What Is Formalism?

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Formalism refers to a way of creating, viewing and interpreting art that focuses on the visual elements and principles of design, disregarding politics, historical context, content and the artist. Use the formalist approach to evaluating various artworks with information from an art historian, critic and curator in this free video on art.

Part of the Video Series: Modern Art History
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Video Transcript

Dr. Betty Brown here again, and the topic is formalism. Formalism is actually an approach to creating, looking at, and interpreting art. Formalism focuses on the form, the shape, color, texture, line; the visual components of the artwork putting aside the content, putting aside the historical context, putting aside the psychology of the artist or the politics of the artist who created it, and just focusing on the visual components, the visual elements. Now, you can look at any artwork in a formal term. You can think about the shapes, and forms, and color, and texture of any artwork, but some artists choose to focus on that, and some critics choose to respond to that. For example, German artist, Josef Albers, was taking a formalist approach when he did a series called Homage to the Square. He did a series of concentric squares of color, and all he varied in square after square after square was the color relationships. There was no story in those paintings. There was no feeling that he was going through and trying to convey. There was no historical context. There was just the shapes of the squares with the colors varied. And what he wanted to do, of course, was examine the optical response to that formal element, the square; that formal component, the color, so Homage to the Square is a formalist approach to examining the formal elements of art.

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