Minimalism emerged in New York in the early 1960s among artists who were self-consciously renouncing recent art they thought had become stale and academic: its originality was depleted. A wave of new influences and rediscovered styles led younger artists to question conventional boundaries between various media. The new art favored the cool over the “dramatic”: their sculptures were frequently fabricated from industrial materials and emphasized anonymity over the expressive excess of Abstract Expressionism. Painters and sculptors avoided overt symbolism and emotional content, but instead called attention to the materiality of the works. By the end of the 1970s, Minimalism had triumphed in America and Europe through a combination of forces including museum curators, art dealers, and publications, plus new systems of private and government patronage. And members of a new movement, Post-Minimalism, were already challenging its authority and were thus a testament to how important Minimalism itself became.
Minimalists distanced themselves from the Abstract Expressionists by removing suggestions of biography from their art or, indeed, metaphors of any kind. This denial of expression coupled with an interest in making objects that avoided the appearance of fine art led to the creation of sleek, geometric works that purposefully and radically eschew conventional aesthetic appeal.
The post-Sputnik era revived active interest in Russian Constructivism. The Constructivist approach led to the use of modular fabrication and industrial materials in preference to the craft techniques of traditional sculpture. The readymades of Marcel Duchamp were also inspirational examples of the employment of prefabricated materials. Based on these sources, Minimalists created works that resembled factory-built commodities and upended traditional definitions of art whose meaning was tied to a narrative or to the artist.
The use of prefabricated industrial materials and simple, often repeated geometric forms together with the emphasis placed on the physical space occupied by the artwork led to some works that forced the viewer to confront the arrangement and scale of the forms. Viewers also were led to experience qualities of weight, height, gravity, agility or even the appearance of light as a material presence. They were often faced with artworks that demanded a physical as well as a visual response.
Minimalists sought to breakdown traditional notions of sculpture and to erase distinctions between painting and sculpture. In particular, they rejected the formalist dogma espoused by the critic Clement Greenberg that placed limitations on the art of painting and privileged artists who seemed to paint under his direction. The Minimalists’ more democratic point of view was set out in writings as well as exhibitions by their leaders Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris.
Most Important Art
Artist: Tony Smith
The artist’s specifications for the sculpture were as follows: “a six-foot cube of quarter-inch hot-rolled steel with diagonal internal bracing.” The dimensions were determined, according to Tony Smith, by the proportions of the human body. Smith explained that a larger scale would have endowed Die with the stature of a “monument,” while a smaller one would have reduced it to a mere “object.” Weighing approximately 500 pounds and resting on the museum floor, the sculpture invites us to walk around it and experience it sequentially, one or two sides at a time. Like other examples of Minimalism, its unreadable surface and frank lack of visual appeal come across as almost hostile in its undermining of traditional understandings of art as something aesthetically or emotionally appealing, showing the artist’s rejection of Abstraction Expressionism’s hands-on approach to art making.
The sculpture’s deceptively simple title invites multiple associations: it alludes to die casting, to one of a pair of dice, and, ultimately, to death. As Smith remarked, “Six feet has a suggestion of being cooked. Six foot box. Six foot under.” Rationality, evoked by Die’s purely geometric configuration, is countered by the sculpture’s brooding presence. Meaning becomes relative rather than absolute, something generated through the interplay of word and object. Weaving together strains of architecture, industrial manufacture, and the found object, Smith radically transformed the way sculpture could look, how it could be made, and, ultimately, how it could be understood.
Steel – National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Die Fahne Hoch! (1959)
Artist: Frank Stella
Artwork description & Analysis: Unquestionably a key monument in modern art, this work, one of the series of Black Paintings done by Frank Stella, is a bold counter-movement against the eminent Abstract Expressionist painters. It is a monochrome rectangular painting on a heavy chassis projecting from the wall into surrounding space as if urging the viewer to move back. Magnetized, the viewer is drawn closer seeking to read the pattern of pinstripes on the surface. These stripes are in fact the raw canvas revealed between broad black stripes painted with few visible brushstrokes. The painting is an unframed, flat abstraction and would appear to be meaningless except for its title: Die Fahne Hoch! (Raise High the Flag!), the opening words of the Nazi anthem. Stella has denied any political connection, and one could possibly see the title as a wave to Jasper Johns, whose American flag paintings of 1954-55 were met with praise by his critics, but also a general public bewilderment.
