Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. As a specific movement in the arts it is identified with developments in post–World War II Western Art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s. Prominent artists associated with this movement include Ad Reinhardt, Tony Smith, Donald Judd, John McCracken, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Larry Bell, Anne Truitt, Yves Klein and Frank Stella. Artists themselves have sometimes reacted against the label due to the negative implication of the work being simplistic. Minimalism is often interpreted as a reaction against Abstract expressionism and a bridge to Postminimal art practices.
Minimal art, minimalism in visual art
Minimalism in visual art, generally referred to as “minimal art”, literalist art and ABC Art emerged in New York in the early 1960s. Initially minimal art appeared in New York in the 60s as new and older artists moved toward geometric abstraction; exploring via painting in the cases of Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman and others; and sculpture in the works of various artists including David Smith, Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and others. Judd’s sculpture was showcased in 1964 at the Green Gallery in Manhattan as were Flavin’s first fluorescent light works, while other leading Manhattan galleries like the Leo Castelli Gallery and the Pace Gallery also began to showcase artists focused on geometric abstraction. In addition there were two seminal and influential museum exhibitions: Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculpture’ shown from April 27 – June 12, 1966 at the Jewish Museum in New York, organized by the museum’s Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Kynaston McShine and Systemic Painting, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curated by Lawrence Alloway also in 1966 that showcased Geometric abstraction in the American art world via Shaped canvas, Color Field, and Hard-edge painting. In the wake of those exhibitions and a few others the art movement called minimal art emerged.
Jean Metzinger, following the Succès de scandale created from the Cubist showing at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, in an interview with Cyril Berger published in Paris-Journal 29 May 1911, stated:
We cubists have only done our duty by creating a new rhythm for the benefit of humanity. Others will come after us who will do the same. What will they find? That is the tremendous secret of the future. Who knows if someday, a great painter, looking with scorn on the often brutal game of supposed colorists and taking the seven colors back to the primordial white unity that encompasses them all, will not exhibit completely white canvases, with nothing, absolutely nothing on them. (Jean Metzinger, 29 May 1911)
Metzinger’s (then) audacious prediction that artists would take abstraction to its logical conclusion by vacating representational subject matter entirely and returning to what Metzinger calls the “primordial white unity”, a “completely white canvas” would be realized two years later. The writer of a satirical manifesto, possibly Francis Picabia, in a publication entitled Evolution de l’art: Vers l’amorphisme, in Les Hommes du Jour (3 May 1913), may have had Metzinger’s vision in mind when the author justified amorphism’s blank canvases by claiming ‘light is enough for us’. With perspective, writes art historian Jeffery S. Weiss, “Vers Amorphisme may be gibberish, but it was also enough of a foundational language to anticipate the extreme reductivist implications of non-objectivity”.
Monochrome painting was initiated at the first Incoherent arts’ exhibition in 1882 in Paris, with a black painting by poet Paul Bilhaud entitled “Combat de Nègres dans un tunnel” (Negroes fight in a tunnel). In the subsequent exhibitions of the Incoherent arts (also in the 1880s) the writer Alphonse Allais proposed seven other monochrome paintings, such as “Première communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par un temps de neige” (“First communion of anaemic young girls in the snow”, white), or “Récolte de la tomate par des cardinaux apoplectiques au bord de la Mer Rouge” (“Tomato harvesting by apoplectic cardinals on the shore of the Red Sea”, red). However, this kind of activity bears more similarity to 20th century Dada, or Neo-Dada, and particularly the works of the Fluxus group of the 1960s, than to 20th century monochrome painting since Malevich.
In a broad and general sense, one finds European roots of minimalism in the geometric abstractions of painters associated with the Bauhaus, in the works of Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and other artists associated with the De Stijl movement, and the Russian Constructivist movement, and in the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. Minimal art is also inspired in part by the paintings of Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Josef Albers, and the works of artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio Morandi, and others. Minimalism was also a reaction against the painterly subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism that had been dominant in the New York School during the 1940s and 1950s.
The wide range of possibilities (including impossibility) of interpretation of monochrome paintings is arguably why the monochrome is so engaging to so many artists, critics, and writers. Although the monochrome has never become dominant and few artists have committed themselves exclusively to it, it has never gone away. It reappears as though a spectre haunting high modernism, or as a symbol of it, appearing during times of aesthetic and sociopolitical upheavals.
The minimalist painters are inspired by two great tutelary figures: Malevich and Ad Reinhardt. The first, first, is a great representative of Suprematism, a movement born in Russia in 1915 that promotes “pure” and abstract painting. Malevich says that painting must free itself from any symbolic or figurative representation and become non-subjective. He created the famous Black Square on a white background in 1915, which made a clean sweep of the ancient pictorial tradition inherited from the Renaissance and declared its death. In this line, Ad Reinhardt made throughout the 1960s and until his death, monochrome paintings in series that make emptiness and nothingness prevail.
