HOME   |   ABOUT US   |  CONTACT US   |  SUPPORT US 

The Art Story Resource on Modern Art Modern Art News
Movements in Modern ArtArtists in Modern ArtTimelines of Modern ArtIdeas & Critics in Modern Art Current Events and Exhibitions related to Modern Art


Minimalism Movement
Synopsis
The term "Minimalism" has evolved over the last half-century to include a vast number of artistic media, and its precedents in the visual arts can be found in Mondrian, van Doesburg, Reinhardt, and in Malevich's monochromes. But it was born as a self-conscious movement in New York in the early 1960s. Its leading figures - Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre - created objects which often blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasising cool anonymity over the hot expressivism of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.

Key Ideas / Information
  • The revival of interest in Russian Constructivism and Marcel Duchamp's readymades provided important inspiration for the Minimalists. The Russian's example suggested an approach to sculpture that emphasised modular fabrication and industrial materials over the craft techniques of most modern sculpture. And Duchamp's readymades pointed to ways in which sculpture might make use of a variety of pre-fabricated materials, or aspire to the appearance of factory-built commodities.
  • Much of Minimalist aesthetics was shaped by a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Minimalists wanted to remove suggestions of self-expressionism from the art work, as well as evocations of illusion or transcendence - or, indeed, metaphors of any kind, though as some critics have pointed out, that proved difficult. Unhappy with the modernist emphasis on medium-specificity, the Minimalists also sought to erase distinctions between paintings and sculptures, and to make instead, as Donald Judd said: "specific objects."
  • In seeking to make objects which avoided the appearance of fine art objects, the Minimalists attempted to remove the appearance of composition from their work. To that end, they tried to expunge all signs of the artists guiding hand or thought processes - all aesthetic decisions - from the fabrication of the object. For Donald Judd, this was part of Minimalism's attack on the tradition of "relational composition" in European art, one which he saw as part of an out-moded rationalism. Rather than the parts of an artwork being carefully, hierarchically ordered and balanced, he said they should be "just one thing after another."
Beginnings
In New York City in the late 1950s, young artists like Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Dan Flavin were painting in then dominant Abstract Expressionist vein, and beginning to show at smaller galleries throughout the city. By the early 1960s, many of these artists had abandoned painting altogether in favour of objects which seemed neither painting nor sculpture in the conventional sense. For example, Frank Stella's Black Paintings (a series of hugely influential, concentrically striped pictures from 1959-60), were much thicker than conventional canvases, and this emphasised their materiality and object-ness, in contrast to the thin, window-like quality of ordinary canvases. Other early Minimalist works employed non-art materials such as plywood, scrap metal, and fluorescent light bulbs.

Many names were floated to characterise this new art, from "ABC art" and "Reductive Art" to "literalism" and "systemic painting." "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. Yet the term was rejected by many of the artists commonly associated with the movement - Judd, for example, felt the title was derogatory. He preferred the term "primary structures," which came to be the title of a landmark group show at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966: it brought together many of those who were important to the movement, including Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd, though it also included some who were barely on its fringes, such as Ellsworth Kelly and Anthony Caro.

Concepts and Styles
The Minimalists' emphasis on eradicating signs of authorship from the artwork (by using simple, geometric forms, and courting the appearance of industrial objects) led, inevitably, to the sense that the meaning of the object lay not "inside" it, but rather on its surface - it arose 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 and, retrospectively, Barnett Newman. These artists painted very simple canvases that were considered minimal due to their bare-bones composition. Using only line, solid color and, in Stella's case, geometric forms and shaped canvas, these artists combined paint and canvas in such a way that the two became inseparable.

Later Developments
By the late 1960s, Minimalism was beginning to show signs of breaking apart as a movement, as various artists who had been important to its early development began to move in different directions. By this time the movement was also drawing powerful attacks. The most important of these would be Michael Fried's essay "Art and Objecthood," published in Artforum in 1967. Although it 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 object. 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", didn't necessarily make it so. Art is art and an object is an object, Fried asserted.

As the 1960s progressed, different offshoots of Minimalism began to take shape. In California, the "Light and Space" movement was led by Robert Irwin, while in vast ranges of unspoiled land throughout the U.S., Land artists like Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria completely removed art from the studio altogether, and turned the earth itself into a work of art. This achievement not only further blurred the boundaries between "art" and "object," but reinvented the more conventional definitions of sculpture.

The significance of Michael Fried's attack on the movement continues to be discussed, and, to the extent that, as critic Hal Foster has put it, Minimalism forms a "crux" or turning point in the history of modernism, the movement remains hugely influential today. However, some critics have challenged the reputations of some leading figures such as Donald Judd: in particular, feminists have criticised what they see as a rhetoric of power in the style's austerity and intellectualism. Indeed, it is the legacy of the movements that followed in Minimalism's wake, and that are often canopied under the term "Post-Minimalism" (Land Art, Eccentric Abstraction, and other developments) that is more important.

Quotes
"A shape, a volume, a color, a surface is something itself. It shouldn't be concealed as part of a fairly different whole."
- Donald Judd


Content written by:
  Justin Wolf



We need your donation to maintain and grow The Art Story. Click here to help us.


GROUNDBREAKING WORKS:
Artwork Artwork Artwork
KEY ARTISTS:
 
 
Carl Andre
Quick View      Detail View
 
 
 
Dan Flavin
Quick View      Further Information (External Site)
 
 
 
Robert Irwin
Quick View      Further Information (External Site)
 
 
 
Donald Judd
Quick View      Detail View
 
 
 
Kenneth Noland
Quick View      Detail View
 
 
 
Richard Serra
Quick View      Detail View
 
 
 
Frank Stella
Quick View      Detail View
 
 
 
Sol LeWitt
Quick View      Detail View
 
 
 
Agnes Martin
Quick View      Further Information (External Site)
 
 
 
Robert Morris
Quick View      Further Information (External Site)