As a sculptor, dynamic form is what has always attracted me to the medium. Form draws me into a work first and discovering content holds my attention second. When coming upon a sculpture for the first time there is so much to experience. Walking around it, through it, over it, below it. Examining the material, the surface, and the detail. All before wondering why and how the work came to be.
When formalist theory emerged in the first half of the 20th century, it claimed that form was the criteria by which all art ought to be judged. Today it does not make sense to take this narrow approach. It is still relevant to discuss artwork on formal grounds, considering color, line, shape, and texture. But, it is important to open the conversation to other criteria by which to judge artwork. I became interested in the topic of formalism in an attempt to put my finger on how we talk about contemporary abstract sculpture. I strive to make work that is both compelling without context and enhanced by context. Like Puryear and Ruby, my work is process based, informed by craft traditions and materiality.
In contemporary art today content is valued above form. I consider form and content equal players when analyzing an artwork and art criticism should do the same. In this paper we will discuss artists Martin Puryear and Sterling Ruby because these are artists who address formal concerns in their work but in no way limit themselves to the subject of formalism. Puryear at 73 years old is a late career artist and has a more traditional approach to formalism. Ruby at 42 years old is a mid career artist and stands for a new approach to formalism that art criticism ought to follow. Contrary to some contemporary art critics, I believe that formalist art investigations are still relevant today. Discussing a work’s formal qualities leads to deeper conceptual investigations that would not happen if considering content alone. Form without content however is one-dimensional and ignores our natural tendency to make associations and connections. In order to investigate an artwork fully contemporary art criticism must place value on both form and content.
What is formalism?
A lot of different approaches to formalism have developed over the years. Clive Bell was one of the first to champion formalist theory and published his most well known document Art in 1919. Bell believed subject matter was a distraction from form. According to Bell it is form “which gives all things their individual significance” (Bell).
Mid-20th century art critic Clement Greenberg similarly asserted that form should not possess meaning. According to Greenberg “pure” abstraction should be void of context, figuration or definitive meaning. (Houston, 62) These approaches do not fit with current ideas surrounding contemporary art. Content is more important than ever. Form serves as an entry point into a work that leads to discovering content. Today artists and critics do not suppress meaning but rather act as translators and direct viewers to a contextual reading of the work.
Out of all the approaches to formalism, I strongly identify with Roland Barthes’ perspective and consider it the most relevant today. In Klaus Ottman’s article “Spiritual Materiality: Contemporary Sculpture and the Responsibility of Forms” he points to Barthes’ book “The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980”. Barthes provides an alternative to Greenberg formalism that does not exclude content but rather considers an object’s materiality a theoretical act. The work of Martin Puryear and Sterling Ruby supports this truth: their materials and their manipulation of them convey conceptual ideas.
A formalist backlash took place in the 1970s. Conceptual art and political art took center stage. Art criticism nearly abandoned formalism all together but it has become relevant once again. Contemporary artists are interested in formalism but a moderate version compared to Greenberg and Bell’s extreme formalism.
Today many art critics value a formalist approach to art because it leads to discussions of content. Formalist concerns in addition to color, line, shape, and texture, include what an object is made of, its material, and how is it made, craft. While materiality and craft are formal ideas they are concepts rich with content. If a critic skipped over a formal reading of a work they’d miss an opportunity to discover symbolic and historical content.
Puryear and Ruby both work with diverse materials. Puryear uses traditional building materials: mostly wood but also steel, tar and stone. Before studying Puryear’s forms, the materials alone bring to mind traditional building techniques not contemporary ones. Puryear doesn’t work with aluminum studs or drywall but rather with materials that have been used for thousands of years, which makes the work feel timeless. Puryear’s materials demonstrate his interest in the trades; examples include carpentry, masonry, and blacksmithing. Puryear is attracted to object making that is motivated by utilitarian goals rather than artistic goals.
Ruby’s material list is extensive: ceramics, fabric, Formica, bronze, urethane and many others. Ruby mixes traditional art materials like ceramics and bronze, with modern building materials. Ruby considers his use of Formica conceptually relevant, a return to Barthes’ belief that an objects materiality is a theoretical act. (Ottman) Formica is traditionally used as a kitchen laminate, a covering in what was historically the female realm. The Formica stands in opposition to masculine minimalism in Ruby’s work “Grid Ripper”. The sculpture is made up of Formica blocks stacked six layers high. It would be a traditional minimalist work were it not for both the use of Formica and the black spray-painted splotched covering the surface.
Materials carry with them their own stories and art critics often overlook this truth. Materiality and craft are linked. Examining the materials used in a work leads me to think about craft: how was the object made and what material processes contributed to the making?
Craft is a subject related to formalism and a topic that interests both Puryear and Ruby. Craft objects fulfill many traditional formalist criteria. A handmade chair is typically void of content, figuration and meaning. Form is of the utmost importance, just as Greenberg requires. When encountering a handmade chair a viewer absorbs and evaluates the form first; perhaps taking note of subtle curves, clever joinery, or skillfully turned legs. All of these qualities become secondary once the object is put to use. Functionality becomes the primary concern, distancing the object from formalism.
