Art Term

Formlessness

Formlessness is a concept, first introduced by French writer-philosopher Georges Bataille, who argued that art should be brought ‘down in the world’ from its elevated status to its base materialism – and that this debased state should be celebrated as a tool for creativity

Jackson Pollock, ‘Yellow Islands’ 1952
Jackson Pollock
Yellow Islands 1952
Tate
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017

Formlessness was a concept first introduced by Bataille in 1929, when he wrote about ‘l’informe’ (formless) in the surrealist journal Documents 1929–30. To Bataille, l’informe was about destroying categories and knocking art off its metaphorical pedestal so that it sat in the gutter. He rejected high-minded humanism which he said elevated form to an idealised notion, and celebrated the debased.

The concept of formlessness was re-introduced by the cultural theorists Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois in 1996, when they used Bataille’s notion of ‘l’informe’ in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris called Formless: A User’s Guide. They argued that artists throughout the twentieth century, from the abstract expressionists, to post-modern artists like Mike Kelley and Cindy Sherman, have used formlessness as a tool for creativity, not to elevate art, but to get it down and dirty. They gave the example of Jackson Pollock, who dripped paint onto a canvas that was laid out on the floor. The paint would get mixed up with the ash dropping from the artist’s cigarette and other bits of detritus, all of which would end up in the final work of art.