“Artisanal concerns force themselves more evidently on a painter or sculptor than on a writer, and it would be hard to make my point about the artisanal, the “formalist” emphasis of Modernism nearly so plausible in the case of literature. For reasons not to be gone intohere, the medium of words demands to be taken more for granted than any other in which art is practiced. This holds even in verse, which may help explain why what is Modernist and what is not cannot be discriminated as easily in the poetry of the last hundred years as in the painting . …
It remains that Modernism in art, if not in literature, has stood or fallen so far by its “formalism.” Not that Modernist art is coterminous with “formalism.” And not that “formalism” hasn’t lent itself to a lot of empty, bad art. But so far every attack on the “formalist” aspect of Modernist painting and sculpture has worked out as an attack on Modernism itself because every such attack developed into an attack at the same time on superior artistic standards. The recent past of Modernist art demonstrates this ever so clearly. Duchamp’s and Dada’s was the first outright assault on”formalism,” that came from within the avant-garde, or what was nominally the avant-garde, and it stated itself immediately in a lowering of aspirations. The evidence is there in the only place whereartistic evidence can be there: in the actual productions of Duchamp and most of the Dadaists. The same evidence continues to be there in the neo-Dadaism of the last ten years, in its works, in the inferior quality of these works. From which it has to be concluded that if Modernism remains a necessary condition of the best art of our time, as it has been of the best art of the hundred years previous, then “formalism,” apparently, remains a necessary condition too, which is the sole and sufficient justification of either Modernism or “formalism.”
And if “formalism” derives from the hard-headed, “cold” side of Modernism, then this must be its essential, defining side, at least in the case of painting and sculpture. That’s the way it looks right now- and looks more than ever right now. The question is whether it will keep on looking that way in the future: that is, whether Modernism will continue to stand or fall by its “cold” side and by its “formalism.” Modernism has been a failing thing in literature the past twenty years and more; it’s not yet a failing thing in painting or sculpture, but I can imagine its turning into that in another decade (even in sculpture, which seems to have a brighter future before it than painting does). If so, this may come about in the same way that it has come about, as it seems to me, in literature: through the porousness of Modernisms “hot” side, the enthusiastic and hectic side, which is the one that middlebrows have found it easier all along to infiltrate. [Clement Greenberg The Necessity of Formalism]
“As I thought about this, I remembered something else Greenberg had said in that earlier essay where the statement about the vulgarity of “formalism” appeared. He had said “Why bother to say that a Velázquez has ‘more content’ than a Salvator Rosa when you can say more simply, and with directer reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velázquez is ‘better’ than the Salvator Rosa?” Which is to say that it matters what the content of a work of art is, that some content is “more” than others, better than others.
Which is also to say that I am still stuck with believing that “formalism” is a vulgarity; that I began as a modernist critic and am still a modernist critic, but only as part of a larger modernist sensibility and not the narrower kind. Which is further to say that what I must acknowledge is not some idea of the world’s perspective but simply my own point of view; that it matters who one sounds like when what one is writing about is art. One’s own perspective, like one’s own age, is the only orientation one will ever have.” [Rosalind Krauss A View of Modernism]
Katy Siegel: Around the same time, in the mid-to-late ’70s, Jack Goldstein is making his early films like Shane and The Jump, which take an action that turns into an image and repeat it over and over again. And the mid-’70s are when Cindy Sherman is starting in Buffalo. I feel like David [Reed] belongs to that context as well, there’s a connection to the early Pictures Generation.
Christopher Wool: I did not see the Pictures show [at Artists Space, New York, in 1977, curated by Douglas Crimp] but I was starting to be aware of some of those artists. There were different aspects in what was developing in postmodernist thought at that time. One had to do with narrative and pictures and real life; that was not where my interest lay. The part that was important to me was the notion that the modernist idea of the masterpiece was either no longer possible or no longer necessarily an objective. Where the Abstract Expressionists had still been wedded to the modernist concept of the masterpiece, the postmodernists suggested that there were alternative ideals and possibilities to the Greenbergian idea of the perfect painting. I think in a way those artists were expanding on something that was already there in Post-Minimalism.
KS: The difference is that with the artworks that are considered Post-Minimalist, like the work in Anti-Illusion [at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1969, curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte], those artists really aren’t so interested in image. And the thing that what people used to call postmodernism adds is that while, yes, there’s the sense of the antimasterpiece, there’s also an interest in imagery.
CW: It actually went further: there were many who ruled out abstraction. When they talked about painting, it was about painting as picture. Abstract painting was not thought to offer any possibilities. [Katy Siegel in conversation with Christopher Wool]