Art Term Tuesday: Form

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

As an element of art, form in sculpture is analogous to shape in painting and refers to the way the artwork occupies space. A shape is measured in two dimensions–length and width–but, with the addition of depth, a flat shape becomes a three-dimensional form: squares become cubes, circles become spheres, and triangles become pyramids! While form is essential to sculptors whose work is three dimensional, painters and artists working in two-dimensional media often strive to create the illusion of form. Like many art terms, form has multiple meanings, even just within the art world! In addition to being an element of art, it can also refer to the overall physical nature of a work: its formal properties. A formal analysis dissects all the visual elements and principles at play within an artwork while an art form might refer to the medium or method. We’ll focus primarily on form as an element of art–the last in our series!

The wire chairs in the galleries, above, based on a design by Harry Bertoia (a Scholastic Awards alum!), are an excellent example of line and shape transformed into three dimensional form. Starting with a flat wire grid, Bertoia created the concave seat simply by expanding the size of certain squares. Humans are, of course, forms not shapes; so, while a flat grid would make a pretty uncomfortable seat, the finished form complements our own nicely.

An abstract sculpture in bronze representing a charging animal.
Abbot Pattison, American, 1916-1999. Animal in Motion. Bronze, 1960. Gift of Mrs. Dorothea Fruechtenicht Brown, 1966.03. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Just like shapes, forms can be organic (derived from nature) or geometric (mathematically derived). Although abstract, the title of Abbott Pattison’s Animal in Motion alludes to its natural inspirations, and the curving, bulbous forms supported by skinny “legs” hint at its movement. What would you call the forms here? I would say blobs, but organic forms are often difficult to name, while geometric ones are more easily identifiable as prisms, arches, cones, or spheres (to name a few). 

A geometric, outdoor sculpture made of lines and open spaces. The sculpture is painted white and reflects the arches in the buildings around it.
David Black, American, b. 1928. Crossings. Aluminum and white epoxy, 1984 Museum purchase, 1985.04. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

David Black’s Crossings, just west of Animal in Motion, is geometric, but upon closer inspection, each component of the sculpture is really a flat plane and not a form at all! Forms exist, instead, in the negative spaces created where the flat planes intersect. The sculpture has a large footprint but appears light, occupying a relatively small amount of volume within that space.

A large block of granite that rests on a plinth. The rock narrows to a point as it gets closer to the building. The top is shiny and smooth, while the surround retains it's original rough texture.
Darrell Petit, Canadian, b. 1960. Continuum. Granite, 2015. Museum purchase, 2016.128. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Let’s continue our outdoor sculpture tour and compare the form of Crossings with that of Darrell Petit’s Continuum. We would call both sculptures “in-the-round,” meaning they are intended to be viewed from all sides, rather than a one-sided relief sculpture, but that is where their similarities end. Rather than negative space, Continuum is composed of one solid, heavy block of pink granite in an irregular, organic wedge form. Petit emphasizes the innate properties of the stone, drawing attention to the surface textures and colors; its self-containment makes it a “closed” form. Crossings, on the other hand, juts into space, framing and activating its surrounding environment (it was designed specifically for this spot), making it an “open” form. It highlights and echoes the architecture of nearby buildings, which are also made of forms!

A still life food: Pears form the outer ring with eggs next. Then four bananas circle the bowl of fruit that includes four eggplants and three apples. The fruit is reflected inside the bowl.
Martha Mayer Erlebacher, American, 1937-2013. Still Life with Eggplant #1. Lithograph, 1974. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Weatherhead Foundation, 1974.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
A print of undulating black lines, like unfurled ribbon.
Aldo Giorgini, American, b. Italy, 1934-1994. folio 4, from the Surface portfolio. Screenprint on paper, 1976. Gift of the Purdue University School of Engineering and the School of Humanities, Scoail Science and Education, West Lafayette, Indiana, 1978.07. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Artists who work in two-dimensional media work with form in a different way. Martha Mayer Erlebacher’s close observation of light and skilled manipulation of value results in fruits that seem to pop off the page. Although a flat surface, she has created implied forms and the illusion of depth. A similar sense of form is conveyed through adjusting the width and direction of stripes in Aldo Giorgini’s folio 4. The fainter stripes in the background add to the sense of overlap and depth, resembling an undulating piece of fabric (or a waving flag, as in another of Giorgini’s prints, below, folio 3).

A print of undulating lines, like unfurled ribbon, in the shape and color of the American flag.
Aldo Giorgini, American, b. Italy, 1934-1994. folio 3, from the Surface portfolio. Screenprint on paper, 1976. Gift of the Purdue University School of Engineering and the School of Humanities, Scoail Science and Education, West Lafayette, Indiana, 1978.06. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Now that we’ve reached our final element of art, which is your favorite? Which is most important? It may seem silly to ask, but throughout art history, these building blocks of art have existed in a hierarchy; shifts in this order signal major transitions between movements. Up until the mid-1800s, when modern art began to take shape, form was at the peak of the pyramid, not just in sculpture, but also in painting. As photography usurped painting as the primary method for pure documentation, color dethroned form: painters no longer needed their work to resemble real, three-dimensional forms but were free to explore the more expressive properties of their medium. Similarly, while form is essential to sculpture, surface (as color and texture) was traditionally less important. Modern and contemporary artists, of course, eschew such hierarchies and, although trends in how artists use the visual elements might emerge with more historical perspective, individuals tend to follow their own interests. Even artists who are primarily exploring form or color, for example, cannot only use those elements: they must be arranged in some way. Next, we’ll explore the guiding principles for how artists compose their works!

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