1960: Minimalism or the Renewal of Modern Art

Minimalism, Un arrangement floral disposé devant «Blue Green Yellow Orange Red», 1968, Ellsworth Kelly
«Blue Green Yellow Orange Red», 1968, Ellsworth Kelly

Minimalism. You might have heard about it several times without really knowing what it meant. Or even worse, you imagine that behind these works that look so cold and soulless hides an army of artists whose only ambition is that of producing works that are intellectually inaccessible to the common mortals. That’s definitely not the case, and Artsper is here to prove it to you. We’ll make it simple, but not too…”pop”.

Minimalism, Ad Reinhardt Ultimate painting
Ad Reinhardt, Ultimate painting #6, 1960

Let’s have a look back

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, in the United States, the great artists were Rothko, Pollock, Warhol … minimal art, a term which can only be used for American artists, is opposed to all the concepts and theories of art critic Clement Greenberg, whose name remains associated with the triumph of the New York school and who “preaches” principles like the absolute flatness of the pictorial surface, illustrated particularly by the two major art movements of the ‘60s, abstract expressionism (Rothko and Pollock) and Pop Art (Warhol).

Minimalism, Frank Stella, mas o menos
Frank Stella, Mas o menos

The description of Frank Stella’s works made by Carl Andre explains one of the facets of minimalism: “Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting. Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting […] Frank Stella’s painting is not symbolic. His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting.” That’s right, minimalism comes as a reaction to the colorful sentimental excesses of abstract expressionism. So, minimalist artists should rather be placed in the lineage of Malevich and Ad Reinhardt’s Ultimate Paintings.

There’s an absence of feelings in minimalism, shared by artists such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, or Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt, even if the latters’ relationship with the movement is not that close. A Cartesian movement pushed to the extreme, preaching that everything there is to see is what can be seen.

Minimalism, Equivalent VIII 1966 by Carl Andre born 1935
Carl André, Equivalent VIII

Extreme sobriety is one of the common qualities shared by the work of these artists, but it is not the essential one. Presenting their works only from the angle of their simplicity or asceticism seemed to them inappropriate, to the point that they rejected the term of minimalism that had been attached to them by Richard Wollheim in Arts Magazine. But labels tend to stick around.

Minimalism or the abandonment of composition

While the use of rather cheap materials and a the unpretentious presentation of the works justifies the term chosen by Wolheim, the forerunners of minimalism don’t profess an art of reduction, but rather reinterpret modern art’s great idea to eliminate the composition, in order to create an art that is certainly less spectacular, but more unitary and more true. These artists previously fought against the perpetration of painting as the only possible and adequate vehicle to art and proposed to substitute the element of illusion to which painting is necessarily subjected (unlike photography for example) with real things in real space. Minimalism is therefore no longer minor art, it is a form of art more deeply rooted in reality.

If traditional painting seems to be permanently abandoned, and not without reason, sculpture in the round is not the ultimate recourse of minimalism, although they are pretty closely connected. The art form that arises from this complex movement is the result of a tridimensional work that skillfully blends painting and sculpture to become “specific objects”, to use the term employed by Donald Judd in his 1965 manifesto, “Specific Objects”. At the time he had his first solo exhibition at the Green Gallery in New York in 1964, Judd had already abandoned painting in favour of the creation of various objects. His text, a major essay that marked contemporary art, claims that modernity’s most representative art form is neither painting nor sculpture, but a new virtual medium, “the tridimensional work”; as we have already stated, his position is quite contrary to Greenberg’s principles. His radical text confirms Judd very quickly as the undisputed forerunner of the movement, but he refutes the term.

Minimalism, Judd Stack
Donald Judd, Stack

Minimalism, art of visible without concession:

What should we think of Stella’s great monochromes? Do they qualify as paintings? Not at all, because these works give the impression of plates. Minimalism is the art of the visible, without any compromise.

The work and the thinking of minimalist artists deal first of all with the perception of objects and their relation to space. Their works are revealing of the surrounding space that they come to include as a determining element. They are intentionally cold and neutral, but they call for the reflection of the viewer, who becomes completely involved in the artistic process. The idea is more important than the production process and the signified is more important than the signifier. These theories had many detractors, especially from the Arte Povera movement, but they unquestionably marked contemporary art, up to conceptual art, which pushed the premise of the domination of the idea over the production even further. For minimalist artists, the artist’s hand and gesture disappear.

Minimalism, Robert Morris L beam
Robert Morris, L Beam

Contrary to abstract art and to Clement Greenberg’s modernist thinking, minimalism is not totally self-sufficient. The presence of the spectator is required in order to validate the experience. There are of course divergent ideas within this group that has difficulties finding an identity. For example, for Robert Morris, color is completely incompatible with the highlighting of a work’s structure. Flavin and Judd are literally opposed to this idea and think that space is better highlighted by the use of color.

Minimalism, Corners, Barriers and Corridors, New York
Corners, Barriers and Corridors, New York

Minimal art is a complex movement whose ideas will be adopted by the post-minimalist artists such as Richard Serra or Keith Sonnier. Concepts such as the relation to space and the economy of means are still dominant in their practice.

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