Greenbergian Formalism

Julia Dry

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950. Oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Figure 1. Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950. Oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Formalism is an approach to art focusing on formal elements (composition, color, line, texture) rather than on social or historical context. Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) was an avid practitioner of a kind of formalist criticism, which dictated that modernist painting should explore its own means of making. Greenberg believed that visual art should isolate itself from the aims of other arts, to become ‘pure art’ through a process of media-specific self-criticism.1

Robert Nelson describes Greenbergian formalism as determining how “the modernism of a discipline or a medium is not that it reveals an engagement with the representative concerns of the age, but rather that its development is governed by self-critical procedures addressed to the medium itself.”2 Greenberg emphasized this in his 1960 essay, Modernist Painting: “the essence of Modernism lies as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself–not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”3 Greenbergian formalism was a highly influential methodology for reading modernist works of art until the mid-1970s.4

Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) (1950) lends itself well to Greenberg’s approach [Figure 1]. Greenberg was an early supporter of Pollock, and played a key role in establishing his reputation as a leader of the Abstract-Expressionist artists. This large-scale painting is completely devoid of any identifiable image or narrative content. Following Greenberg’s reading of his work, Pollock has since been celebrated for his formal experimentation in “making gesture, line, texture, and composition the very subject of his canvases.”5 His process consists of placing a canvas on the ground and covering it with skeins of paint applied with either brushes or sticks. The paint is splattered, dripped, flung, and poured onto the canvas, giving way for chance and intuition. Pollock thought of himself as a medium within his own process. Although the work does not contain the color lavender, the interweaving colors of industrial paints in Lavender Mist “radiate a mauve glow that inspired Greenberg.”6

Greenberg believed that an artist should pay focused attention on the abstract manipulation of color and line rather than attempting to create three-dimensionality, which could be successfully fulfilled through a different medium such as sculpture.7 He believed that, “the frank acknowledgement of surface becomes the condition to which the self-critical modernist painting must tend.”8 He looked for the ‘flatness’ in pieces when studying various artists and their collections.9 He believed that this element was an escape from “bourgeois fantasies of perspective and recognizing that painting’s reality is that of a flat object; a surface…Pollock–whose paintings are planes of colour–stands as a metaphysical revealer of what painting truly is.”10

Greenberg’s model of formalism first gained traction through his essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in a 1939 issue of Partisan Review. Greenberg favored avant-garde work that provided an immediate visual sensation rather than a pictorial or narrative referent. Pollock embodied this avant-garde focus on form.  His inability to state a narrative intention for his work is formalist because it reveals how the artist was “a creature of pure intuition whose sensibility channeled directly into the personal and collective unconsciousness, dredging up configurations of line and color that were and remained unaccountable. Their unaccountability was in fact the warranty of their authenticity.”11 Clement Greenberg favored Pollock’s Lavender Mist and his other drip paintings pieces for their immense scale, which brought painting away from the easel.  According to James Panero, “the innovation of the drip technique furthermore detached Pollock from the canvas and flattened the image into a scrim, removing any sense of illusion and acknowledging the properties of the painting’s internal logic.”12 Pollock’s artwork spurred a wide range of reactions both negative and positive. However, as a result of Pollock’s then-daring work, he is now regarded as the last major American artist to trust art completely and to “abandon himself to painting.”13 For this reason Greenberg wrote that the artist was, “the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miro…not afraid to look ugly–all profoundly original art looks ugly at first.”14


  1. Peter Plagens, “Another Look at Clement Greenberg.” New England Review 28: 1 (2007): 51-57, 52.
  2. Robert Nelson, “Modernism,” Critical Terms for Art History, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 191.
  3. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting (1960),” in Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticisms, edited by John O’Brian. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 85.
  4. Robert Williams, “Formalism.” Museum of Modern Art. Last modified January 1, 2009.
  5. “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist).” National Gallery of Art. .
  6. Ibid.
  7. Williams, “Formalism.”
  8. Nelson, “Modernism,” 192.
  9. Plagens, “Another Look at Clement Greenberg,” 52.
  10. Jonathan Jones, “Clement Greenberg: The Art Critic Who Refuses to Flatline,” The Guardian. March 11, 2011.
  11. McEvilley, Thomas, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and Mary Kelly. “Contemporary Art.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
  12. James Panero, “The Critical Moment,” The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, August 1, 2008.
  13. Michael Brenson, “ART VIEW; Divining the Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” The New York Times, December 13, 1987, 3.
  14. Plagens, “Another Look at Clement Greenberg,” 54.