Art Dictionary

Minimal Art

Charlotte Posenenske,  Series E Revolving Vane

Charlotte Posenenske, Series E Revolving Vane, 1967/68–2011, authorized reconstruction with certificate of the Estate

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Elementary shapes, series, industrial materials and methods of production are hallmarks of Minimal Art, which developed in the 1960s as an alternative to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

“What you see is what you see.” (Frank Stella)

“The objects should have the objective character of industrial products. They should not signify anything beyond what they are.” (Charlotte Posenenske)

Simple metal plates laid out in square, walkable surfaces on the ground by Carl Andre; an industrially produced neon light attached at a diagonal on the wall by Dan Flavin; boxes made of metal and Plexiglas arranged in rows by Donald Judd; grid structures made of steel or aluminum, continually recombined in new variations by Sol Sol LeWitt; L-shaped plywood hooks presented in various situations by Robert Morris: these are descriptions of object-like works created by major representatives of Minimal Art, made in the early 1960s in North America, mainly in studios New York and Los Angeles.

The artists were rebelling against the emotional gestures of Abstract Expressionism and the trivial iconography of Pop Art. Characteristic factors are the use of elementary, often geometrical shapes; the non-discriminating arrangement of three-dimensional objects into series, and the application of industrially produced materials and production methods. With this they radically altered the concept of the work of art. The works of Minimal Art, which are considered exclusively part of the sculptural field, not only avoid any sort of individual artist’s signature, but also any kind of illusionary, metaphorical, or symbolic interpretation. The work is, what it is. Form and content are one. As Frank Stella said: “What you see is what you see.”

Despite this programmatic non-referentialism the sculptures were not regarded as complete works of art unto themselves. Rather, they were seen through the correlations of the individual elements to each other and most especially through their relationship to the surrounding space. “Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space … which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art,” wrote Donald Judd in his essay, “Specific Objects.” An unmediated perception of material and space in a newly created relationship involving the work of art, the site, and the observer, as the protagonists of Minimal Art vehemently formulated this central issue.

The term Minimal Art was coined in 1965 by the English philosopher Richard Wollheim in an essay of the same name, published in Arts Magazine. However, he was not describing the new art movement, but the “minimal art content” of essential trends of the time period, as reflected in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Ad Reinhardt’s almost monochromatic canvases, or Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine Paintings. Art critics were the first to apply the term to the new movement, which was described early on as ABC Art, Cool Art, Receptive Art, Primary Structures, or Literalist Art. The artists themselves found this term insufficient. Sol LeWitt, for example, said ironically, “Recently there has been much written about Minimal Art, but I have not discovered anyone who admits to doing this kind of thing.” In the meantime the first survey exhibition of Minimalist works, Primary Structures, opened to the public at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966.

At first Minimal Art’s reduced formal vocabulary baffled both the public and the critics, who wondered: is this still art? The purchase of a work by Carl Andre by the Tate Gallery in London became a scandal in the press: “Bricks are not works of art. Bricks are bricks. One can build walls with them or toss them into the window of a jewelry shop, but one cannot pile them into two rows on top of each other and call it a sculpture,” wrote the Daily Mirror. Yet, soon the Minimalists were promoted out of the Pop critical circles, mainly by the art press; their works were preferred to works of Op Art, which many considered banal, European-dominated trompe l’oeil, and thus Minimal Art ultimately became one of the last “isms” in the canon of historical art movements.

Neo-dada assemblage and object art made crucial contributions to the development of Minimal Art, but painting also played a pioneering role: Color Field and Hard Edge painting were formal antecedents; paintings—such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine Paintings, Jasper Johns' Targets or Flag Paintings, Frank Stella’s Black Paintings or Shaped Canvases, which had become more like objects—were also an important foundation for this art movement.

Minimal Art itself exercised influence over movements such as Land Art and Process Art, but, above all, it provided crucial ideas for Conceptual Art. Although the term Minimal Art refers to the visual arts, Minimalist tendencies can also be found in other artistic disciplines such as music, dance, literature, architecture, and design.

Minimal Art is regarded as the epitome of a genuine American art movement and is usually associated with mostly with the few artists mentioned above, who also attracted attention in Germany in the second half of the 1960s. A traveling exhibition of Minimal Art first seen in The Hague in 1968 is considered one of the catalysts; it was seen a little later in Düsseldorf and Berlin. Another seminal show was the 4th documenta in 1968 in Kassel, which presented Pop Art as well as the abstract, reductive tendencies in American art.

However, besides classic Minimal Art, Germany also developed a Minimalism of its own in the 1960s, inspired by such groups as the European Zero movement, with its centers in Düsseldorf, Milan, Paris, and Amsterdam, as well as by the exploration of abstract art with Constructivist and Concrete tendencies. Representing this specifically German Minimalism are such artists as Charlotte Posenenske, Hanne Darboven, and Franz Erhard Walther; with sculpture, wall reliefs, paintings, and drawings, it encompassed a broad field of artistic media.

Furthermore, it should be noted, the American Minimalists did not create their works entirely out of the “American spirit.” Instead, they developed out of the interactions involved in the artistic debates of the time period: In their writings, for example, they certainly referred to the European traditions that followed in the wake of the Bauhaus and Suprematism, and to Russian avant-garde art, such as Kasimir Malevich’s Constructivism.

Since the 1960s artists such as Félix González-Torres, Rodney Graham, Mona Hatoum, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Santiago Sierra, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rosemarie Trockel, Rachel Whiteread, and Andrea Zittel have picked up on the formally reduced vocabulary of Minimal Art in many different ways, and have continued to enrich it to this day, for instance, by taking social and political approaches.

And Minimal Art has also reappeared in our everyday culture: “Minimalism lives” say Neo-Minimalists who find the consumer- and experience-oriented lifestyle excessive, and who are once again rendering homage to the saying “less is more.”

July 24, 2013 Stefanie Gommel

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