PRINT November 1982


One of the characteristics of myths is that they seem to promise rules of order but never deliver them.
—Jack Burnham

PASSIONATELY ADHERED-TO SYSTEMS of belief pass through cultures like epidemics of disease. The great formalist critical tradition of the postwar period, embodied in the works of Clement Greenberg. Michael Fried, Sheldon Nodelman, and others, still has the art body in the last shivers of its fever. In their practice, these critics opened the artwork to profound phenomenological analyses. But their concern with surface, figure, and color eventually coagulated into a repressive ideology that could allow no real theoretical discussion of the inspired practice, which seemed as given as life itself. It is time to reconsider certain basic questions that, from a formalist viewpoint, have long been regarded as closed.

It has rightly been said that theory. if not received at the door of an empirical discipline. comes in through the chimney like a ghost and upsets the furniture.
—Erwin Panofsky2

Foremost, of course is the problem of content. As the formalist approach to this problem Rosalind Krauss presents the critic’s perception of “feeling” in a work: “The experience of a work of art is always in part about the thoughts and feelings that have elicited—or more than that, entailed—the making of the work. And if the work is not a vehicle of those emotions, in no matter how surprising a form, then what one is in the presence of is not art but design.”3 In illustration of this classic formalist strategy Krauss quotes Michael Fried: “Both [Kenneth] Noland and [Jules] Olitski are primarily paintings of feeling, and . . . their preeminence chiefly resides not in the formal intelligence of their work . . . but in the depth and sweep of feeling which this intelligence makes possible.”4 The implication is that when a critic ascribes “feeling” to an artist’s work the critic is dealing adequately—or at least as far as decency allows—with the aspect of content. Indeed, one’s sense of decency is the question. Formalist writers have spoken with a moralist intensity against content.

But what exactly does this word “feeling” mean? Krauss glosses the term once as “thoughts and feelings” and again as “emotions.” Fried, similarly, calls Noland’s paintings “powerful emotional statements” and ascribes “passion,” “emotion,” and “expressive freedom” to them. Yet in neither Fried’s nor Krauss’ essay will one find mention of any deciphered “thoughts” or specified “emotions,” or indeed any mention at all of what it is that is “expressed.” As Alan Tormey notes, this view “does not establish a relevant distinction between art and any other form of human activity.”5 In fact it seems that the word “feeling” is practically a verbal blank. To qualify the blank, as Fried does, as “the depth and sweep of feeling,” is simply to expand it.6

Irving Sandler and Robert A.M.Stern had a fight in our loft early this year . . . “I didn’t see any content in [Mark Rothko’s] pictures,” said Stern . . . Sandler . . . replied that content in Rothko’s paintings is expressed in color, form, facture. Stern said that content requires a reference to the world outside . . . “Painting is color and light,” counterpunched Sandler. “If nothing else, these paintings are about painting.”
—Douglas Davis7

When Fried ascribes “feeling” to the works of Noland and Olitski, while maintaining that these artists address themselves “to eyesight alone” and that their works are of a “purely visual nature,”8 he is laboring under the difficult burden of Clement Greenberg’s theory. Greenberg, of course. maintained that “visual art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience and make no reference to anything given in other orders of experience.”9 Content, he believed, must become “strictly optical” and “be dissolved . . . completely into form.”10 When Greenberg faced the question (which stymied both Plato and Aristotle) of how a form can be experienced without a content he took the position, enunciated before him by Benedetto Croce and others, that content is an aspect of form. The painting’s “quality,” he declared (a matter of formal considerations), is its content.”11 This attitude, however valuable as a declaration of faith, should not be mistaken for rational thinking. Of course, at the time Greenberg was writing, many people would have agreed with him. Illogic often grips small power groups that feel they have history by the neck.

The basic requirement of this ideology is that no meaning of any kind can be allowed to pollute visual integrity.
—Douglas Davis12

The impossible idea of pure form (form without content) quickly became an absolute. With the zeal of devotees, Greenberg, Fried, Susan Sontag, and others attempted to purify art of significations, whether by eliminating them from the viewer’s awareness, by neutralizing them (as, for example. blank “feeling”), or by enclosing them in a hermetic athanor of self-reference.

Poetry is the subject of the poem.
From this the poem issues and

To this returns. Between the two,
Between issue and return, there is

An absence in reality,
Things as they are. Or so we say.
—Wallace Stevens, “The Man With The Blue Guitar”

This project is rooted in the Romantic tradition (and behind it in Neoplatonism), which yearned to see the artwork as transcendentally free, beyond the web of conditionality. The enterprise took on a quasi-religious aura, and by the mid-’60s Greenberg, Sontag, and the rest were preaching to the converted. By then, formalist theory was an accepted myth. In the Levi-Straussian sense a myth is a device to mediate between culture and nature, either by naturalizing culture or by culturizing nature; in this case, the mythifying tactic was to naturalize culture. Artworks were to be granted a self-validating status like that of objects of nature such as stones or leaves, which are not asked to refer, to signify, or to justify themselves in any external terms. Nothing was left to the artwork except pure sensory presence, with no concepts, no signification, no relationship to anything outside itself.

If the faces on Mt. Rushmore were the effect of the action of wind and rain, our relation to them would be very different.
—Frank Cioffi13

“The avant-garde poet or artist.” Greenberg wrote, “tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape—not its picture—is aesthetically valid, something given, increate, independent of meanings, similar or originals.14 That Greenberg’s diction in this passage is an essentially theological diction of absolutism was perhaps not obvious when the words were written. But it should by now be clear that here we are dealing with a cultural prejudice that, like many others, has tried to disguise itself as a natural law. The technique of the disguise is to promote a kind of selective seeing: filters are overlaid on the cognitive processes to screen out significations—or rather, to screen out signifieds, the plane of content, and to focus exclusively on the emptied signifiers, the plane of expression (or form).

