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The Formalist Criticism of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg

In examining the formalist criticisms of Roger Fry and of Clement Greenberg, it is important to see one critic as a springboard for the other.  In the early twentieth century, Fry championed Post-Impressionism, an era whose work became a catalyst, taking art in several new directions, especially in the field of abstraction.  Half of a century later, Greenberg promoted Modernism, an artistic institution composed of an art, which was completely abstract and non-referential.  In understanding the theories offered by these two critics, it is not difficult to see the trajectory of abstract art beginning with Post-Impressionism and developing into Modernism.  Although, the formalist criticisms of Fry and Greenberg concentrate on a type of abstraction and share some similar notions, the criticisms remain separate and distinct.

Roger Fry, the main proponent of Post-Impressionism, rejected the empiricist, naturalistic foundations of Realism and Impressionism, promoting an era in which artists could have an individualized aesthetic, which was imaginative, yet locatable.  Fry’s formalist criticism relies heavily on the emotional impact of a work – identifiable brushwork develops as a mode of expression, permitting the viewer to see the artist’s hand and his feelings.  In An Essay in Aesthetics, Fry asserts, to be successful in arousing a viewers emotions, “emotional elements of design” must be utilized as they “are connected with essential condition of our physical existence: rhythm…mass…inclined planes…light…”[1]  Therefore, in order for a viewer to have an emotional response to the artwork, its formal qualities must be central to the work itself.  Like Fry, Clement Greenberg’s Modernist critique also emphasizes formalist qualities of the work, however, divorces itself from emotion.  Greenberg encouraged an art that was completely abstract and could not be analyzed beyond the qualities intrinsic to the color, composition, texture, and medium of the work itself.  In order for the work to be only about its formal and abstract qualities, Greenberg believed that brushwork (the artist’s hand) should be replaced with flat color.  This emotionless flat surface eliminates any sense of space, “…Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.”[2]  In Abstract, Representational, and so forth, Greenberg writes, “The spectator can no longer escape into it from the space in which he himself stands.  If it deceives his eye at all, it is by optical rather than pictorial means: by relations of color and shape largely divorced from descriptive connotations, and often by manipulations in which top and bottom, as well as foreground and background, become interchangeable.”[3]

Greenberg’s formalist criticism values decorative non-referential art that permits optical illusion, and perhaps a third dimension.  To Greenberg, Modernism allows for the contemporary illusion of the Old Masters:  Instead of giving the illusion that the viewer can walk through the painting, as the old Western tradition allows, Modernist work permits the viewer to enter the painting with his eyes.  In this way, Greenberg’s attitude toward art is more scientific than Fry’s attitude, which is anti-academic and anti-authoritarian.  Instead of continuing what he thought of as the unimaginative scientific approach to art, especially in its desire to replicate nature, Fry believed it was important “to discover … what arrangements of form and color are calculated to stir the imagination most deeply through the stimulus of sight.”[4]  Although, he thought it was important for the artist to include some elements of naturalism and referential subject mater in order to convey his sentiment and to evoke the appropriate feelings in the viewer, too much naturalism, without any distortion, did not have the imagination Fry’s formalist criticism yearned for.  Rather than turning to the actual world for artistic material, Fry believed the artist should utilize his imagination, as “it has a coherence and unity which the actual world lacks.”[5]  In terms of the implementation of naturalism within a work, Fry would argue its importance, whereas Greenberg is a proponent of non-representational work.  In Abstract, Representational, and so forth Greenberg writes, “It is granted that a recognizable image will add conceptual meaning to a picture, but the fusion of conceptual with aesthetic meaning does not affect quality.  That a picture gives us things to identify, as well as a complex of shapes and colors to behold, does not mean necessarily that if gives us more art.”[6]

Although Greenberg and Fry have very different aesthetics, as seen in examination of both formalist criticisms, the decorative nature of the artwork is essential for both critics.  In Post Impressionism, Fry writes, “… a painting of any kind is bound to be decorative, since by decorative we really mean conforming to the principles of artistic unity.”[7]  Line, color, and space, though employed differently, are both vital formal aspects in Fry and in Greenberg’s criticisms.  While Fry’s criticism implements these formal qualities to convey emotion and perhaps meaning, Greenberg’s methodology employs these formal qualities so that the work exists only to refer to itself, it has no emotion nor meaning. Fry claims that the artist has a role in achieving feeling in a work via his brushwork, whereas Greenberg claims that the work has no intended meaning, however, if the viewer believes it does, that response is purely optical.

[1] Roger Fry, “An Essay in Aesthetics,” Vision and Design, 24.

[2] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” Modernism, 87.

[3] Clement Greenberg, “Abstract, Representational, and so forth,”137.

[4] Roger Fry, “Post Impressionism,” Forming Formalism, 100.

[5] Fry, “Post Impressionism,” 107

[6] Greenberg, “Abstract, Representational, and so forth,” 137

[7] Fry, “Post Impressionism,” 107

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