Like craft objects it is only natural to first evaluate Puryear and Ruby’s works formally. When a critic begins to evaluate the form of works by Puryear and Ruby this quickly leads to the subject of craft, which points to other content rich subjects. Let’s take a look at Puryear’s work Alien Huddle (1993-95). Made from red cedar and pine, the main form is a four-foot diameter sphere. One hemisphere, roughly two feet in diameter, and one quadrant, about a foot in diameter, are seamlessly joined to the larger sphere. As you get closer you notice the form is made up of strips of wood, each one seamlessly butted up against the last. As you get closer still you notice indentations covering the surface of the wood. They are impressions left behind by hundreds of staples.
Not only is the form mysterious, so too is the way in which the object is made. Puryear has left only clues behind as to how Alien Huddle was constructed. One can appreciate the skilled workmanship that went into fabricating the piece. The work references forms in nature like bubbles and dividing cells, however like all of Puryear’s works the object is uniquely itself.
In looking at Puryear’s sculpture art critic Roberta Smith does what all art critic ought to do: she recognize that his formalist works reference broader concepts. She writes, “[Puryear’s] formalism taps into … the history of objects, both utilitarian and not, and their making … along with issues of craft, ritual, approaches to nature and all kinds of ethnic traditions and identities” (Smith, 2014)
While Puryear and Ruby both make large scale abstract sculpture they approach constructing their works differently. Puryear’s skillfully creates objects that bring to mind utility and vernacular building while Ruby’s drippy glazed ceramics and sagging soft sculptures speak to amateurism and crafting. It is the scale of Ruby’s works that likens them to monuments rather than a student’s first ceramic project.
In a conversation with critic Robert Hobbs, Ruby spoke of his experience at a weekend art therapy class. People of all ages worked with clay and surprisingly all made similar work, “anthropomorphic, hypersexual forms with extensions and holes”. (Hobbs, 2010) These characteristics carry over into Ruby’s ceramic works. In “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck” a roughly formed dish contains tubes and debris from other experiments.
Ruby’s clay sculptures make me think about our elemental human need to make things whether or not we’ve been taught craft skills. For this reason his works are hasty and compulsive. The universality of clay fascinates Ruby and is one of the reasons he often works with the medium. Midcentury craft objects like “Fat Lava” pottery inspire Ruby. This influence, especially the excessive glazing, can be seen in works such as “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck”. While Ruby is interested in the accessibility of craft, especially ceramics, Puryear is interested in the traditions associated with craft.
Forms Lead to Associations
Formalist work not only generates discussions of materiality and craft but also leads to cultural and art historical associations. It is easy to see the relationship between Puryear’s work and that of Minimalist sculptors like Brancusi and Noguchi. It is his naturalistic forms and non-western references that set him apart. An organic awkwardness compared to the sleek often-symmetrical designs of Brancusi and Noguchi. While Puryear’s content is considered vague by some I do not consider this a weakness but rather a strength. I appreciate the universality of the work. It leaves room for the viewer to project their own ideas.
Many of Ruby’s works address the “burden of minimalism” as he put it in his joint lecture with art critic Robert Hobbs. One of these works “Grid Ripper” was mentioned earlier. The piece consists of Formica blocks stacked six layer high covered with black spray-painted splotches. The sculpture fills a room and changes drastically from each vantage point.
The form of this work is both monumental and minimalist but it has been defaced, its surface covered in graffiti. The work is a reaction to minimalism and specifically minimalist champion Donald Judd. Ruby considers Judd’s writings about minimalism dictatorial. Judd set the terms: what art should and shouldn’t be. He claimed a corner of art history. Sterling compares this to the gang members in his neighborhood who stake their claim by defacing architectural monoliths. The minimalist framework is a rigid structure just like the urban environment. In an urban environment graffiti artists spare no surface just as in the art world no object is exempt from critique.
At first glace Ruby’s work may seem to be art about art, a defaced Judd monolith or a Claus Oldenburg like soft sculpture. But Ruby is not focused in the past but rather is interested in speaking to the current human condition. I agree with writer David Spalding, “it doesn’t matter whether … audiences can identify the art historical references”. (Spalding, 2014) More importantly a viewer will notice that Ruby’s work makes use of recognizable icons, an American flag, graffiti, guns, vampires and his use of these icons is sometimes silly and awkward, other times unsettling, apocalyptic even.
Old Formalism and New Formalism
Puryear and Ruby respectively represent old and new school formalism. Puryear wants the work to speak for itself while Ruby speaks openly about content in his work. The work of both artists could be categorized as primarily formal but it is also content rich and conceptually rigorous.