But the claim for the autonomy of the plane of expression, for its freedom from any plane of content whatever, is a contradiction in terms. As Ferdinand de Saussure made clear, “Though we may speak of signifier and signified as if they were separate entities, they exist only as components of the sign.”15 Similarly, Claude Levi-Strauss denounced Russian formalism for neglecting “the complementarity of signifier and signified”:16 “For [formalism] the two domains [form and content] must be absolutely separate, since form alone is intelligible and content is only a residual deprived of any significant value. For structuralism, this opposition does not exist . . . Form and content are of the same nature, susceptible to the same analysis.”17

And the portrait show seems to have no faces in it
at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone
ever did them
—Frank O’Hara, “Having a coke with you”

For God’s sake. do not explain that picture
of the bright-haired girl on a diamond black horse
. . . These realities
of delight and beauty at their imperfect source
are indiscreet. if not indecent. subjects for any
—Horace Gregory, “Daemon and Lectern and a Life-Size Mirror.”

In the attempt to free art from the plane of content, the formalist tradition denied that elements of the artwork may refer outside the work toward the embracing world. Rather, the elements are to be understood as referring to one another inside the work, in an interior and self-subsistent esthetic code. The claim is imprecisely and incompletely made, however, because the formalists take much too narrow a view of what can constitute “content.” Greenberg, for example, often uses the term “non-representational” to describe “pure” artworks—those purified of the world. But as he uses it, the term seems to rule out only clear representations of physical objects such as chairs, bowls of fruit, or naked figures lying on couches. Similarly Fried assumes that only “recognizable objects, persons, and places” can provide the content of a painting.18 But art that is nonrepresentational in this sense may still be representational in others. It may be bound to the surrounding world by its reflection of structures of thought, political tensions, psychological attitudes, and so forth.

[Pollock’s] pictures leave us dazzled before the imponderables of galaxy and atom.
—Robert Rosenblum19

Pollock’s field is optical because it addresses itself to eyesight alone.
—Michael Fried20

Jackson Pollock is one of Greenberg’s prime examples of an artist whose work is supposedly “pure,” without semantic function. But an interestingly different approach is suggested in Joseph Campbell’s The Mythic Image, where Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm is reproduced alongside a passage from the Buddhist Prajnaparamita literature: “Like stars, like darkness, like a lamp, a phantom, dew, bubbles, a dream, a flash of lightning, and a cloud—this is how we should look upon the world.”21 Campbell, in other words, reads Autumn Rhythm as a cosmological diagram of flux and indeterminacy, as at times Pollock himself seems to have done.

Can art evoke emotions without recalling images?
—Nicolas Calas22

Piet Mondrian, of course, was Greenberg’s foremost example of an artist whose work is set over against the “extra-pictorial references of old time illusionist art.” In effect, Mondrian was his proof of radical formalism: “Mondrian . . . has shown us that the pictorial can remain pictorial when every trace or suggestion of the representational has been eliminated.23 But of course Mondrian was not the first to demonstrate that art can survive without representing “recognizable objects, persons. and places”; he was preceded by the abstract artists of the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Ages and by later Tantric and Islamic artists who eliminated this type of representation in favor of abstract quadrature, heraldic symmetry, monochromy, and so forth. In fact, abstract painting is a practice that precedes our species; the earliest known examples are Neanderthal finger-paintings. This historical quibble is important because it points to a significant set of omissions in the Greenbergian argument—and the reason for the omissions is not far to seek. In these older traditions, content was read comfortably from abstract form. The works produced by these pre-modern abstract artists are widely interpreted as representing ideas about the nature of the universe. They are art as “a way of thinking about reality,” in William Wilson’s words.24 They present two-dimensional models of schematic diagrams of the real: to call them diagrams of consciousness as then experienced, without altering the facts, would bring them into a more phenomenological framework. While nonrepresentational in terms of physical objects, these works have clear metaphysical or cosmological content.

Since Wittgenstein has described the propositions an “image of realty,” the image could be viewed as a proposition about reality.
—Nicolas Calas25

In much the same way, Mondrian’s mature paintings can be read as presenting a model of the real: they suggest a geometrically ordered universe made up of a few unchanging and universal elements which shift their arrangements to create the impression of changing particulars. The right angles signify mathematical consistency and rigor, the three primary colors hint at a small number of abstract building blocks: the sense of construction in the interlaced verticals and horizontals suggests the orderly underpinnings of the chaotic universe of experience.26 Plato’s Timaeus might be used as an accompanying text, just as Campbell juxtaposes the Pollock with a Prajnaparamita passage.

Furthermore, a blue monochrome by Yves Klein might be juxtaposed with any number of texts on philosophical monism, from Parmenides to Sankara and beyond. Analogizing the alchemical notion of Prime Matter, Klein shows plurality totally absorbed within unity, which is viewed as the unchanging substrate of changing experience.27 Clearly the work of these three painters, which must be nonrepresentational or without content in Greenberg’s view, may be regarded as representations of basic metaphysical tendencies that constitute a type of content. Pollock models reality as indefinite and in perpetual flux: Klein presents a counterview of reality as unified and fundamentally static: Mondrian suggests a middle view of reality as stable in its elements but changing in its surface configurations. Greenberg himself was approaching something like this view in the essay titled “On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,”28 but he did not, indeed he could not, integrate it into his “purely optical” theory.

Now, the formalist would say that we needn’t know [Courbet’s politics] to respond to [his] painting. . . . But mid-nineteenth century viewers of these paintings did see their political qualities, which I contend are fused into the visual context of the work: they are not “literary.”
—Douglas Davis29

Marxist critics have insisted that any act (including any art act) is saturated with political meaning. Philosophers have argued similarly that any act is saturated with philosophical meaning. Each act is grounded in a subtext of implied assumptions about the nature of reality. The experiencing of a work of art, then, is not merely a matter of esthetic taste: it is also a matter of reacting to a proposition about the nature of reality that is implicitly or explicitly shadowed forth in the work. As Wilson remarks, “That hypothesis—that a work of art is a proposal about what is real—might help to explain why art that people don’t like makes them so angry.”30

[Barnett] Newman’s best paintings address themselves to eyesight alone . . . They seek to create . . . an experience of spatiality that is purely and exclusively visual.
—Michael Fried31

Why these long, provocative titles and dedications? Behind them is a mind and a sensibility frustrated by the dogmas of anti-content.
—Douglas Davis32

Once we have realized that the plane of content can contain much more than “recognizable objects, persons, and places,” we must peer more shrewdly at the context of the work and cock a more attentive ear to the artists’ own statements. When Harold Rosenberg wrote that “paintings are today apprehended with the ears”33 he was revising Greenberg’s entirely-through-the-eyes approach and pointing to the plain fact that verbal supplements are of crucial importance in relating to art. Marcel Duchamp may have had the same point in mind when he remarked that the most important thing about a painting is its title.

