Book Review – Queer Formalism: The Return
Reviewed by Alexandra Barbush
A modern, nonconventional look at queer and female-produced art in all its forms
Queer Formalism: The Return is a short nonfiction work from art critic William J. Simmons that expands on his essay, “Notes on Queer Formalism,” published online in Big, Red and Shiny Magazine in 2013.
The idea of “queer formalism” came from an early interview with painter Amy Sillman, where she describes the current and upcoming moment of art as “almost a queer formalism.” The term formalism in art history refers to the stance that, when looking at a work of art, what you see is what you get. The artist’s predisposition, their location, socioeconomic position, gender, or sexuality is of no value when using the formalism lens. The concept of queer formalism engages the term in a sort of oxymoron, asking the observer to consider the queerness on display. Can a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, be queer, in and of itself?
Simmons runs through a list of several accomplished mostly female, sometimes queer, artists and discusses their work through the created lens of queer formalism. He pronounces his personal tastes, discusses the artists’ work in detail, and philosophizes on the inherent attraction of some works through the idea of queer formalism.
While he noticeably devotes time to the artist that inspired it all—Amy Sillman and her work, “Me and the Ugly Mountain”—he goes on to discuss others like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Laurie Simmons, Lena Dunham, Kirsten Dunst, Greer Lankton, and Lana Del Rey.
Simmons is at his best when he delves deep into queer formalism as a concept.
“This is exactly what queer formalism might be—a desire to attach and reattach to oftentimes problematic elements of culture in an effort to make them love us back, as we do with handsome and distant bodies. Sometimes that love is requited and sometimes it is not. Queer formalism might break the cycle, but it also finds pleasure and danger in a perpetual return.”
I’d recommend Queer Formalism: The Return to anyone drawn to the intersection of pop culture and art historical criticism. Simmons’s writing is tinged with humor, and when he lets it fly, he is at his most captivating.
Like so many texts on art history, some foreknowledge of the subject matter, whether in your own expertise or in the form of some light Googling, is probably necessary to understand all of what he’s going for.
Queer formalism as a concept is the connecting piece of the work, but it’s not always the easiest to keep up with how Simmons threads the artists, art, and examples. It’s difficult to see from the outset how straight women, like Kirsten Dunst and Lana Del Rey, can be considered the objects or artists of form seen through queer formalism. Simmons pushes the reader to consider queerness in its many forms, objective and subjective, and questions the formality and structures around the term itself in Queer Formalism: The Return.
Genre: Nonfiction / LGBTQ+
Print Length: 88 pages
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