Comparison Of Avant-Garde

& Formal Art Work Essay, Research Paper

A Comparison of Formal and Avant-Garde Artwork

Modern art is a unique creation all it?s own, and since it?s beginnings there have been two

very distinct groups present. They are the Formalists and the Avant-Garde. The Formalist group

believes in the literal representation of the art work. They value the form used, whether it be how

the colors are stressed or the techniques used, over the idea behind the art work. The

Avant-Garde artists on the other hand are more interested in the creation of art in order to

challenge what exactly art is and can be. They have tried to break down the boundaries of what

art is.

I selected Piet Modrian for as the artist I looked at regarding Formalism. His work

seemed to change over a period of time. His ?Woods? done in 1910 showed a typical painting of

the forest. By typical I mean that the depiction of the forest was done to look like a forest on the

canvas. The next piece of ?Tree? done in 1911 showed a more abstract form of trees while you

could still detect on a lot of movement within the painting. The shapes and negative space

between the lines is what became more important in his work. He then created ?Composition

with Trees? in 1914. This piece as his previous ones was even more abstract and was honing in

on the form of the painting. Later he created a piece known only as ?Composition?, removing the

trees and woods all together from the title. He was trying to create the essence of nature using

rectangles and simplifying lines to their primary essence. He also used more primary colors versus

his previous works done in black and white.

This idea that Mondrian was using while creating his works of art was one of the ideas

that Clement Greenberg was dealing with in his works. Greenberg said that the actual painting

over the form is what makes the art work abstract.1 Greenberg believed that one could reduce art

to it?s pure essence and form. Greenberg also believed in the idea that the flatness of the work is

what comes first and that what is inside that flatness comes second, telling of the importance of

the intersections of lines and negative space.

Through radical simplification of composition and color, Mondrian tried to expose the

basic principles that underlie all artwork.2 He said that art should not concern itself with

reproducing images of real objects, but should express only the universal absolutes that underlie

them. Mondrian then rejects all qualities of texture, surface, and color, thereby reducing his palate

to primary colors. Greenberg?s idea of the flatness of the work is what comes first3 comes

through when Mondrian?s belief that a canvas should contain only planar elements and led to his

abolition of all curved lines in favor of straight lines.

The piece that I selected to discuss for the Avant-Garde is Marcel Duchamp?s ?Fountain?.

The very way in which Duchamp entered this piece into the exhibit shows that he was trying to

test the boundaries of art. He and American artist Joseph Stella submitted this urinal to a 1917

New York City exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Entitled ?Fountain? the urinal

was submitted and signed under a pseudonym R. Mutt. By presenting unaltered, everyday

objects as sculpture, Duchamp radically changed the course of modern art. He wrote of it soon

after and said, ?Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no

importance. He CHOSE it,” and thereby “created a new thought for that object.”4

Duchamp?s style of Avant-Garde was derived from Dada. He was trying to create a

tension between reality and artwork. He was also trying to enact social change by getting people

to look at things from a different perspective. Burger describe this process in several ways. First

he used the word new to describe the change in the creation of art. He also says that it negates

the tradition of what art is held to be. Next Burger says that Avant-Garde uses chance, in that

meaning the arbitrary way in which two unrelated events are somehow connected. Burger also

says that the use of allegory, taking fragments of reality and putting them together to mean

something, is important and is done by the use of montage. Montage is the technical device by

which the artist puts these fragments together. It is a detailed account of allegory.5

The reason I chose these two pieces of art is simple. They both go the extreme end of

their own respected movements. Mondrian changed his style from trees on a hillside to nothing

more than the straight lines that represent the actual form of nature while Duchamp on the other

hand selected an everyday item and decided to call it art. Of course it was not just an everyday

item, it was something that no one who saw it would really consider it art.

The thought process of these two authors was quite different in their workings of art.

Mondrian worked so hard on ridding his paintings from any meanings within the artwork. He was

trying to stress the importance of each line painted, and the aesthetic appeal of the bright primary

colors next to the black intersecting lines. Mondrian also focused heavily on his use of negative

space within his artwork. He saw the importance of the negative space between his lines and as

time progressed he used more and more space between his lines.6

Duchamp on the other hand was trying to get the viewer to interpret his ready-made

artwork. He did not want the viewer to just observe the piece of art and note that there was great

use of form. That the lines were painted evenly and the primary colors worked well next to each

other. He wanted the viewer to ask themselves the question of, ?Is this art?? and, ?Why is this

art??7 Duchamp was trying to change the viewers ?gaze?. That being the, ?the object a in the

field of the visible is the gaze,? according to Jacques Lacan.8 The idea of what influenced each

person?s own viewpoints was made accountable.

As Duchamp was trying to create art in a new way, a way in which no one had ever

thought of or even dreamed of, he ran into a couple of problems. By taking the urinal out of it?s

original context and placing it into a museum the object had become, ?more real than the real?.9

Duchamp had almost undone what he wanted to do by putting the urinal in an art museum on

display. He had placed this everyday item on to stage in an art gallery and made the ordinary

urinal more than just a urinal. It was now a urinal portraying a urinal at an art gallery. His

ready-made object had taken on a, ?hyperrealistic role on the screen of the museum.?10 Although

this was not Duchamp?s intentions he had asked viewers to look at his ready-made in a different

context than he originally expected.

Mondrian faced similar problems with his work. As a formalist he was trying to get to the

pure essence of the artwork. While he was trying to get down to this essence I feel that he

opened up many interpretations to his work. He just trying to use the most simple lines and

colors and created great formalist work, but I believe that when he did this he let people interpret

for themselves what they were really looking at. At the beginning his work resembled real life

objects but by the end of his ?Composition? one could interpret the art in a number of ways. The

simplicity of the artwork had created a complexity to it just because people could view his work

either in the formalist approach or they might try to derive meaning from it and overlook the great

form of his work.

Both of these artists were similar in the fact that while they were trying to attain some idea

from the viewer they left another view open. Duchamp?s idea of placing the urinal on display

brought about many thoughts that were not intended. He was trying to push the boundaries of

what art is, but by doing this he created a stir of creating real objects that seemed more real than

real to the viewers because of it?s public display. Mondrian had a similar problem in that by trying

to create the most simple and formalist work he opened up his work for more abstract


Mondrian and Duchamp were two of the most influential artists of their times. Mondrian?s

theories of abstraction and simplification not only altered the course of painting but also exerted a

profound influence on architecture, industrial design, and formalism itself. Duchamp?s insistence

of pushing the boundaries of art changed the future of ?What is art?? and modern art forever.

They shared many differences in how they created their artwork but they shared many of the same

dilemmas when having their art interpreted by people.


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