was studying art at the Cooper Union School of Art. After he graduated, his works became prominent examples in the new type of art investment that had appeared onto the scene, which was Zombie Formalism. Smith’s experimental artworks transfixed audiences but unfortunately, the intrigue was short-lived. After two years of producing works in line with Zombie Formalism, the auction prices for his works plummeted just as quickly as they rose.


Formalism in Other Arts

As it was such an influential movement, it is understandable that Formalism was not just confined to evaluating artworks. The aspects of Formalism could easily be applied to different forms of art, which led to creatives expressing these notions in a variety of artistic genres. The concepts of Formalism were also used quite freely in both literature and photography, which were seen as additional forms of art.


Literary Formalism

In literature, the aspects of Formalism emerged in the early 20th century, around the same time as Russian Formalism. In 1914, the OPOJAZ Society for the Study of Poetic Language was established in St. Petersburg, which emphasized a more analytical and conventional approach to poetry and literary devices.

Thus, the Formalist view in literature was more scientific and logical in nature, as the focus of the work was placed on how writing could express language, as well as how readers reacted to the different subjects of writing.

Literature that relied on Formalistic theory proved to be successful no matter the cultural context and because of this, was believed to be able to stand the test of time in an ever-changing world. The intent of literary Formalism was to focus on the distinctive features and devices of literature that were unusual within creative writing.


Formalism Photography

Photographs that displayed a naturalistic approach within their compositions were thought to embody the concepts of Formalism. As the art form of photography developed, photographers became a type of visual designer whenever a specific frame was captured.

This was because photographers were able to select the subject matter that they wished to be present in the scene so that the desired image was created.

Formalism photography, which was sometimes seen as a form of journalism, made use of the strong conventional qualities of Formalism within the scenes that were captured. By juxtaposing compelling subject matter with the elements of lines, color, and textures, photographers were able to produce captivating images which demonstrated a strong influence of Formalism.



The Decline and Legacy of Formalism

By the 1960s, the influence of Formalism began to diminish. Other movements that proved to be damaging to the methods of Formalism emerged as commanding forces, such as Pop Art, Minimalism, Neo-Dada, and Performance Art. Some artists felt that the ideals so heavily endorsed by Greenberg were limiting in the modern era, which led to the introduction of various artistic practices and methods that rejected the concepts of Formalism completely.

Despite its decline, it is important to remember that Formalism continued to permeate almost all of the critical approaches to Modern Art in the 20th century. This has led to a type of survival of Formalism in the 21st century, as the movement taps into such a fundamental aspect of all artistic interpretation that has started to be seen as notable again. The recognition of formal qualities, such as the way lines and color work together, as well as the different textures and patterns of a surface, have proven to be important in understanding art again.

Today, most art historians and critics make use of formal analyses when attempting to examine and understand artworks, with this type of thinking originating in the Formalism era. However, the awareness of culture, history, and context that frames artworks today make the analyses distinctly different from those done in the traditional Formalism era. This has led to the development of a stricter type of Formalism, which has started to spark interest in the different art periods of 21st-century art.


Formalism proved to be an incredibly powerful and significant movement within art history. By placing emphasis on the formal and traditional elements that made up art, this style re-focused critics and viewers on the primary aspects that had been momentarily forgotten when it came to examining and understanding art. Many more artists contributed to this movement and if you have enjoyed reading up on the development of the period and its iconic artworks, we encourage you to explore further.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is Formalism?

Considered to be a critical form of art, Formalism described the movement that analyzed artworks according to their form and structural elements that were easily recognizable. Formalism viewed the subject matter, context, and intended meaning to be of secondary importance within an artwork, as the formal elements that physically constructed the piece were the focal point.


What Is Zombie Formalism?

Reaching a peak in 2014, Zombie Formalism describes the resurgence of the Formalism movement in modern art. As a new type of abstract painting was developing, the term “Zombie Formalism” seemed appropriate as the artworks relied on all of the concepts of Formalism from the 19th century. What made this reappearance of Formalism art so different from the original version, was that no effort was made to improve upon or further develop the initial aspects. Instead, artists merely included ridiculous theatrics so as to capture attention.


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Formalism Art – Understanding Formalistic Theory in Art.” Art in Context. December 6, 2021. URL:

Meyer, I. (2021, 6 December). Formalism Art – Understanding Formalistic Theory in Art. Art in Context.

Meyer, Isabella. “Formalism Art – Understanding Formalistic Theory in Art.” Art in Context, December 6, 2021.

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