Post-Minimalism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Post-Minimalism
New developments in art came fast in the 1960s. No sooner had Minimalism emerged onto the public stage than Post-Minimalism surfaced. In a 1966 New York exhibition entitled Eccentric Abstraction, critic Lucy Lippard curated work by a group of artists, including Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman. Containing work with highly personal and sensuous qualities, it drew on traditions of Surrealism, Dada and Expressionism. The pieces often combined unusual, soft and pliable materials. Some borrowed the modular, repetitive compositions typical of Minimalism, but many also exploited more relaxed and open structures.
Critic and art historian Robert Pincus-Witten, who coined the term 'Post-Minimalism,' observed that what Lucy Lippard referred to as 'Eccentric Abstraction' was actually part of emerging reactions against Minimalism. These reactions gained further recognition in 1969 when the Whitney Museum of American Art staged the exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials. Grounded in Process art, the show was concerned with artists' attitudes towards materials and techniques. It highlighted artists extending Minimalism's interest in abstraction and anonymity. The title Anti-Illusion drew attention to a widespread preoccupation with emptying sculpture of its last vestiges of representation, and therefore expression. Representation, generally of the human figure, had always been at the heart of sculpture, and ridding it of this tradition proved to be a complex and difficult task.
Another significant Post-Minimalism exhibition was entitled When Attitudes Become Form, which surveyed more conceptual trends, was staged in London and Bern in 1969. In the same year, artist Robert Morris organized 9 in a Warehouse, a Process art exhibition that included work by Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, as well as a selection of Arte Povera artists from Italy. This indicated that, although American in origin, the term Post-Minimalism also adequately described developments elsewhere.
Post-Minimalism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Exemplified by Robert Morris's clumps and random accumulations of soft felt, Process Art emerged in the late 1960s and built the foundation for other Post-Minimal tendencies. Like the Action Paintings of Jackson Pollock, in which the physical act of dripping paint onto the canvas is an integral aspect of the work, Process art produces work in which the act of creation - the process of production - is inseparable from its meaning. Process art focuses on the event and the action. For that reason, often it leads to works in which time, impermanence, and site-specificity are important issues.
Works in which Richard Serra hurls molten lead at the walls and floor of a gallery are also an example of the ephemeral, spontaneous and shapeless character of much Process art. But Eva Hesse's work also demonstrates an aspect of this, sometimes taking the Minimalist cube or grid as a basis for the work, but putting more attention on matter and materials. For instance, Hesse's Accession II (1967-69), one of a series, contains a cube of aluminum mesh with an open top. The mesh is intricately woven through with plastic tubing, drawing attention to its soft interior rather than its geometric form. Hesse uses industrial materials and makes them seem organic, like grass or hair, exploring their inherent possibilities. She imbues Minimalist forms with organic warmth and sensuality to create a protective space, while making the process of the work's fabrication clear to the viewer (something which is often more hidden in the highly finished works of the Minimalists.)
Using the body as a means of expression was another one of the ways Post-Minimal artists sought to escape the saleable, object-character of Minimalist artworks. It also gave them an ideal way to imbue their work with human expressiveness, a quality that was lacking from Minimalist art. Body artists were influenced by Fluxus and Dada performances, theater, and even anti-war demonstrations.
Some artists used their bodies to perform repetitive gestures that highlighted ordinary, seemingly pointless actions typically engaged in without notice or consequence. The nature of the simple, repeated actions often made the viewer aware of the passing of time and the physicality of the body. One artist who explored this mode was Vito Acconci. In Blinks (1969), he walked down a street trying hard not to blink and taking a photograph every time he did. Bruce Nauman also explored the expressive potential of simple actions in many of the films he made in the late 1960s. The films often documented the artist continually pacing, walking a line or perimeter, or pulling at his own face. In all of these films, there is no final product and no clear purpose for the actions carried out by the artist.