It is important to realize that the formalists’ claim that such verbal indicators are not relevant is highly suspect in terms of their own practice. For example, Rosenberg points out that without Newman’s cabalistic titles and writings we would be unable to distinguish his work with certainty from “Bauhaus design or mathematical abstraction.”34 Yet formalist critics do make that distinction—and not only since Thomas Hess’ (in)famous catalogue essay laying bare the cabalistic roots of Newman’s verbal supplements. Even Greenberg did so, saying, “Newman’s art has nothing whatsoever to do with Mondrian’s, Malevich’s or anything else in geometrical abstraction.”35 Greenberg refers to Newman’s work as “an activated pregnant ‘emptiness’ ”:36 the phrase is virtually a quotation from Gershom Scholem’s paraphrases of the cabalistic texts, which Newman admired, and the quotation marks around “emptiness” suggest that the word refers to some literary notion, not merely to the lack of a figure on the ground. In short. “activated pregnant ‘emptiness’ ” is a description of Newman’s content quite as much as of his form.

Historians clearly recognize the metaphysical implications of art prior to the modern era, but they are remarkably ingenious in avoiding a confrontation with the metaphysical suppositions of contemporary art.
—Jack Burnham37

Ad Reinhardt also belonged to what Rosenberg called the metaphysical branch of abstract expressionism. Yet the artist’s own statements about the metaphysical intentions of his works have been largely screened out by the formalist filter. Reinhardt’s writings contain clear allusions to the locutions of Buddhist texts and echoes of T’ang-dynasty Taoist painting manuals. His reductionism was in part an attempt to express the Taoist/Buddhist doctrine of the absolute as dynamic emptiness. Critics seeking the content of his work should look neither to the Greek Christian cross nor to the problem of the surface, but to the four-limbed mandalas of the Orient—especially the Taoist mandala of 64 squares, which is virtually identical to the internal quadrature of Reinhardt’s paintings.38 That this is a traditional icon, bringing a weight of metaphysical content with it (unless the artist deliberately empties it out), is beyond doubt.

The new movement is, with the majority of painters, essentially a religious movement.
—Harold Rosenberg39

Finally one must wonder whether Reinhardt’s and many related works are better read as mere sensory presences or as metaphysical statements like those of Tantric and other abstract allegorists. They could be hung in the manner of icons in a church as readily as in the manner of pictures in a gallery. They are saturated with content, and the refusal to see it, the insistence on screening it out of our experience, is a kind of aggression against the work and against the artists themselves.

The esthetic or artistic is an ultimate, intrinsic value, an end-value, one that leads to nothing beyond itself. . . . Knowledge and wisdom can funnel into, can serve, the esthetic, but the esthetic—like the ethical or moral in the end—can’t serve anything but itself.
—Clement Greenberg40

In a sense, the metaphysical quality of much abstract work is recognized, somewhat covertly, by formalist critics. At one moment Greenberg restricts the artwork to purely optical qualities: at another, sliding into theological diction, he speaks of art-for-art’s-sake as a kind of absolute, with hidden transcendental implications. The discrepancy between emphasis on the optical surface on the one hand and implications of transcendental status on the other seems to trouble even leading formalists. Sheldon Nodelman, for example, attempts to carry the burden of the “purely optical” doctrine while opening wider those transcendental avenues hinted at by Greenberg’s hidden theologizing. In doing so, he lays bare an irrational implication that underlies many statements of the formalist position.

In an article in the Yale Architectural Journal, Nodelman first nods to formalist orthodoxy by speaking of “the intense opticality of sixties’ art” which has left “no residuum of content.41 Then he attempts to overleap the limitations of this very doctrine. Color, he says, “addresses itself, through the visual sense, not mediately toward the physical apparatus with which the body moves and contends in the world, but immediately toward the higher centers of consciousness: it is the most ‘spiritual’ of all sensory qualities.”42 He is saying, in other words: (1) that color, while a sensory quality, bypasses the body system—an obvious contradiction in terms; (2) that it bypasses also the conceptual mind—a thing impossible to prove and unlikely in any modern view of human psychology; and (3) that it works on some undefined “higher centers of consciousness” in a “spiritual” way.

The doctrine that color addresses “higher centers” stems from 19th-century occultism (Madame Blavatsky, et al.), and is brought into formalist theory as a thinly disguised deus ex machina to fill the blank left by the annihilation of content. If all color inherently addresses “higher centers,” then one might as profitably behold a colored wall as a painting hung on it, or one painting as well as another. If, on the other hand, the color presented by Morris Louis and Frank Stella (whom Nodelman is discussing here) has a special ability to reach those “higher centers,” then wherein does this ability reside? Does their particular avoidance of any suggestion of figure and ground amount, as Nodelman implies, to a spiritual substance mixed in the paint? Shall we take the formalist critic’s word that he or she perceives this spiritual substance, though we might not? This seems the procedure of a mystery cult or oracle, and Nodelman, in referring to nonsensory “higher centers,” speaks like an initiate of the astral plane. The birth of the art experience turns out to be a kind of virgin birth, bypassing both the body and the conceptual mind, and whispering its message directly into the ear of the critic’s soul, like the angel at the Annunciation. This is not rational criticism, but a poker player’s bluff to disguise the thinness of the hand he has been dealt. Nodelman’s retreat from the limitations of the “purely optical” doctrine at the same time that he is espousing it suggests an illicit yearning for content.

Do we itch for Content—for Meaning—when we see a blank tablet? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. We’re itching now, more than ever. Hear me scratching? I can hear you.
—Douglas Davis43

In fact, much interpretation masquerades as description, and much avowedly formalist criticism contains hidden references that can’t escape content. Of course, if the critic must speak, then his or her thought must be qualified by the nature of language. But when Fried, for example, speaks of the “tortured” space of Willem de Kooning’s paintings, when David Sylvester calls Henry Moore’s work “organic,” when Nodelman speaks of “forces and energies” on the canvas, these critics are moving further into covert interpretations than descriptive language requires.

The avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain a high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute. . . . “Art for art’s sake” and “pure poetry” appeared, and subject matter or content became something to be avoided like a plague.
—Clement Greenberg44

The formalist myth has fed repeatedly on a kind of prelogical incantation masquerading as reason. This is most obvious in the widespread cult slogan of “art for art’s sake.” Ad Reinhardt’s writings, for example—which are often mentioned with approval by formalist critics—vacillate cunningly between radical formalism and metaphysical absolutism (two codes, with shared Platonic backgrounds, which also mingle in the writings of Kasimir Malevich, Klein, Newman, and others). Reinhardt’s locutions often seem to express the purist art-for-art’s-sake attitude: “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. As art art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.” Joseph Kosuth, who quotes this statement approvingly, adds his own to the same effect: “Art indeed exists for its own sake. . . . Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art.”45 The problem with statements of this type is that they are meaningless when reduced to logical terms. When Reinhardt, for example, in his radical formalist mood, asserts that art is art and art is not not-art he seems to feel that he is stating a conclusion. But in terms of formal logic what he has stated is simply the Law of Identity—the principle that A = A and A ≠ -A (A equals A and A does not equal not-A).

[If the Law of Identity is not assumed] then it is evident that there would be no discourse: for not to have some specific meanings is to have no meaning, and when words have no meaning, conversation with another, or even with oneself, has been annihilated, since it is impossible for one who does not think something to think anything.

The Law of Identity applies equally and alike to all things in the realm of discourse. Everything, insofar as it is anything, is itself and is not not-itself. The application of the principle to art, in other words, does not in the least constitute a claim to special status. On the contrary, it demonstrates that art exists on the same ontological footing as anything else.

Reinhardt, Kosuth, and others who have made statements of this type have misunderstood an underlying ground rule of thought for a reasoned conclusion of thought. The error might be paralleled by mistaking the axioms of Euclidean geometry for its conclusions. Recognition of the Law of Identity does not mean that we have come to the end of a line of reasoned thought, but that we are now ready to begin thinking.47

Kosuth compounds the problem by confusing the Law of Identity with an analytic proposition or tautology: “ . . . Art is analogous to an analytic proposition, and . . . it is art’s existence as a tautology that enables art to remain ‘aloof’ from philosophical presumptions.”48 This approach is a kind of closet formalism and shares formalism’s logical weaknesses.49 Kosuth seems to mean no more than that art is art—the Law of Identity again. Like the ascription of “feeling,” such statements are universal blanks. Thought does not culminate in such an assertion, but begins with it.

Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.
—Susan Sontag50

Formalist doctrine finds its extreme expression in Susan Sontag’s influential essays from the mid-’60s, which encapsulate conveniently the logical problems of formalism. Among the points Sontag argues are the following: (1) “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.51 But the view that the intellect is either uninvolved in or antagonistic to art—that “in order to feed a thought you must starve a sensation,” as the poet Mary Friedenn has written52—can only serve to make art incomprehensible to intelligent beings.

(2) “It is possible to elude the interpreters . . . by making works of art . . . whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is.”53 This statement begs the question, because “just what it is” has not been established yet. Furthermore, it is simply a restatement of the Law of Identity again. The work already is just what it is (how could it be anything else?), and this fact does not in the least take it out of the range of relationship, worldliness, and interpretation.

(3) “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”54 Here again is the mythifying tactic of naturalizing culture. Perhaps a stone can be without meaning, but it is very doubtful that any cultural object, being a product of human consciousness with its intricate weavings, can exist except in a web of intentions and meanings.

(4) “It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.”55 Above all, Sontag carries to an extreme the formalist doctrine that the plane of content must be abolished by absorbing it into the plane of form. In fact, she states that the distinction between form and content is “an illusion.”56

The question is what one means by “distinction,” The relation between form and content is one of universal concomitance. That is, neither of them ever appears without the other. The same relationship exists between many paired terms, such as cause and effect, up and down, right and left, and does not in the least mean that we cannot distinguish one from the other, but rather that the existence of one always implies the existence of the other. In fact, the attempt to absorb one of them into the other is self-defeating, because in the relationship of universal concomitance neither element can be self-sufficient or ontologically prior: each term of such a pair is dependent upon the other. Just as a cause can only exist as the cause of an effect, and an effect as the effect of a cause, so form can only exist as the form of a content, and content as the content of form. The terms are distinguishable, though logically dependent on one another.

It is true that some artists choose to minimize one aspect or the other of the form/content tandem. In the work of the artists generally favored by formalist critics, content has often been minimized or blurred for the sake of the clarity and directness of form. In the work of Socialist Realists (as an example) formal values have been minimized, or rendered invisible through commonplaceness, for the sake of content.

An accurate model of this situation would show a hypothetical pure form at one end of a bipolar continuum and a hypothetical pure content at the other. In between is an area where they fade progressively into one another. As in a fade between two colors, there is no precise point where one principle ends and the other begins, nor does either term ever exist to the absolute exclusion of the other: they are mixed in different ratios at different points on the continuum. Critics irrationally defeat their own purposes when they deny reality to one term for the greater glory of the other, since the one that is favored, being dependent on the one rejected, must lose reality along with it. In a sense, then, the dispute over form and content has no inherent reality, but is merely a dispute between those passionately dedicated to one aspect or the other.

If there be nothing besides the sensible, there would be no principle or order. . . . Real being is attributed in one way to the material, in another way to the form, and in a third, to their product.

Ultimately the idea that references and associations are to be excluded from the art experience is naive. Panofsky has opined that to perceive an artwork without “perceiving the relations of signification” would be the approach of an animal, not a human.58 Obviously the art experience is conditioned heavily by what one knows, by what one has learned to expect, and by what one likes. To quote Panofsky again, “the . . . experience of a work of art depends . . . not only on the natural sensitivity and visual training of the spectator, but also on his cultural equipment. There is no such thing as an entirely ‘naive’ beholder.59

The big question here, of course, is whether it is possible to have aesthetic experience that is not culturally conditioned.
—Donald Kuspit60

In art description and nothing but description is unjustifiable because retinal images are automatically associated with cerebral images.
—Nicolas Calas61

Jacques Lacan and Noam Chomsky have argued in different ways that linguistic activities extend far into the unconscious. Language seems to provide a background stratum against which every mental and perceptual event takes place. If this is correct, then it is impossible that we could ever achieve a “purely optical” experience of a work of art—and indeed that idea may be a contradiction in terms. (Without concepts, how do we know it is art?) Mental states in which ordinary types of conceptualization are temporarily suspended (such as those ensuing on long meditation or on the ingestion of certain drugs) seem to be states in which all sensa are about equally fascinating. The artwork as an unusually fascinating or beautiful sensum may not exist outside a particular intellectual framework, and may not even be possible outside it.

