Minimalism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Minimalism
Early Modernist Inspirations
In New York City in the mid 1950s, young artists like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Dan Flavin were painting in the dominant Abstract Expressionist vein but were drifting from it toward new directions inspired by a freshened knowledge of recent European art. Works by members of the Dutch De Stijl group, the Russian Constructivists, and the German Bauhaus were shown in New York City museums and galleries. All three groups had pioneered new definitions of the visual arts by going far beyond traditional painting and sculpture.
Piet Mondrian, a central proponent of De Stijl, adopted pure abstraction and promoted a dynamic tension across the canvas surface and emphasized the flatness of the picture plane. No longer would a painting pretend to be a window to another world. The Homage to the Square paintings (1949-76) of Josef Albers, a former teacher at the Bauhaus, used arrangements of squares within squares in which pictorial depth was an illusion based on color contrasts of the squares. Vladimir Tatlin led the creation of a new art in Russia that would synthesize art and technology in the Machine Age that had come to his country. A utopian idealist more than a revolutionary, he wanted to bring art to the service of everyday life.
Among sculptors, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi was also a proto-Minimalist. His The Endless Column (1935), a tower of identical rhomboid shapes pointing to infinity represented his cosmic spiritual beliefs and aspirations for his art by demonstrating how simple shapes in multiples could extend ideas of form in space. And Marcel Duchamp's career would lead to a redefinition of the artist's persona and relationship to art making. With sophisticated wit he condemned the "retinal pleasures" of painting and within his practice combined painting, kinetic and static sculpture, photography, and film.
Art at Mid-Century: Late Modernism
These early influences gave artists the opportunity to reassess the Surrealist-influenced world of Abstract Expressionism defined by intuitive and spontaneous gestures that had been dominant in American art for almost two decades, largely because of the critical support of writers such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. In contrast to the more expressionistic painters, the artists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman emphasized the power of color and simplicity of design within the canvas field. Dubbed a Color Field painter, Rothko laid broad bands of color horizontally across the canvas while Newman discovered the skinny vertical zip motifs that divided his fields into zones of flat painted color. In each case the viewer became absorbed in the atmosphere of these large-scale works. Their more radical compatriot Ad Reinhardt painted solid fields of monochromatic red or black that banished all but the most subtle evidence of an artist's involvement in the work. Active as a writer, critic, and educator, he famously said, "My paintings are the last paintings one can make," and thereby endeared himself to the next generation of creators.
The artists who became Minimalists wanted instead to produce an art that was less personal and more substantial, believing that a work of art should not refer to anything other than itself. Thus by the early 1960s, many of these artists had abandoned painting altogether in favor of objects that seemed neither painting nor sculpture in the conventional sense. For example, Frank Stella's Black Paintings (1958-60), a series of hugely influential, concentrically striped canvases were stretched on a thicker wooden chassis that thrust them out from the wall aggressively. This support emphasized the materiality and objecthood of paintings that were clearly abstractions, lacked evidence of brushwork, and achieved a state of flatness that was exemplary to others. Stella's paintings extended the possibilities of painting beyond simple rectangles to be framed (which they weren't) and hung on a wall as ornament. His works instead assumed physical characteristics of both architecture and sculpture that contradicted all previous examples of painting.
Stella's achievement was echoed in the work of other abstract artists who were making large paintings that seemed to be based on geometric theorems. Kenneth Noland, who pursued Josef Albers's theories on the "interaction of colors," painted large abstract canvases that featured targets, chevrons, and striped patterns. Robert Mangold's monochromatic free-standing constructions were also affected by the prevalence of geometric abstraction that Albers had introduced.
The Start of Minimalism and Conceptual Art
In the next generation there were many theorists who became important spokespersons for the movements of both Minimal and Conceptual art, a contemporaneous style. These artists and writers helped determine the aesthetics and the critical reception of both styles.
Donald Judd's "Specific Objects," published in 1965, attempted to establish the aesthetics of Minimalism. He in fact rejected the name "Minimalism" to characterize the art, favoring instead the term "specific objects," which he described as rejecting traditional distinctions between art forms to embrace works that were not easily labeled as either painting or sculpture.
Robert Morris wrote the three-part "Notes on Sculptures" in 1966, in which he called for the use of simple forms that could be grasped intuitively by the viewer and argued that the interpretation of Minimalist works was dependent on the context and conditions in which they were perceived. In making this argument he was essentially upending the notion of the artwork as having an inherent meaning - derived from the artist - that was independent of the viewer.
