art 132 formal analysis

ART 105

Museum Assignment:

Formal Analysis Paper (3 pages, typed)

Your assignment is to go the Museum of Contemporary Art or to visit the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. You will have to select one contemporary (made after 1960) work of art (any media) and analyze and interpret its visual properties in a short Formal Analysis paper. Note: if you are not from the Chicago area, you may select another major museum to visit.

At the museum, you should take detailed notes about the work: materials, formal elements, how the work is displayed, size, etc. Also, note the object label (museum label/plaque), which gives the artist, title, date, materials, and size. You might want to make a detailed sketch of the work for later reference or a photograph—if allowed. (Flash photography is prohibited in museums since the light can damage the artwork.)

Formal Analysis: the interpretation of a work of art through its visual or material qualities.

  1. Introduce the work: artist, title, date, and medium (materials) in one or two sentences. (This should come in your introduction.) Make sure to have a thesis statement: what does the work of art communicates and how? The HOW will be the real heart of your paper.
  1. Describe the work visually, in detail, identifying which formal elements and principles of design are present. Make sure to examine how different elements react and respond to and with one another and how they are structured within the overall composition. Each paragraph should be organized and focused on an element or principle of design and how they support your interpretation. These paragraphs will become the body of your paper.
  1. Interpret the meaning or message of the work through visual analysis. Make sure that your conclusion supports your analysis of the key visual elements and principles of design that were discussed in your paper.

This exercise is about looking, describing, and analyzing; however, this is not simply a visual description or an inventory of the physical qualities of your work. A formal analysis requires you to interpret the physical qualities that make up the visual totality of the artwork: what are the significant formal elements of the work that the artist has selected and how can we read/view meaning in them? How does the work generate meaning from the interaction and conversation of the visual elements and the situated viewer? This analysis should emerge from a thoughtful visual exploration of the media and the inter-relationship of the formal elements and how they are arranged. Be sure to start with the general and move to the particular; support your analysis with actual details in the work.

Your formal analysis should be organized with relation to the significant visual elements of the work. You should try to include an image of your work (If you cannot find the exact work, an approximation will do). Your analysis should be three pages—typed and double-spaced. NOTE: This project does not require and should not include outside research. I am looking for your OWN visual analysis based on a careful study of the physical features of the artwork.

Helpful Hints:

  • Titles of artworks need to be italicized
  • Include the dimension and media of your artwork
  • Cite all sources in MLA format that you use in your paper: museum labels, brochures, internet, etc. Visit the for help with MLA citation

For further guidelines please refer to: Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art and Anne D’Alleva’s Look! The Fundamentals of Art History— both are on reserve in the library.