Currently artists and art critics openly discuss content in art. This is a positive development in art criticism compared to the often-vague theoretical discussions that were typical of the 50s and 60s. Puryear however is reluctant to adopt this new way. In his Art 21 episode Puryear stopped himself from explaining his work further, “I don’t want to elaborate on it too much. It’s in the work.” He’s clearly informed by minimalist and formalist traditions. As he states, “I came from a generation where the work itself was the information.” (Puryear, 2003) Puryear speaks to the works representational and elusive tendencies, which are qualities that have always attracted me to his sculpture.
Ruby speaks freely and often about his ideas and intentions. I have found a hand full of recorded interviews with Ruby. Far fewer can be found on Puryear. This calls attention to a generational difference. Because Puryear is of the minimalist belief that the work should speak for itself he rarely speaks publicly about his intentions. Currently artists are expected to provide the context for their work. It’s unlikely a midcareer contemporary artists would say, “I don’t want to elaborate” as Puryear did.
Unlike Puryear, Ruby is incredibly forthcoming about the meaning of his work. This change makes contemporary art more accessible and marks a cultural shift. According to Houston the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism, “the increasing confidence of middle-class observers in looking at art … has lead to an influential appreciation of clarity and style in writing” and speaking, I would add. (Houston, 74, 76) Openly discussing content in art enables new formalism to thrive rather than sink into opaque oblivion.
The joint lecture Ruby and Hobbs gave at the University of Chicago is an interesting format because not only does Ruby speak about content in his work but art critic Hobbs also reinforces his statements. Rather than defining a theory as was done in previous decades, the contemporary critic builds upon what an artist says, in addition to what he makes. It is illuminating when an artist speaks about her own work but it can also be problematic. Because the artist was once focused on her intentions for the work it is difficult to recognize and accept the works true cultural relevance. The critic’s primary role is to do just that, define a works cultural relevance.
The art critic continues to be an important figure even in these changing times. The artist should not be the sole provider of context for their work as Ruby is in danger of becoming. Nor should the artist be intentionally vague as Puryear has been and allow the critic to solely provide context. When an artist tells the public what an object means this does not take away from the work, as extreme formalists believe, but rather adds to a dimensional conversation shared with critics and the public.
In Favor of New Formalism
I am attracted to “new” formalism because it is about experiencing the work first and places context, prior knowledge, and art history second. I consider it impossible to forget what you know of cultural context, an artist or art history as Greenberg suggests. I’d prefer to use formalism as a guide a Barth’s does: openly approaching an artwork, experience it reasonably unburdened by context and then seeking out additional contextual information.
It is easier to take a Greenbergian formalist approach when looking at Puryear’s work rather than Ruby’s. Puryear’s work, while nonrepresentational still fits a traditional definition of beauty. The work is made from natural materials and exhibits material mastery. His precise craftsmanship, while sometimes unfinished is never crude. His balanced forms feel familiar. I consider the work relatively easy to appreciate, not simple by any means but accessible. Context and meaning could enhance the work but are not necessary to enjoy the work.
Ruby on the other hand is a clear case for moderate or new formalism. His work is chaotic, haphazard and often roughly constructed. The objects feel like debris once forgotten. His color pallet is harsh, mostly blacks and reds. Ruby’s work would be hard for a number of museum visitors to swallow without context. It is Ruby’s interest in the legacy of minimalism, Americana, gender relations, incarceration, consumption, economic collapse, and craft that makes the work truly interesting.
I found the work “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck” interesting enough the first time I saw it. The fact that it’s a ceramic work roughly three and a half feet square is compelling. The range of fragments and the puddles of glaze drew me into the work. It passed the formal test but I became more interested when I heard about Ruby’s experience at the art therapy class. The piece became a representation of freeform creativity: something any one of us could have made with a ball of clay. I find the majority of Ruby’s works more compelling after learning their story.
Formalism remains to be an appropriate lens to look through when discussing contemporary art: even when considering two distinct artists like Puryear and Ruby. Specifically moderate formalism is the correct approach because it sheds light on both form and content rather than just form, as does essentialist formalism. To stop short of considering context, figuration or meaning would reduce the work, ignoring some of the most interesting attributes. Moderate formalism considers the value of an objects materiality and craft. In addition moderate formalism leads to associations both cultural and art historical. Innovative sculpture will continue to have a balanced relationship with form and content. My hope is that contemporary artists and critics will continue to consider formalism a valid entry point into an artwork. Today art criticism must speak about what motivates the work but it is formal qualities that continue to captivate art audiences worldwide.
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Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. New York: Hill & Wang, 1986. Print.
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Hobbs, Robert and Sterling Ruby. “Sterling Ruby in Conversation with Robert Hobbs.” Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago, IL. 17 February 2010. Society for Contemporary Art Lecture.
Houston, Kerr. An Introduction to Art Criticism: Histories, Strategies, Voices. New Jersey :Pearson, 2012. Print.
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“Martin Puryear.” Art 21. PBS, 2003. Web Film. 16 Nov 2014.
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