QofR: Researching materiality

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

While I have some vague ideas about where I want to go with my question, I wanted to begin with some research into the history of materiality within visual art. This is partly to satisfy the gaps in my knowledge and partly to give me some inspiration by looking at how different artists engage with materiality in their work.

I think it might be useful to begin by roughly defining materiality within visual art. All art has physical properties that we encounter through sight, touch and sometimes our other senses. For some art these physical properties are obvious - like a marble statue that towers over you, while for other pieces the materiality is obfuscated - like a digital vector, which we may consider intangible, but can only be encountered through a screen in our hand or a projection onto a wall. We cannot engage with art intangibly, as much as an artist may wish to do away with the body in favour of the mind. Simply put, materiality is how a piece of art's material qualities are sensed, interpreted and understood.

Materiality as a critical concept is a relatively recent one. Although art has naturally always had physical properties, a self-awareness or interest in those materials is singular to art created since the mid-19th Century. Despite being what seems to be a key characteristic in the evolution of Modern Art, materiality as a concept seems to attract little critical discussion. While a quick Google search will bring up 100s of results for exhibition titles like Materiality - The Matter of Matter at the CMCA or Material Matters or Paper // Materiality to Meaning, the critical literature seems relatively sparse. In her introduction to Materiality, Petra Lange-Berndt puts this down to notions of intellectual hierarchy: 'For some, to engage with materials still seems the antithesis of intellectuality, a playground for those not interested in theory, while material studies are defined, at best, as an auxiliary science. Materiality is one of the most contested concepts in contemporary art and is often sidelined in critical academic writing.'

My own research confirmed this: I found it incredibly hard to find any critical debate on materiality as a concept, or why, in the mid-19th Century, artists began to draw attention to the physical properties of their work in a way they had not done previously. The most informative, though brief, reference I found was in Dorothea Eimert's book, Art of the 20th Century:

From classical times until the end of the 18th Century, an artwork was evaluated according to its content. The material out of which the artwork was made played a subordinate role. One proceeded from the premise that an idea in its most complete and ideal state is immaterial. To a great extent, material had to be subordinate to the artistic form. Materials were placed in the hierarchical order that was determined by how little they would impinge upon the purity of the artistic premise. Only in the 20th Century did the aesthetics relating to materials take hold. Material justice now became one of the criteria for a good work of art. Materials rose in esteem. Out of this also developed the independence of materials. Materials slowly became an independent medium of art.

Traditionally then, art (whether sculpture, tapestry, painting or drawing) was dedicated to verisimilitudinous depictions of nature, adherence to ideal forms, or visual narratives. These artists were more interested in creating a representation - an illusionistic image of reality or a creative vision. It was this, rather than the materials that made it, that the audience was supposed to pay attention to. But the commitment to mimesis began to falter in the 19th Century due to the rise of photography, alongside an increased interest in psychoanalytic theory. Artists and writers alike began to question the idea of an objective reality and, consequently, the concept of realism. Creatives turned inwards to explore the purpose of their art, leading to an increasing self-consciousness and engagement with the structural elements of their work.

Clement Greenberg discusses this in his 1960 lecture 'Modernist Painting':

Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Under Modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.

This refocusing of interest released artists from the traditional strictures of painting and sculpture; elements such as realistic perspective or contrast were disregarded in favour of abstraction and a celebration of the physical qualities of media.

Examples include Morris Louis, whose series of 'unfurleds' were created by pouring lines of paint colour into sections that left the majority of the canvas blank. This 'one-shot' technique only gave the artist a single opportunity or a successful pour. The result stresses the painting's flatness and draws attention to the paint itself. Similarly, Piet Mondrian's 'compositions' celebrate the flatness of the canvas, removing all representational elements in favour of purity of compositional balance and colour.

Some artists moved towards a total disregard of aesthetic intent, in favour of a pure materialism. Russian constructivists like Naum Gabo and Vladimir Tatlin believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world, 'the material formation of the object is to be substituted for its aesthetic combination... Constructivism is a purely technical mastery and organisation of materials.' (Constructivist Manifesto, Lef, 1923). These ideas had a profound effect upon sculpture in the 20th Century.