Stella challenged the traditional dichotomy between painting and sculpture that was championed by Clement Greenberg and other modernists, particularly those associated with Abstract Expressionism. In particular, Greenberg felt that each medium and, indeed, each art form should be pure with no overlap with other media, an idea that is directly disputed by Stella’s canvas/object and most Minimalists.
Scholars have read the title as an example of Minimalists’ often-in-your-face aesthetics and their refusal to make works that are visually appealing, instead forcing the viewer to confront works on a physical level as a way of disputing the conventional relationship between the viewer and the work of art in which the viewer simply appreciates or admires the visual appeal of a work.
Enamel on canvas – Whitney Museum of American Art
Artist: Carl Andre
Artwork description & Analysis: Carl Andre’s Lever was the most audacious entry at the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition that introduced the public to Minimalism. This row of 137 firebricks aligned to project out from the wall and straight across the floor was likened by Andre to a fallen column. Lever startled gallery visitors, interrupted their movement and, in its simplicity, was annoying. Made from easily available building materials (“anyone could do it: where was the art?”), Lever demanded respect from thoughtful viewers while undermining traditional artistic values. Such provocations became routine for Andre: “my ambition as an artist is to be the ‘Turner of matter.’ As Turner severed color from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction.” He went on to describe wood as the “mother of matter” and praised bricklayers as “people of fine craft.”
In this way, Andre’s Lever along with many Minimalist works challenged how art was situated in the gallery and how viewers interacted with it. Art no longer was hung discreetly on the wall or placed on a pedestal in the corner as something to enjoy in a purely visual way. It now required a more complex and thoughtful interaction from the viewer. This piece is made of nontraditional materials that call to mind industrial or building materials that require no manipulation from the hand of the artist. While the work is nonrepresentational, the title is suggestive of manual labor.
Fireplace bricks – Collection of the Artist
Untitled (mirrored cubes) (1965/71)
Artist: Robert Morris
Artwork description & Analysis: This group of four mirrored cubes illustrates the artist’s development as both a Conceptual artist and a Minimalist over a five-year period. Robert Morris began by producing large grey painted plywood boxes that were first used as stage props for a ballet company where he also performed. Their regular geometry and inexpressive surfaces allied his art with the developing Minimalist style, winning him both a solo exhibition and a slot in the landmark 1966 Primary Structures show. By that time Morris had achieved the status of a spokesman for the group with a series of academic essays on sculpture published in Artforum, which were widely debated.
These mirrored cubes advanced his interest in the visual properties of materials and modes of perception. The fact that Morris covers his cubes in mirrors forces the viewers to confront themselves in the act of looking rather than simply and placidly admiring the work of art. The size of the piece is roughly the height of a table or countertop, so, like Carl Andre, Morris offers the viewer a kinesthetic or somatic experience that is also outside the traditional art experience. It is this invasion of the center of the gallery space by an object and the concomitant evolving of the art experience beyond the purely visual that led Micheal Fried to call the movement “theatrical.”
Mirrored wooden boxes – Tate Gallery, London
Artist: Donald Judd
Artwork description & Analysis: Judd was an important theoretician for Minimalism and one of the key proponents of enlivening gallery spaces by placing objects in a non-conventional manner, in his case by hanging art vertically on the wall. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Judd created multiple versions of this untitled work, always retaining the same scale but never using the same color or materials. He wanted his work to exist in real three-dimensional space rather than representing a fictive three-dimensional space or narrative as in traditional painting and sculpture. Referring to his sculptures as “primary structures,” he discarded conventional elements of sculpture (the plinth, the figure, etc.), and instead created objects that, although oddly cold, everyday, and industrial in appearance, emphasize the upright in a way that strongly suggests a repetition of the observer’s own body. Though they hang on the wall like a painting, they extend from the wall like a sculpture, thus challenging traditional distinctions between these two media. Judd’s use of prefabricated industrial materials in repeated identical shapes reference factory-built commodities and the materiality of the media, while also underscoring the Minimalist goal of reducing the visible hand of the artist in order to free the work of any emotion or referentiality, something that is further underscored by the work’s lack of a title.