Sol LeWitt contributed to the development of both movements. He published, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art"(1967) (considered by many to be the movement's manifesto), in which he wrote: "What the work of art looks like isn't too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned." For 40 years until his death in 2007, LeWitt worked internationally as a sculptor, painter, and photographer and was the leader of the Minimalist artists after the deaths of Flavin and Judd.
Carl Andre published poetry that had both literary and visual appeal, the latter created by the artistic shaping of the text of the poem as if the words were a solid medium. These poems were an integral part of Andre's exhibitions, where they sometimes appeared in catalogue entries or next to his sculptures.
Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965) is a Conceptual milestone in which he assembled an object, a photograph of that object, and an enlarged dictionary definition of the object for a gallery exhibition. It questions what actually constitutes a chair in our thinking: is it the solid object we see and use or is it the word "chair" that we use to identify it and communicate it to others?
As a result of all these theoretical underpinings, the Minimalism movement found the setting to expand.
The Title of the Movement
From this multitude of sources the artists who became known as Minimalists plotted the new strategies that informed their projects and processes. Many names were floated to characterize this new art: "A.B.C. art," "Reductive Art," "literalism," "systemic painting," and "Art of the Real." "Minimalism" was the term that eventually stuck, perhaps because it best described the way the artists reduced art to the minimum number of colors, shapes, lines, and textures. Minimalism was also an accepted critical term in contemporary dance and music which, like the visual arts, was being stripped of ornament, used repetitive motifs, and found its settings in everyday, urban life rather than myths and legends of the past.
The Primary Structures Exhibition
The 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York was a major event that attracted critical attention and established Minimalism as a significant force in the art world. The show included works by many of those who were important to the movement, including Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd as well as some artists who were on its fringes, such as Ellsworth Kelly and Anthony Caro - over forty artists in total. Exhibitions like Primary Structures were accompanied by publications and critical reviews that advanced and broadened the discourse over both Minimalism and Conceptual art.
A New Art for New Spaces
In the 1960s and 1970s new exhibition spaces were opening in Europe and America. Traditional museums expanded their gallery facilities and new "kunsthalles," exhibition facilities without permanent collections, were created. The role of university galleries and museums was also expanded. Artist-run cooperative galleries like Artists Space in New York were emulated elsewhere. Typically these galleries took over large rough spaces that were frequently "laboratories" where Minimal and Conceptual artists tried out their work. By the 1970s there was a true boom in public art that brought Minimalist sculptors national recognition. State and local agencies established public sculpture parks where Minimalist sculpture flourished.
The new publication Artforum was started in California in 1962 relocated to New York City in 1967. Through several editorships the magazine developed and was by 1971 the trade journal for Minimalist and Conceptual art. In addition to reviews, it published work submitted by artists as well as the most thoughtful commentary on contemporary art.
Minimalism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Most Minimalists were focused on creating three-dimensional objects, as this was the most radical and experimental facet of the movement. The Minimalists' emphasis on eradicating signs of authorship from their art by using simple, geometric forms and industrial materials led to works that resembled simple objects rather than traditional sculpture. The innovative placement of these works on the floor of gallery spaces rather than on pedestals further underscored their difference from conventional works of art.
The focus on surface and the artist's absence meant that the meaning of the object was not seen as inherent to the object itself, but came from the viewer's interaction with the object. This led to a new emphasis on the physical space in which the artwork resided. In part, this development was inspired by Maurice Merleau-Ponty's writings on phenomenology, in particular, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945).
Aside from sculptors, Minimalism is also associated with a few key abstract painters, such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman. These artists painted simple canvases that were considered minimal due to their barebones, often geometric compositions. Using only line, solid color, and sometimes geometric forms and shaped canvases, these artists combined painting materials in such a way that questioned the traditional dichotomy between artistic media by making paintings that could also be considered objects in their own right because of the bulkiness of the canvas support and the nontraditional shapes of the paintings.
Minimalist Light Installations
This use of flourescent light tubes to create art further emphasized the Minimalist move away from traditional art forms. Dan Flavin used light and color from commercially available tubes to sculpt space into color zones. While the tubes were sometimes arranged in geometric shapes such as grids or simple lines, the focus of the art was typically on the light emitted rather than the form of the tubes themselves. The standard industrial fixtures that held the tubes were also useful as compositional elements. Turned to the viewer, their blank sides contrasted to the outward facing colored light in the grid pieces. Younger artists Keith Sonnier and Bruce Nauman saw the potential of light in sculpture and used neon tubing in combination with other materials and lettering.
