Consider the abstract expressionists – the big robust dynamism of Jackson Pollock’s splashes of paint, the dramatic emotions of hatred and love evoked by Willem de Kooning, or the blocks of bold rectangular bands that epitomize Mark Rothko’s oeuvre. Now consider the complete opposite. Minimalism constitutes of a school of abstraction devoid of personal expression – or at least where personal expression is kept to a minimum. Geometric lines meet a tangent of utmost simplicity, and forms deliberately lack expressive content.
What drives minimalist artists in creating what Frank Stella describes as “what you see is what you see”, is the belief that art, in all its essence and glory, should not refer to anything but itself. Artists who delved into the minimalist art movement did not prioritize personal expression, but rather stuck the art itself at the forefront of their creations. They push viewers to comprehend the reality of art that is presented to them, their medium, and their materials.
Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II 1959
Minimalist Art emerged in the 1960s, rather soon after Abstract Expressionism dominated the 50s. Overarching motivations for Minimalist artists and the necessity for its movement consisted of their disdain towards how abstract expressionist art reflected too much of its creator; they felt these works were pretentious, unnecessarily personal, yet unsubstantial in subject and context. As such, they turned towards the polar end of this spectrum, creating works that attempted to be wholly objective, unexpressive, and non-referential.
In an effort to contrast emotive canvases that abstract expressionism trademarked, Frank Stella (formerly an abstract expressionist), created his Black Paintings; these paintings still define him to this day. Stella, one of the first artists to be specifically linked to minimalist art, was instantly acclaimed for this series. At only 23 years of age, he presented four of his ‘Black Paintings’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This series eventually grew to include two-dozen large-scale canvases, with each comprised of “concentric bands or stripes” in black house paint on raw canvas, “at once stark, deadpan, rigorous, imposing, velvety – diagrammatic but also tactile”.
Installation view of "Primary Structures" at the Jewish Museum, New York, 1966 (from left: Richard Artschwager, Pink Tablecloth, 1964; Anne Truitt, Sea Garden, 1964; Paul Frazier, Pink Split, 1965)
A key point for the minimalist art movement was additionally the group exhibit entitled ‘Primary Structures’, that featured works by Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Tony Smith. Held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966, this exhibit turned out to be a critical and media success. The artworks that made up this exhibition comprised of bare, almost naked materials with smooth and shiny surface. It provoked the train of thought that the artist need not be a “maker” of art, as the artworks were not made with their own hands, but rather instigated an “artist as designer” tag.
Mark di Suvero, an artist who participated in this exhibition, famously remarked, “Donald Judd cannot qualify as an artist because he doesn’t do the work”, to which Judd replied, “The point is not whether one makes the work or not… I don’t see… why one technique is any more essentially art than another…” What this exhibition then gave way to was this new way of expressing ideas and space (sans any actual personal expression) that did not rely on the artist, but instead the final result.
Installation view of Other Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum, 2014, New York.
Across the realm of artists, architects and designers who partook in the minimalist art movement, the one key aspect they were targeting was that of wanting viewers to have immediate, absolute, and purely visual response to their work. They believed that with this visual response came a personal connection and experience with their works, allowing them to engage with its qualities of colour, form, space and medium. They wanted to detract viewers from the whole “oh this looks akin to a ________” trajectory and mode of viewing art, and instead de-mystify works to their most basal entity.
Quite simply, literally and arguably aggressively, they removed anything that suggested self-expressionism, including composition, the complexity of form, themes, metaphorical associations, symbolism, any note of spiritual transcendence, representation, references, meaning, sentiment, social commentary, traditional elements, and any sign of the artist’s thought process.
What this led to were minimalist artworks that stood as they were in their literal presence. Monochromatic palettes of primary colours were adhered to, presenting the ongoing necessity of neutrality. By now it has been made clear that nothing, not even colour, was used to express any meaning or mood. However, what it did serve purpose to in this context was that of delineating space. They added this to their constructions of unitary, geometric forms, as they do not have the capacity to represent anything of the outside world nor the narrative of any story.
Minimalists also veered towards the use of plain, industrial, factory-made or store-bought, mass-produced materials, as this removed any ‘mark’ or signature style that an artist might impose onto their works; these relatively modern materials also defied traditional artistic materials (think oil on canvas). Through these raw and unaltered materials, the minimalist artworks created sought to further disregard any symbolization.
Installation view, Ellsworth Kelly at the FLAG Art Foundation. Photography by Steven Probert.
In order to truly understand this accurately, here are some minimalist paintings, sculptures, photographs, architecture and designs which are identified as minimalist works:
Gene Davis, Apricot Ripple, 1968
Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977) Image courtesy of Guggenheim.
Luke Heng, Betwixt #3
Available on The Artling
Richard Serra, The Matter of Time, 2005. Image courtesy of Guggenheim.
Dan Graham, Stage Set for Music no. 2 for Glenn, 2018. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ligurian Sea, Saviore, 1982
Michael Kenna, Log and Plane, Boca Raton, Florida, USA, 1992
Nendo, denqul for Sugita Ace, 2018
Naoto Fukasawa Design, Shelf X / 2005 / B&B Italia /
Tadao Ando Architects, Church of the Light. Osaka, Japan.
Casa Barragan / Luis Barragan, Cuerámaro, Mexico.
To browse more Minimalist works on The Artling, click here.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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