Brass and colored fluorescent Plexiglas on steel brackets – Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969)
Artist: Richard Serra
Artwork description & Analysis: Minimalist works were often larger than life and, especially in the case of Serra, sometimes pushed boundaries in ways that conveyed a sense of risk to the viewer. While this piece offers the viewer yet another cube, it is a cube that has been deconstructed. The four sides are propped against one another and are only held together by their own weight and resistance. Considering that each of the four plates weighs 500 pounds, the parenthetical title “house of cards” is fairly ironic while also suggesting the possibility that the four sides could easily collapse like a house of cards. The size of the work and its seeming instability could thus be seen as vaguely threatening for the viewer. In typical Minimalist fashion, the work is made of starkly industrial materials that show no manipulation from the hand of the artist. The work is placed in the center of a gallery space that invites the viewer to walk around it, something which yields no further enlightenment about its meaning or any additional visual appeal, as the work is uniform on all sides.
Lead antinomy – MoMA, New York
Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off (1972)
Artist: Sol LeWitt
Artwork description & Analysis: LeWitt was a key intellectual of the Minimalist group and is most known for his open-air, modular structures. He once wrote that “the most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting.” This comment speaks to what Minimalist artists aimed to achieve, which was to use objects in and for themselves, not as symbols or as representations of something else (as Frank Stella put it on another occasion: “What you see is what you see.”). This lack of meaning is especially the case in works that remain untitled or that have purely descriptive titles, as do LeWitt’s. Despite claiming the cube as uninteresting in itself, LeWitt would most often use this form as a jumping off point for his works, often employing them in a grid-like format that underscores his interest in systems and modules that could be repeated and expanded indefinitely, sometimes to the point of irrationality or visual chaos. The modularity, absence of color, and geometric starkness of his pieces all fit within the Minimalist aesthetic, as do their placement in the center of the gallery or museum space.
Enameled aluminum – Tate Gallery, London
The X (1965)
Artist: Ronald Bladen
Artwork description & Analysis: Bladen was older than the other Minimalists and is sometimes considered a father figure for the movement. This work is typical of his output, which is characterized by large-scale sculptures that are often monochromatic and made up of simple shapes, much like the works of other artists in the group. Bladen’s works differ slightly at times from more mainstream Minimalism, as his pieces frequently moved beyond basic geometric shapes that were most often used by others in the group. The finish on the works was, however, typically slick, retaining a factory-made quality that erased the hand of the artist, thus setting the work apart from AbEx and modernism. The “X” is an inherently negative symbol, as the letter is used to eliminate or “x things out.” Its use here, along with the choice of monochrome black as a color, suggests the negation of traditional art, while its imposing size (24 feet) towers over the viewer to an even greater extent than works by Serra, something which is more evident in a gallery or museum setting.
Painted Aluminum – Estate of the Artist
Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977 (1977)
Artist: Dan Flavin
Artwork description & Analysis: Flavin’s works differ in some ways from those of other Minimalists, who shared the same interests in prefabricated materials, transforming the traditional viewing experience, and honoring the influence of Russian Constructivism in their use of repetitive, modular forms. In Flavin’s work, however, the work of art is not comprised of the material itself, in this case the fluorescent light fixtures and colored tubes, but is instead the shape and color of the light emitted by the tubes. Flavin literally sculpts and defines spaces with colored light, creating a completely new form of art that is most notable for its lack of materiality, yet seemingly solid presence that almost appears to invade the viewer’s space.
He used only prefabricated commercially available tubes in their standard sizes, thus eliminating the hand of the artist, but he would often arrange the fixtures to create various shapes. In this example, the fixtures are placed to form a grid, a traditional Minimalist shape because of its strict geometry and mathematical precision. The work is dedicated to Harold Joachim, a British idealist philosopher of the early twentieth century, who studied truth and specifically how humans arrive at their knowledge or truth claims. By naming the work after Joachim, Flavin may be making an argument for the essential truth-value of his art and for his art as the pared down essence of art.
Fluorescent light fixtures and tubes – Collection of the Artist