The principle of excluding nonoptical elements from the work, then, is not a real principle. It must be compromised and, given the associative habit of the human mind, is always compromised. The question, then, is simply where to draw the line. Are the viewers’ expectations in and the artists’ intentions out? If so, why?

Do not enter this hotel with any intentions.
—Sign over desk of hotel in Aurangabad, India

The heart of the form/content problem is the question of the relevance of the artist’s intentions, which, of course, formalism excludes as outside the physical work. This debate has been more fully argued among literary than among art critics: in fact, the formalist position seems in part transposed from the arena of literary debate. The so-called “New Critics” of an earlier generation (especially William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley) did for literature what Greenberg and others both before and after him62 have done for the visual arts: they fostered a myth of the autonomy of the literary work, which “should not be judged by reference to criteria or considerations beyond itself.”63 To the New Critics a poem consisted not of referential statements about the world beyond it. but of “the presentation and sophisticated organization of a set of complex experiences in verbal form.”64 The emphasis on “experience,” which must be apprehended by a nonconceptual esthetic sense, brings us straight to the myth of the “pure” painting. Similarly the New Critics, like the Greenbergians, preached “a strenuous rejection of the authority or relevance of an author’s or artist’s intention on the grounds that the work of art is a self-contained object accessible in some perceptually fair sense to the objective appreciation of competent agents.”65

A conviction that a post [or painter] stands in a certain relation to his words [or paintings] conditions our response to them . . . We are not ordinarily aware of this as these convictions tend to be held in solution “in the work itself.” It is only in exceptional circumstances that we crystallize them as explicit beliefs and become aware of the role they play. Why should anyone wish to deny this?
—Frank Cioffi66

But in several ways it is clearly impossible to exclude the artist’s intentions from the critical process. Krauss, for example, allows the critic to be aware of “the sense of historical necessity” (that is, art-historical necessity) that brings a particular painting into existence at a particular time. The critic, then, should at least know the date (or the approximate date) of the work, and this information is of course biographical and intentionalistic. Imagine yourself looking at a painting in a gallery, by an artist whose name is unknown to you, and reading its date, from the wall label, as 1860; suddenly a gallery attendant approaches and corrects the label to read 1960. One’s critical awareness shifts immediately in response to one’s new sense of what the artist knew, what paintings the artist had seen, and what the artist’s implicit intentions, given his or her historical context, must have been.

Even more basic is our awareness of the genre of the work. Is a white rectangle with marks on it being presented as a painting, a drawing, a poem, a news story, or something else? In each case one’s sense of the work changes. Yet the genre classification is outside the physical work and constitutes, in effect, another appeal to the artist’s intentions. We are asking, really, whether the artist intended it as a painting, a poem, or whatever.

Other “outside” elements that all critics, even the most hardened formalists, make use of regularly are (1) allusions, which are based on the biographical assumption that the artist or author has seen certain paintings or read certain books: (2) the artist’s reputation; and (3) the record of his or her earlier work. Clearly we use such facts because they indicate something of the artist’s intentions. “If it [the poem or painting] had been written [or painted] by someone else.” as Cioffi asks, “wouldn’t this make a difference in our apprehension of it?”67 Imagine the label switch again. You are looking at a painting attributed to Ellsworth Kelly when the label is corrected to read Barnett Newman. Hasn’t your response to the work changed radically, too?

Do I begin and end? And where,

As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentously declares

Itself not to be I and yet
Must be. It could be nothing else.
—Wallace Stevens, “The Man With a the Blue Guitar”

The question is not whether content is present, but what its relationship to form is. In semiological terms, is the form/content relationship motivated—that is, is the content inherent in the formal properties of the work—or is it unmotivated—that is, is the content added from outside by the work’s audience (including the artist)?

Formalist critics, bound to an essentially theological conviction that form is self-subsistent and absolute, have insisted that the impact of the visual surface of the work is its content. The formalist understandably fears a situation in which interpretation might run out of control and smother the visual life of the work beneath irrelevant intellectual overlays; if the form/content relationship is unmotivated a limitless number of possible interpretations exists, none more firmly bound to the physical object, the artwork, than any other. The process of interpretation, then, being uncontrollable to the point of randomness, should be avoided.

The alternative is a view like that which Edward Said expresses about literary texts, and which applies equally to visual ones: “Texts impose constraints and limits upon their interpretation. . . . because as texts they place themselves . . . they are themselves by acting, in the world. Moreover, their manner of doing this is to place restraints upon what can be done with (and to) them interpretively.”68 Of course, to say that works place themselves within certain limits of interpretation is not to say that every viewer will experience the work with the same feeling-tone and the same associations. The motivation of signifier and signified, when present at all, is partial, and responds both to cultural boundaries and personal sensibilities. Still, within these variable limits some connections will be widely recognized as appropriate, others not. In representational art, for example, certain formal structures are read as chairs, others as bowls of fruit, others as naked figures lying on couches. The question is whether this relationship can be extended to clearly connect abstract forms and nonphysical things such as thoughts, emotions, and structures of ideas.

In Art and Illusion E.H. Gombrich argues that it can, and the formalist critics themselves, perhaps unaware, imply the same in their ascription to artworks of the power to convey “feelings,” “emotions,” and “thoughts.” All such ascriptions must presume what philosophers have called the Expression Theory of art—that the artwork expresses a feeling or a complex of feelings. But, as Aristotle said, one cannot feel anything unless one feels something. It cannot be a generalized “feeling” or “thought” that is expressed: it must be a feeling or thought of a particular type.69

If paintings express “feeling,” and if “feeling” must be some particular feeling, then the implication is unavoidable that feelings have recognizable visual correlates—that is, that the relationship between the feeling expressed and the form expressing it is motivated. There is then no limitlessness of interpretation. The feeling- or thought-content is recognizably related to the formal properties of the work, and grounded in them. The work has “placed itself” within a limited range of interpretation. The content is not added on, but inherent. This conclusion, of course, is diametrically opposed to the doctrine that the work is purely optical. If art were in fact a purely optical experience. then it would be like the experience of a robot, and could not involve “feelings.”