Body art could also be confrontational, aggressive and dangerous. As a result of cynical and pessimistic attitudes sparked by economic troubles, declining faith in government and opposition to the Vietnam War, artists began to adopt an aggressive manner that emphasized fear and the vulnerability of the human condition. For example, in works after 1970, Acconci brings an autobiographical aspect to his work, often placing himself under stress and discomfort. In doing so, he effectively blurs the boundaries between the private and public self. He implements an element of sadomasochism and violence in many of his Body art performances, he invokes his sexuality, and he conceives of his body as a malleable object. For example, in Conversions (1970) Acconci tried several means to alter his sexual identity from male to female, in one instance using a candle flame to remove his chest hair.
In a similar manner to the violent actions performed by Acconci, Chris Burden intentionally placed himself in physically threatening scenarios in a series of performances from the early 1970s. In some notorious works, Burden trapped himself in a locker for days without food, arranged to be shot in the arm at close range and had himself nailed to a car. By constructing shocking situations of self-mutilation, his works became about the experience, often specifically about the reality of pain and violence.
A wide-spread awareness of the environment and concern for ecological issues also developed in the 1970s. In this spirit many Post-Minimalists turned to the earth itself as the material and site for art-making. They altered the way a particular site could be experienced, often blurring the boundaries between the location and the artwork itself. Typical of this is work by British artist Richard Long Line Made by Walking (1967) takes the form of a line made in the grass, a mark that could easily be overlooked in the landscape and that will inevitably disappear with time. Long's work throughout the 1970s and 1980s took him around the world and generally involved the simple process of walking and leaving a trail, or rearranging stones into shapes along the way. He would record the work with photographs and maps of territories he had visited.
Work by Gordon Matta-Clark in early 1970s, and by Tony Cragg in the 1980s, formed a sort of urbanized Earth Art, using refuse and debris as well as condemned buildings as site and medium. Again, the impetus to escape the traditional sculptural object and bring art outside the gallery is typical of Post-Minimalism. This variation of Earth art served to emphasize waste, consumer culture and human impact on the natural environment. In these and many earthworks, change and the passing of time are major themes. Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) is typical in taking the subjects of decay, time and temporality as central components. Earth art draws awareness to instability, time, space, and entropy, and connects the viewer - emotionally and physically - to nature.
In an extension of the Post-Minimalist concern with site and expansion beyond the traditional art object, Installation art involved the creation of complex indoor environments that engaged the viewer as a sort of actor-participant. Bruce Nauman's installation works, which he began to create around 1968, shifted the focus from himself to the direct experience of the viewer. Echoing the mood of some Body art, Nauman's installations often encouraged feelings of entrapment, fear, dread, anxiety, and disorientation. For example, his Double Steel Cage Piece (1974) required visitors to find their way through narrow passageways and corridors. In a series of pieces based on the tightly constructed corridors, Nauman sometimes incorporated video cameras and monitors as a type of self-surveillance system. Such psychologically distressing works served as precursors to sculptures Nauman would create in the early 1980s, which were directly influenced by the experiences of political prisoners.
By 1974, Vito Acconci also began to move away from works that focused on his own body and experience. Acconci confronted the viewer in his installation environments, which were often accompanied by recordings of his own voice. In the 1980s, Acconci began constructing perverse house-like environments that disoriented and discomforted viewers as they walked through them, bringing to mind associations of the home and imprisonment, in works such as Bad Dream House (1988).
Later Developments - After Post-Minimalism
The variety of tendencies that the term Post-Minimalism encompassed endured throughout the 1970s. While declining in the 1980s, as traditional media such as painting made a return, it made an important contribution to the art of that decade by laying the foundations for work that addresses identity politics and issues of race, gender and sexuality. And, more recently, with the return to fashion of conceptual modes, artists of the Post-Minimalist generation have also experienced a renaissance.
Seemingly the 1980s sent Post-Minimalism underground, yet it remains alive today. This is largely due to the fact that artists who engage with any of its myriad strands, from aspects of performance to process to installation, must still engage with ideas that were addressed in the 1960s and 1970s.