Working on a redefinition of art, and painting in particular, Frank Stella continues Ad Reinhardt’s momentum by moving towards geometric abstraction. He creates tableau-objets with original frame shapes, showing straight, concentric or diagonal lines, regular and homogeneous, which owe more to the width of the brush used than to the artist’s hand. He refuses the interpretation in art: what he wants is depersonalize the work of art to end with the figures of genius tortured to the ego oversized to the Jackson Pollock. “My painting is based on the fact that only there is what can be seen there,” says Stella.
The minimalist painters want to limit any trace of pictorial invoice or intervention of the hand of the painter. Also, minimalist works usually consist of two or three colors and basic shapes: round, square, straight lines, etc. Simplicity is paramount and there is no subjective representation behind minimalism; he is devoid of any symbolism and tries to play only on forms and colors avoiding emotion in the literal sense of the term: an art devoid of feelings.
Minimalism in sculpture
Minimalist artists use simple, elementary structures, made of simple materials and often left raw (polished copper, steel), and clean forms, made up of elements below which the form itself dissolves: pavement made of metal tiles (Carl Andre), large folded or rolled metal sheets (Richard Serra), repetition of similar shapes / volumes (Donald Judd), pieces of felt lacerated and deformed by the action of gravity alone (Robert Morris), linear compositions in tubes of neon white or colored (Dan Flavin), square section hollow bars forged in curves and against curves (Albert Hirsch) are characteristic examples of minimalist works. The choice of simple geometric volumes are to be apprehended immediately for what they are (without artifice). The colors, the individual materials allow to produce objects that have no emotional history and therefore the content of the sculpture is none other than the sculpture itself, it is a minimal representation because it is limited to ‘essential.
In addition, minimalism advocates a fusion of artistic genres. For example, Richard Serra’s Promenade at the Grand Palais in 2008 invited the viewer, as its title indicates, to move around the building around the five steel plates. These walks were “punctuated” by music, especially that of Philip Glass as Olivier Mongin points out in the magazine Esprit.
Minimalism in music
Minimalist music is a current of contemporary music that appeared in the 1960s in the United States. Its most famous representatives are: Steve Reich, Michael Nyman, John Adams, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, The Monte Young, Arvo Pärt… The term minimalist is generally considered to be unsuitable for this music, which is also called “Repetitive” because it is partly based on a repetition principle. She has various influences, serialism, the American musical avant-garde around John Cage, as well as jazz, and non-Western music.
The term minimalist music encompasses a broad spectrum of styles, and is sometimes confused with postmodern music. The first minimalist works actually use a rather sparse material, with the use of drones in La Monte Young, or repetition techniques, by phase shift at Steve Reich, or by addition / subtraction of motifs at Philip Glass. Later works, however, deviate more and more from a “minimal” use of musical material, especially at John Adams.
Minimalism in design
The current minimalist design fits into the approach taken at the beginning of xx th century by the Bauhaus; especially by architects and designers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. Some pre-war creations such as Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-zag chair can also be described as “minimal”.
The work of sculptors such as Frank Stella or Donald Judd has had an influence on designers like Shiro Kuramata. Donald Judd also designed furniture.
Among the designers who can be described as minimalist are: Jasper Morrison, Jean-Marie Massaud, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec or Shiro Kuramata with his almost immaterial creations.
In France between 1947 and 1948, Yves Klein conceived his Monotone Symphony (1949, formally The Monotone-Silence Symphony) that consisted of a single 20-minute sustained chord followed by a 20-minute silence – a precedent to both La Monte Young’s drone music and John Cage’s 4′33″. Although Klein had painted monochromes as early as 1949, and held the first private exhibition of this work in 1950, his first public showing was the publication of the Artist’s book Yves: Peintures in November 1954.
Artist and critic Thomas Lawson noted in his 1981 essay “Last Exit: Painting” Artforum, October: 40-47, minimalism did not reject Clement Greenberg’s claims about modernist painting’s reduction to surface and materials so much as take his claims literally. According to Lawson minimalism was the result, even though the term “minimalism” was not generally embraced by the artists associated with it, and many practitioners of art designated minimalist by critics did not identify it as a movement as such. Also taking exception to this claim was Clement Greenberg himself; in his 1978 postscript to his essay Modernist Painting he disavowed this incorrect interpretation of what he said; Greenberg wrote:
There have been some further constructions of what I wrote that go over into preposterousness: That I regard flatness and the inclosing of flatness not just as the limiting conditions of pictorial art, but as criteria of aesthetic quality in pictorial art; that the further a work advances the self-definition of an art, the better that work is bound to be. The philosopher or art historian who can envision me—or anyone at all—arriving at aesthetic judgments in this way reads shockingly more into himself or herself than into my article.
In contrast to the previous decade’s more subjective Abstract Expressionists, with the exceptions of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt; minimalists were also influenced by composers John Cage and LaMonte Young, poet William Carlos Williams, and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. They very explicitly stated that their art was not about self-expression, unlike the previous decade’s more subjective philosophy about art making theirs was ‘objective’. In general, Minimalism’s features included geometric, often cubic forms purged of much metaphor, equality of parts, repetition, neutral surfaces, and industrial materials.