Statements do not have to be explained: they must be understood. Gazing at a kouros we feel the impact of Parmenides’s dictum that man is an “all in the now”.
—Nicolas Calas70

If the relationship of representation can be extended from physical objects to thoughts and emotions, is it then implied that philosophical tendencies also have visual correlates? Are there formal configurations that inherently place themselves within a limited range of philosophical contents? Is it a fact, for example, as design handbooks say, that verticals are assertive, horizontals quiescent, and diagonals dynamic and transitional? Does a zigguratlike form inherently suggest the idea of hierarchy? Does a monochrome surface inherently suggest the idea of unity? This last question can be pursued briefly, since so many practitioners of monochrome have made statements about it.

Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain back ground of the richest, intensest blue.
—Vincent van Gogh71

The earliest paintings in which a one-color surface is unambiguously presented as the art object are the Tantric paintings of the 17th century in which the state of nirvikalpa samadhi, the mental state in which only absolute unity is known, is represented by a monochrome surface.72 This correlation recurs in Goethe’s Theory of Colors, 1810, in which the activity of beholding an unbroken expanse of a single color is said to awaken awareness of universality and to harmonize the beholder with the basic unity of things. Malevich, in writing on the white-on-white paintings, similarly declares them to “signify” infinity and the unified ground of consciousness which underlies perceptions of apparent pluralities.73 Related assertions are made in the writings of Klein, for whom the one-color surface is equated with the alchemical notion of Prime Matter: in Newman’s concern with the cabalistic Zim-zum, which, as Scholem wrote, is “a primal space . . . full of formless hylic forces”;74 and in Reinhardt’s focus on the Buddhist Plenum-Void. For Agnes Martin, who acknowledges Taoist influence, monochrome surfaces are “aesthetic analogies of belonging to and sharing with everyone.”75 Robert Rauschenberg, in 1951, described his white paintings as “one white as one God . . . dealing with . . . the plastic fullness of nothing.”76 Further examples of this form-content correlation could be arrayed.77

The fact that this correlation between a formal configuration and an idea-type is found in at least two widely separated cultures (Indian and Europe/America), and over a stretch of centuries, may suggest that the correlation is motivated—that the works, by their formal properties, recognizably place themselves in this area of interpretation.

I think of painting as possessed by . . . a structure born of the flow of color feeling . . . Color must be felt throughout.
—Jules Olitski78

I believe these are highly emotional paintings not to be admired for any technical or intellectual reasons but to be felt.
—Brice Marden79

But of course this does not mean that a monochrome painting can be understood only in this metaphysical way. In fact, around 1960 a new way of talking about monochrome or near-monochrome paintings arose: under the influence of the complete dominance of formalist criticism, artists limited themselves to speaking of undefined “feeling” and the direct impact of color. The point is that even if there is a more or less objective correlation between particular forms and concepts, it must still interact with the artist’s intentions. The artist can willfully override this correlation, thereby introducing levels of tension into his work as part of its means of acting or placing itself in the world. A double bind between a manifest visual correlate and an artist’s intentional rejection of it places the work in the zone of critical philosophy rather than metaphysics, but does not in the least remove it from philosophical attitude.

The minimal artist has brought to his art concerns that many feel more properly belong to the field of semantics, criticism, and art philosophy.
—Allen Leepa80

The history of philosophy shows a separation into two great streams: metaphysics. which builds up constructions of the mind, and critical philosophy, which tears them down, often in an attempt to return focus to direct experience. Both activities are explicitly philosophical. Though our culture has favored philosophers who fill up the mind to those who clear it out, this is a local blindness: for every Pythagoras there has been a Zeno, for every Plato an Antisthenes, for every Hegel a Russell.

In Anglo-American philosophy, metaphysics has been regarded more or less as kitsch since about 1910; as Bertrand Russell said. it is always a type of “wishful thinking.” Fifty years later this attitude came to prominence in the art world. Many artists began to regard the metaphysical intentions of a Newman or a Klein as kitschy and to eschew such statements about their own work. At that time they passed from metaphysics to the critique of metaphysics.

When Kosuth referred to “art after philosophy,” he seems to have meant simply “art after metaphysics.” He was announcing that art had left the realm of metaphysics and entered the realm of critical philosophy (which had been foreshadowed by the influence of Pyrrho of Elis on Marcel Duchamp in 1913). Art, in other words, is no less involved with philosophical content than it ever was; like our culture in general, it has merely switched its allegiance, for the time being, from one philosophical tendency to another. Art could only remain truly “aloof from philosophical presumptions” (as Kosuth called it) through perfect application of the through-the-eyes-only approach of Greenberg, which, as we have seen, could not be expected from any artist (or critic) who had not been lobotomized.

We may admire a Crucifixion of Giotto for a variety of reasons, religious, aesthetic, historical, psychological. The scholar’s faultlessness becomes a fault.
—Nicolas Calas81

The philosophically most interesting feature of critical interpretation is its tolerance of alternative and seemingly contrary hypotheses.
—Joseph Margolis82

An artwork subject as it is to the complexity of the general causal situation, radiates meaning on many levels. Once we realize that artworks exist in the world and are of it, we are driven to a multi-model approach to criticism. Such an approach would recognize the work as a complex in which different semantic realms coexist and interpenetrate without interfering with one another.

One of these realms, that of physical form interpreted as emptied-out Renaissance esthetics, has been impressively explored by the great formalist critics. My complaint is not against their analyses of a certain aspect of specific works, that is, the aspect of physical form, but against their conviction that their method of analysis is enough—and even, at times, the only legitimate one.

Existing at the intersection of countless semantic realms, the artwork, like any cultural object, is saturated with meanings of different kinds. But the formalist claim to priority in method assumes that one of these realms (in this case that of physical form) can be called art-as-art, to the exclusion of all the others. This claim, characteristically, begs the question, because it assumes that the word “art” has already been defined. In fact, esthetics, like philosophy, is an uncertain science. The question of whether esthetic value is inherent or projected from outside is open, quite as much as is the question of whether philosophical meaning is inherent or projected. That one critic should express a formalist model, another a Marxist, another a philosophical, is nothing untoward.

