The Universal Eye

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer/© Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Right Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso: Three Bathers by the Shore, 1920

The English writer Clive Bell called it “significant form.” Later generations of artists, critics, and historians, rejecting Bell’s elegant coinage, favored “formalism,” a more clinical term for more clinical times. Whatever the nomenclature, a conviction that the power of the visual arts is grounded in lines, shapes, colors, and compositions rather than in representations, symbols, and narratives held sway for more than a hundred years, beginning in the days of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. By the time the critic Clement Greenberg’s reputation was at its zenith in the 1960s, formalism was seen by many as an ideological fortress; at times it might be embattled but ultimately it was impregnable. If formalism was silenced in Stalin’s Russia, it would be renewed in the anti-Stalinist avant-garde circles of New York. But fortresses, even ideological fortresses, only last so long.

Formalism began as an investigation of fundamental artistic and even artisanal principles; its proponents believed it would ultimately bridge classes, cultures, and centuries. The time has come to revisit the old formalist faith. We can glimpse bits and pieces of that open-ended and generous-hearted spirit in a new book and a new exhibition. The Psychology of an Art Writer is a small collection of writings by the English fin-de-siècle essayist Vernon Lee, who spent most of her life in Italy and thought deeply about the formalist theories then evolving all over Europe. “Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection,” an exhibition at the Met Breuer organized by Sabine Rewald, provides an opportunity both to linger over some unabashedly erotic works by three modern masters and to explore the life and thought of Scofield Thayer. He was a wealthy American who—along with his partner, James Sibley Watson Jr.—not only bankrolled but also guided the great days of The Dial, a magazine that was a beacon of modernist experimentation, with Marianne Moore for a time the editor and Ezra Pound a significant adviser.

There is a paradox at the heart of formalism, one that we must confront before we can even begin to consider its rich and varied history. All visual art, even art that sets out to defy or confound the experience of the eye, is fundamentally a matter of form. Marcel Duchamp, who early in the twentieth century began to designate certain commercially made objects as Readymades, must have known that he was launching an assault on good old-fashioned aestheticism when he forced artists and critics to admit that even antiformalism was a kind of formalism. Although Duchamp said that he had initially selected his Readymades—a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a urinal, a snow shovel—for their “visual indifference,” soon enough they were being regarded as forms that…

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