Robert Morris, an influential theorist and artist, wrote a three part essay, “Notes on Sculpture 1-3”, originally published across three issues of Artforum in 1966. In these essays, Morris attempted to define a conceptual framework and formal elements for himself and one that would embrace the practices of his contemporaries. These essays paid great attention to the idea of the gestalt – “parts… bound together in such a way that they create a maximum resistance to perceptual separation.” Morris later described an art represented by a “marked lateral spread and no regularized units or symmetrical intervals…” in “Notes on Sculpture: Beyond Objects”, originally published in Artforum, 1969, continuing to say that “indeterminacy of arrangement of parts is a literal aspect of the physical existence of the thing.” The general shift in theory of which this essay is an expression suggests the transitions into what would later be referred to as postminimalism. One of the first artists specifically associated with minimalism was the painter, Frank Stella, whose early “pinstripe” paintings were included in the 1959 show, Americans, organized by Dorothy Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The width of the stripes in Frank Stellas’s pinstripe paintings were determined by the dimensions of the lumber used for stretchers, visible as the depth of the painting when viewed from the side, used to construct the supportive chassis upon which the canvas was stretched. The decisions about structures on the front surface of the canvas were therefore not entirely subjective, but pre-conditioned by a “given” feature of the physical construction of the support. In the show catalog, Carl Andre noted, “Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting.” These reductive works were in sharp contrast to the energy-filled and apparently highly subjective and emotionally charged paintings of Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline and, in terms of precedent among the previous generation of abstract expressionists, leaned more toward the less gestural, often somber, color field paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Although Stella received immediate attention from the MoMA show, artists including Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Robert Motherwell and Robert Ryman had also begun to explore stripes, monochromatic and Hard-edge formats from the late 50s through the 1960s.
Because of a tendency in minimal art to exclude the pictorial, illusionistic and fictive in favor of the literal, there was a movement away from painterly and toward sculptural concerns. Donald Judd had started as a painter, and ended as a creator of objects. His seminal essay, “Specific Objects” (published in Arts Yearbook, 1965), was a touchstone of theory for the formation of minimalist aesthetics. In this essay, Judd found a starting point for a new territory for American art, and a simultaneous rejection of residual inherited European artistic values. He pointed to evidence of this development in the works of an array of artists active in New York at the time, including Jasper Johns, Dan Flavin and Lee Bontecou. Of “preliminary” importance for Judd was the work of George Earl Ortman, who had concretized and distilled painting’s forms into blunt, tough, philosophically charged geometries. These Specific Objects inhabited a space not then comfortably classifiable as either painting or sculpture. That the categorical identity of such objects was itself in question, and that they avoided easy association with well-worn and over-familiar conventions, was a part of their value for Judd.
This movement was heavily criticised by modernist formalist art critics and historians. Some critics thought minimal art represented a misunderstanding of the modern dialectic of painting and sculpture as defined by critic Clement Greenberg, arguably the dominant American critic of painting in the period leading up to the 1960s. The most notable critique of minimalism was produced by Michael Fried, a formalist critic, who objected to the work on the basis of its “theatricality”. In Art and Objecthood (published in Artforum in June 1967) he declared that the minimal work of art, particularly minimal sculpture, was based on an engagement with the physicality of the spectator. He argued that work like Robert Morris’s transformed the act of viewing into a type of spectacle, in which the artifice of the act observation and the viewer’s participation in the work were unveiled. Fried saw this displacement of the viewer’s experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art. Fried’s essay was immediately challenged by postminimalist and earth artist Robert Smithson in a letter to the editor in the October issue of Artforum. Smithson stated the following: “What Fried fears most is the consciousness of what he is doing–namely being himself theatrical.”
In addition to the already mentioned Robert Morris, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Robert Ryman and Donald Judd other minimal artists include: Robert Mangold, Larry Bell, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Ronald Bladen, Agnes Martin, Jo Baer, Paul Mogensen, Ronald Davis, Charles Hinman, David Novros, Brice Marden, Blinky Palermo, John McCracken, Ad Reinhardt, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, Tony Smith, Patricia Johanson, and Anne Truitt.
Ad Reinhardt, actually an artist of the Abstract Expressionist generation, but one whose reductive nearly all-black paintings seemed to anticipate minimalism, had this to say about the value of a reductive approach to art:
The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature.
Reinhardt’s remark directly addresses and contradicts Hans Hofmann’s regard for nature as the source of his own abstract expressionist paintings. In a famous exchange between Hofmann and Jackson Pollock as told by Lee Krasner in an interview with Dorothy Strickler (1964-11-02) for the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art. In Krasner’s words,
“When I brought Hofmann up to meet Pollock and see his work which was before we moved here, Hofmann’s reaction was — one of the questions he asked Jackson was, do you work from nature? There were no still lifes around or models around and Jackson’s answer was, I am nature. And Hofmann’s reply was, Ah, but if you work by heart, you will repeat yourself. To which Jackson did not reply at all.” The meeting between Pollock and Hofmann took place in 1942.
Source from Wikipedia