So it seems that criticism, quite like art, expresses a weltanschauung inescapably. It is not a meta-game above art, but just another game on the same level, with similar motives and satisfactions. Criticism, like art, operates on a constantly shifting foundation, peaking in flashes of special insight. Its greatest weakness is the dogmatic imposition of special focuses as if they were ultimate laws.

We would be convinced if beauty . . . were subject to regulation and schematization. Must it be shown once more that this is without sense?
—Jacques Derrida83

I have argued the following views as a tentative correction to the residual influence of formalist doctrine: (1) that there are serious omissions in formalist theory in the areas of content and intentionality and that these omissions result from illogical assumptions at the very root of the theory; (2) that these illogical assumptions are specific to our culture in the postwar period and are not confirmed by the practice of other cultures and times; (3) that the “purely optical” theory is inadequate to account for the art experience; (4) that elements from outside the physical work cannot be excluded from any human mode of relating to the work, and that this is not a matter of personal decision but an outright impossibility; (5) that there is no apparent justification for denying that an artwork’s conceptual resonances are as much a part of it as its esthetic resonances; (6) that the artist’s intentions, when they are known or recoverable, cannot be neglected and in fact never are, though the critic might pretend that they are; (7) that the artwork exists in a context of both the viewer’s and the artist’s sensibilities, with all the conditioning and acculturation involved in them—it exists, in other words, not as an isolated absolute or an end in itself, but as a rounded cultural object which relates to philosophy, politics, psychology, religion, and so forth; and (8) that the ultimate criticism of an artwork would be a multi leveled complex of interpenetrated semantic realms which would virtually contain the cultural universe in miniature, and that since the same is true of any cultural object, the artwork has no privileged status outside the affections of its devotees.

What is there in life except ones ideas.
Good air. good friend. what is there in life?
—Wallace Stevens, “The Man With the Blue Guitar”

Let’s admit that formalism became for a time a “secular religion.”84 and we can understand better the passionate appeal it has exerted. In the ’50s and ’60s, when the classic formalist essays were written, we all wanted to believe that form in art was a kind of absolute, a Platonic hyper-real beyond conceptual analysis.

Why did this idea attain such popularity? Politically, it was perhaps a safe response to McCarthyism and the McCarran Act, which for a time frightened filmmakers, artists, and (yes) critics away from political meanings. But perhaps even more basic than this political motivation was a desire for the self-congratulatory pride of the cult initiate. Ultimately the worship of form as an absolute is a distant resonance of the Pythagorean Platonic doctrine of the Music of the Spheres—the belief that art vibrations pass constantly through the universe and in fact constitute its inner ordering principles. And if we, then, appreciate the “feeling” of a Noland or Olitski, doesn’t this mean that we are, as it were, in the inner circle of the cosmos, moved, however dimly, by the Music of the Spheres?

Formalism made us feel good for a while. It was like a superstitious passion. It ran its course. But our world could mandate a similarly forced solution for the present moment.

With this issue Thomas McEvilley becomes a contributing editor of Artforum. He is a cultural historian with a Ph. D. in the Classics who has contributed scholarly work in fields including ancient Greek poetry and drama negative thinking and deconstruction in ancient philosophy the comparative study of Eastern and Western philosophies and the early history of Indian religions. He has also published novels short stones and poems including a book of poetry published earlier this year. In recent years, Mr. McEvilley has written articles on contemporary art for Artforum, and he is a principal contributor to the catalogue of the Yves Klein retrospective to open this month at the Guggenheim Museum. Mr. McEvilley has taught at several universities and is a professor at the Institute for the Arts Rice University He currently lives in New York City.



1. Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art, New York, George Braziller, 1971, p. 13.

2. Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955, p. 22.

3. Rosalind Krauss, “A View or Modernism,” Artforum, September 1972, p. 49.

4. Michael Fried, Three American Painters, Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge Mass., 1965, p. 39.

5. Alan Tormey, Art and Expression: A Critique in Joseph Margolis, ed. Philosophy Looks at the Arts rev. ed. Philadelphia Temple University Press, 1978, p. 359.

6. Cf. Nicolas Calas, Art in the Age of Risk, New York, E. P. Dutton and Co., 1968. p. 136. The minimalists, by reducing art to pure structure, make it impossible for the artist to express emotions When Michael Fried claims that Noland and to be viewed as expressing feelings.

7. Douglas Davis, “Post Post-Art I,” Village Voice, June 25, 1979, p. 37.

8. Fried, Three American Painters, pp. 33–37.

9. Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting in Gregory Battcock, ed. The New Art, New York, E. P. Dutton and Co., 1973, p. 74.

10. Ibid Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p. 6.

11. Clement Greenberg, “Complaints of an Art Critic,” Artforum, October 1967, p. 39, see also Greenberg, The Necessity of Formalism: New Literary History II (1971–72), pp. 174 ff.

12. Douglas Davis, Artculture: Essays on the Post-Modern, New York, Harper and Row Icon Editions, 1977, p. 140.

13. Frank Cioffi, in Margolis, Philosophy Looks at the Arts, p. 320.

14. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 6.

15. Jonathan Culler, Saussure Glasgow: Fonatana Collins, 1976, p. 19.

16. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology II, English translation by Jacobson and Schoeff, New York: Basic Books, 1963, p. 141.

17. Ibid., p. 131.

18. Fried, Three American Painters, p. 5.

19. Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” in Henry Geldzahler, New York Painting and Sculpture 1940–1970, New York: E. P. Dulton and Co., 1969, p. 357.

20. Fried, Three American Painters, p. 14.

21. Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press for the Bollingen Foundation, 1974.

22. Cates, Art in the Age of Risk, p. 134.

23. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 139.

24. William S. Wilson III, “Art Energy and Attention” in Battcock, The New Art, p. 247.

25. Calas, Art in the Age of Risk, p. 145.

26. For related approaches to Mondrian see Robert P. Welsh, “The Birth of de Still Part I: Mondrian, The Subject Matter of Abstraction,” Artforum, April 1973, pp. 50–53, and Erik Saxon, “On Mondrian’s Diamonds,” Artforum, December 1979, pp. 40–45.

