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Minimalism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term used in the 20th century, in particular from the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials. It was first used by David Burlyuk in the catalogue introduction for an exhibition of John Graham’s paintings at the Dudensing Gallery in New York in 1929. Burlyuk wrote: ‘Minimalism derives its name from the minimum of operating means. Minimalist painting is purely realistic—the subject being the painting itself.’ The term gained currency in the 1960s. Accounts and explanations of Minimalism varied considerably, as did the range of work to which it was related. This included the monochrome paintings of Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella and Brice Marden, and even aspects of Pop art and Post-painterly Abstraction. Typically the precedents cited were Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, the Suprematist compositions of Kazimir Malevich and Barnett Newman’s Abstract Expressionist paintings. The rational grid paintings of Agnes Martin were also mentioned in connection with such Minimalist artists as Sol LeWitt.

After the work of such critics as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, analyses of Minimalism tended to focus exclusively on the three-dimensional work of such American artists as Carl André, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, LeWitt, Robert Morris and Tony Smith, although Smith himself never fully subscribed to Minimalism. These artists never worked or exhibited together as a self-defined group, yet their art shared certain features: geometric forms and use of industrial materials or such modern technology as the fluorescent electric lights that appeared in Flavin’s works. Minimalists also often created simple modular and serial arrangements of forms that are examples of Systems art. LeWitt’s serial works included wall drawings as well as sculptures.

Judd and Morris were the principal artists to write about Minimalism. Judd’s most significant contribution to this field was the article ‘Specific Objects’ (1965). Judd’s article began by announcing the birth of a new type of three-dimensional work that could not be classified in terms of either painting or sculpture and, in effect, superseded both traditions. Judd’s concept became retrospectively identified with his own boxes and stark geometric reliefs of the period . Originally, however, he explained his idea with reference to the work of a heterogeneous selection of artists, including Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, Klein, Yayoi Kusama (b 1929), Claes Oldenburg, Richard Smith, Frank Stella and H. C. Westermann (1922–81). The article was also copiously illustrated with works by such artists as Richard Artschwager, Flavin, Jasper Johns, Phillip King, Morris, Rauschenberg, Stella, and with one of Judd’s own pieces. Judd distinguished the new work by means of its compositional ‘wholeness’, which, unlike previous art, was not ‘made part by part, by addition’. He was later to focus the critical implications of this distinction with a dismissive reference (1969) to the ‘Cubist fragmentation’ of Anthony Caro’s work. For Judd, his own work achieved its formal integrity principally by adapting into a third dimension the ‘singleness’ that he observed in the compositions of such painters as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.

Morris’s influential ‘Notes on Sculpture’ appeared a year after Judd’s article. In it he established the criteria by which his own recent work could be evaluated. Like Judd, he repudiated an aesthetic based on Cubist principles. ‘The sensuous object, resplendent with compressed internal relations, has had to be rejected’ (Artforum, v/2 (Oct 1966), p. 23). In its place Morris proposed a more compact, ‘unitary’ art form. He was especially drawn to simple, regular and irregular polyhedrons. Influenced by theories in psychology and phenomenology, Morris argued that these configurations established in the mind of the beholder ‘strong gestalt sensation’, whereby form and shape could be grasped intuitively. Judd and Morris both attempted to reduce the importance of aesthetic judgement in modernist criticism by connecting the question of the specificity of the medium to generic value. Nevertheless, a distinction between the categories of art and non-art was maintained with Judd’s claim that ‘A work needs only to be interesting’.

For Greenberg and Fried, Minimalist work was united by the threat it posed to their modernist aesthetic. The modernist response to Minimalism was outlined in Greenberg’s ‘Recentness of Sculpture’ and Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ (both 1967). Both critics were troubled by claims for Minimalism as a new art form, and were also concerned at the Minimalist elimination of complex compositional relations and subtle nuances of form, which they believed to be essential qualities of modernist sculpture. The critical resistance that Minimalism met in its initial stages persisted, and censure arose not only from modernist critics but also from the tabloid press. This was particularly evident in the abuse that was given to André’s sculpture made from building bricks, Equivalent VIII (1966; London, Tate), upon the occasion of its exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1976.

From the 1960s the Minimalists’ work remained remarkably consistent, continuing its geometric and serial forms (e.g. LeWitt’s Cube Structures Based on Five Modules, 600×800×700 mm, 1971–4; Edinburgh, N.G. Mod. A.). Conceptual art inherited many of the concerns as well as the contradictions of Minimalist discourse. Attempts were made by Joseph Kosuth, among others, to resolve its complex views on the relationship between aesthetic judgement and the art object. Minimalism’s sense of ‘theatricality’ stimulated much subsequent work in the fields of installation and performance art, where it helped facilitate a critical engagement with the spectator’s perception of space and time. The concept of ‘theatricality’ was first used in connection with Minimalism by Michael Fried to characterize the absence of ‘presentness’ in the spatial and temporal experience of the art work. While Fried was critical of this situation, his analysis led, by default, to a reassessment of Minimalism from an anti-humanist perspective.

Christopher Want
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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