The unadorned style and system-bound concepts of Minimalism found followers in architecture and interior design, where a revival of the International Style of the 1920s occurred and even Art Deco received a fresh look. Contemporary choreographers eliminated fussy costumes, and dancers performed to the strict, repetitive music by Minimalist composers on bare stages. Even, the frugal-appearing low-calorie plates of nouvelle cuisine imported from Paris were another phenomenon of Minimalism.
Later Developments - After Minimalism
By the late 1960s, just a few years after the movement was born, Minimalism was diversifying into many disciplines to such an extent that it could no longer be seen as a coherent style or tendency: various artists who had been important to its early development began to move in different personal directions. New ideas and styles quickly came to dominate the emerging world.
Art and Objecthood
Detractors of Minimalist art were led by Michael Fried, whose essay "Art and Objecthood" was published in Artforum in 1967. Although the essay seemed to confirm the importance of the movement as a turning point in the history of modern art, Fried was uncomfortable with what it heralded. Referring to the movement as "literalism" and those who made it as "literalists," he accused artists like Judd and Morris of intentionally confusing the categories of art and ordinary objects. According to Fried, what these artists were creating was not art, but a political and/or ideological statement about the nature of art. Fried maintained that just because Judd and Morris arranged identical non-art objects in a three-dimensional field and proclaimed it "art," it didn't necessarily make it so. Fried mildly ridiculed their efforts by warning them against what he perceived as theatricality in the justifications they made for their installations. This was in direct confrontation in particular with Morris, who described the importance of the duration of time and the viewer's movements needed to experience the art and the importance of the perceptions gathered by the viewer.
As the 1960s progressed, offshoots of Minimalism developed under the rubric of Post-Minimalism. Some of these, like works by Richard Serra, were extensions of Minimalist theories, but most were challenges to Minimalism's rigorous appearance. Californian Robert Irwin painted luminescent discs and minimalist canvases with faint stripes, but in 1969 he began making large gallery installations using available light sources concealed behind translucent screens. His works inspired the Light and Space movement joined by California sculptors Larry Bell and James Turrell. Such installations were openly theatrical and their simplicity suggested Zen Buddhist philosophy instead of formalism.
New venues encouraged more installations where Minimalist aesthetics were perceivable but strongly countered by independent visions. Lynda Benglis and Eva Hesse experimented with poured and shaped industrial resins that introduced an organic appearance when hung from the ceiling, projecting off the walls or scattered on the floor. Nancy Graves fabricated simulations of animal skins.
Robert Smithson organized an exhibition of Land art that posed an explicit challenge to conventional notions of sculpture and stretched Minimalist definitions. His Earthworks were made with bulldozers in remote locations and represented only by photographs. Following Smithson's example, Michael Heizer, Richard Long, and Walter de Maria removed art from galleries and turned the earth itself into artistic material. The boundaries between "sculpture" and "object" were eroded, and new definitions of art and creativity were revealed.
Minimalism and the Next Stage of Feminism
Viewing the success of the Minimalist sculptors in particular, feminists criticized what they saw as the rhetoric of power in the brutality of some of the works. The concept of Feminist art arose concurrent with Post-Minimalism and developed its own polemics born out of this era of consciousness-raising. Initially Feminist art was visibly handmade, craft-based, and incorporated ritual beliefs and icons: it was openly opposed to Minimalism and celebrated "the goddess." For example, Judy Chicago created The Dinner Party (1974), an enormous installation of ceramic place settings for thirty-nine historically famous women that was rich in cultural and totemic symbolism. It toured museums in America for five years, inspiring many collateral exhibitions along the route.
Throughout the 20th century women had been underrepresented in museums and galleries and lacked organization until one of the leading Minimalist artists and theorists - Robert Morris - appeared in a poster for a 1974 exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery bare-chested and wearing chains and a Nazi-era helmet. Women who had participated in the Civil Rights Movement rose up against Morris and this image and began to call for gender equity in art practices. They published manifestos, picketed galleries and founded magazines such as Heresies, A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics (1977-92). The Woman's Building in Los Angeles and AIR Gallery in New York were established for women to show collaboratively and in solo exhibitions. The National Museum of Women in the Arts was founded in Washington, DC, in 1981 and moved into its own building in 1987, but by this time the objectives of the feminists had largely been realized.