27. For detailed discussion of this interpretation of Klein’s work, see Thomas McEvilley, “Yves Klein Messenger of the Age of Space,” Artforum, January 1982, pp. 38–51: “Yves Klein Conquistador of the Void” in Yves Klein, A Retrospective, Houston and New York: The Institute for the Arts and The Arts Publisher Inc., 1982, pp. 19–88, and Yves Klein and Rosicrucianism, ibid., pp. 238–254.

28. In Art and Culture, pp. 171–74.

29. Davis, Artculture, pp. 5–6.

30. Wilson, “Art Energy and Attention,” p. 251.

31. Fried, Three American Painters, p. 22.

32. Davis, Artculture, p. 46, referring to Dan Flavin’s work.

33. Harold Rosenberg, “Art and Words,” in Gregory Battcock, ed. Idea Art, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1973, p. 153.

34. Ibid., p. 151.

35. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 225.

36. Ibid.

37. Burnham, The Structure of Art, p. 4.

38. See Barbara Rose, ed. Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, New York: Viking Press, 1975, p. 189, and elsewhere. For a fuller analysis of these and related textual comparisons see Thomas McEvilley The Monochrome Adventure: A Study in the Form and Content of Modern Painting, limited edition, Los Angeles: Full Court Press, 1981.

39. Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in Geldzahler, New York: Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970, p. 345.

40. Cited by Douglas Davis, Artculture, pp. 16–17.

41. Sheldon Nodelrnan, “Sixties Art: Some Philosophical Perspectives,” Perspecta 11 (1967), p. 79.

42. Ibid., p. 78.

43. Davis “Post Post-Art II,” Village Voice, August 13, 1979, p. 40.

44. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 5.

45. Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” in Ursula Meyer, ed. Conceptual Art, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1972, p. 158, 170.

46. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1006b1–10.

47. The philosopher Antisthenes used the Law of Identity to reject all discourse on the grounds that since A is only A, any nontautologicaI prediction, such as that A is B is absurd. This is the only way in which the Law of Identity can be used as a conclusion of thought, and even when used in this way, it applies equally to all things and does not accord to art any special status. For a discussion of this line of ancient thought see Thomas McEvilley “Early Greek Philosophy and Madhyamika,” Philosophy East and West, 31:2, (April 1981), pp. 141–164.

48. Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” p. 153.

49. As Douglas Davis also has noted, Artculture, pp. 16–52.

50. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York: Noonday Press, 1966, p. 5.

51. Ibid., p. 7.

52. Marv Friedenn, If Horses or Lions had Hands, Los Angeles: Full Court Press, 1981, p. 73.

53. Sontag, Against Interpretation, p. 11.

54. Ibid., p. 14.

55. Ibid., p. 5.

56. Ibid., p. 11.

57. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1075b20, 1029a.

58. J. Maritain cited in Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, p. 5.

59. Ibid., p. 16.

60. Donald Kuspit, Clement Greenberg: Art Critic, Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1979, p. 18.

61. Calas, Art in the Age of Risk, p. 147.

62. Of course there is precedent for many elements of Greenbergian formalism in early-20th-century art criticism e. g. in Roger Fry who wrote of the esthetic emotion and of the “pre-eminence of purely plastic aspects” (Roger Fry, Transformations: Critical and Speculative Essays on Art Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956, pp. 6–14, originally published 1926).

63. Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1977, p. 152.

64. Ibid.

65. Margolis, Philosophy Looks at the Arts, p. 366.

66. Frank Cioffi, “Intention and Interpretation in Criticism,” in Margolis, ibid., p. 324.

67. Ibid.

68. Edward Said, “The Text, the World, the Critic,” in Josue V. Haran ed., Textual Strategies Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 171.

69. The only cultural context in which one hears claims of undifferentiated awarenesses or thoughts-without-objects is in Vedanlic and other claims of absolute mystical states—and surely that is not what Fried means by attributing feeling to the works of Noland and Olitski.

70. Cates, Art in the Age of Risk, p. 208.

71. A letter of 1888 cited by R. W. Alston, Painters Idiom, London, 1954, p. 132.

72. For examples, see: A. Mookerjee, Tantra Asana, New York: G. Wittenborn, 1971, pl. 97, and Tantra Art, New Delhi, New York, Paris: Kumar Gallery, 1966, pl. 95.

73. Kasimir Malevich, “Suprematism,” in L. Hilbersheimer, The Non-Objective World, Chicago, 1959, p. 67.

74. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York: Schocken Books, 1941, p. 297.

75. Agnes Martin, exhibition catalogue, Munich (Kunstraum), 1973, p. 42.

76. Letter to Betty Parsons Oct. 18, 1951, cited by Lawrence Alloway in exhibition catalogue p. 3, Robert Rauschenberg, Washington D. C. (Smithsonian Institution), 1976.

77. For a fuller discussion of these and other statements on the monochrome as metaphysical content, see: McEvilley, The Monochrome Adventure.

78. Jules Olitski, Painting in Color, Artforum, January 1967, p. 20.

79. In Brice Marden, exhibition catalogue New York (Guggenheim Museum) 1975, p. 11.

80. Allen Leepa, “Minimal Art and Primary Meanings” in Gregory Battcock ed. Minimal Art A Critical Anthology, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1968, p. 208.

81. Calas, Art in the Age of Risk, p. 120.

82. Joseph Margolis, The Language of Art and Art Criticism, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976, pp. 91–92.

83. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference trans. by Alan Bass, Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 18.

84. Davis, “Post Post-Art I,” p. 40.

85. Three American Painters, p. 6.

86. In T. S. Eliot ed. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, New York: New Directions, 1968, p. 56.

The quotations and footnotes of this article have emerged as a lacunary map of certain moods in our history (no attempt has been made to make the map complete) Some of the critics quoted have since changed their positions. Others were less inflexible than out-of-context quoting might imply (Michael Fried for example cautioned sanely that the formalist critic [should] bear in mind at all times that the objectivity he aspires toward can be no more than relative”85). In a sense this mapping is a response to Ezra Pounds dictum:

Every critic should give indication of the sources and limits of his knowledge.86