Another related trend that grew traction from the mid-19th Century was the use of non-traditional media in the creation of art. A famous early example is Edgar Degas' sculpture The Small Forteen-Year-Old Dancer (1879-80), which is constructed from a wax body, to which the artist added a wig of real hair, and genuine clothing including a flax bodice, skirt and ballroom shoes. The piece shocked the art world when it was displayed in an 1881 Paris Impressionist exhibition, partly because mixed media sculptures like this were more often seen in folk or religious arts rather than displayed in a fine art exhibition. Other revolutionary forms of art developed in the early 20th Century, such as the papiers collés of Picasso and Braque, who used ripped up newspaper and textured paper to create early collages. Picasso's 3D assemblages marked the beginning of a lasting trend in using found objects within art, for example Kurt Schwitters' 'merz' pieces.

However, many artists in the 1960s and 70s directly rejected Clement Greenberg's formalist assertions. In 1967, Sol LeWitt laid out the parameters of a different form of art in his seminal work 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art'. Le Witt writes: 'In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work... it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.' Naturally, all art requires some form of planning, but it is the dismissal of 'the execution' that marks a rejection of art's materiality. Paul Hobson, director of Modern Art Oxford, defines conceptual art in similar terms:

Conceptual art is art for which the idea or concept behind the work is more important than the physical object… [it] developed as a critique of the material conventions of art in Modernism and can be aligned to the evolution of the information age. The period in human history characterised by the shift from traditional industry and manufacturing of goods to an economy based on concepts and information computerisation.

So this time the physical qualities of art were dismissed in favour of the idea, rather than the image - you could say the senses were overlooked in favour of the brain, rather than the eyes. While conceptual art still relied on physical materials, they were often ephemeral or purposefully destroyed, like John Baldessari's 'Cremation project' or Richard Serras' splash pieces. In other circumstances, artists used objects that already existed and had little value in order to explore an idea - like Joseph Kosuth's 'One and Three Chairs' pictured here.

One of the biggest criticisms of conceptual art is the lack of mastery or technical skill required to execute a piece, which in turn undermines the notion that for art to have value, it must be unique. Sol Lewitt's 'Plan for Wall Drawing', indirectly addresses this: the art piece is a series of detailed instructions that anyone can use to create a wall drawing. This removes the importance of an individual artists' ability, in favour of the idea. Rather ironically, the immateriality of the art as idea increases its permanence, making it impossible to destroy.

The critic Arthur Danto feared that conceptual art marked the demise of visual art, so dependent on words and theory for its existence that that’s all that would remain: ‘art having finally vaporised in a dazzle of pure thought about itself and remaining, as it were, solely an object of its own consciousness.’ But as our retrospective insight reassures us, that didn't quite happen.



  1. Eimert, Dorothea. Art of the 20th century (New York: Parkstone International, 2014)

  2. Greenberg, Clement. 'Modernist Painting', Forum Lectures (Washington DC: 1960). Available from: https://www.yorku.ca/yamlau/readings/greenberg_modernistPainting.pdf

  3. Hobson, Paul. 'Contemporary Art of Today: Materiality and Media', YouTube.com [online] updated 30 March 2017. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxffm4tXJRA&t=34s

  4. Hong, JeeJee. 'material/materiality', University of Chicago Blog [online] updated December 2013. Available from: https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/materialmateriality/

  5. Lange-Berndt, Petra. 'Introduction', in Materiality: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2015), pp.12-23

  6. Morgan, Tiernan and Lauren Purje. 'An Illustrated Guide to Arthur Danto's "The End of Art"', Hyperallergic.com [online] updated 31 March 2015. Available from: https://hyperallergic.com/191329/an-illustrated-guide-to-arthur-dantos-the-end-of-art/

  7. Willis, David. 'What is materiality in contemporary art?', Quora.com [online] updated 2018. Available from: https://www.quora.com/What-is-materiality-in-contemporary-art.

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