A Movement in a Moment: Minimalism
How a band of NYC artists rejected the ideas of an earlier generation, reducing art to its essentials
16 Americans, the 1959-1960 painting exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, closed 55 years ago this month. As an show, it offered plenty to shock and challenge traditional art lovers. Yet, alongside the bright canvases of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Elsworth Kelly were a series of simple, monochromatic works that altered the course of contemporary art, not so much through what they represented, but rather through what they left out.
As the exhibition’s catalogue text explained, “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."
Stella's stark simple images, which later became known as The Black Paintings, accompanied by their limited symbolic potential marked the beginning of the art world’s most reductive movement, Minimalism.
The catalogue’s choice of wording was telling; this lack of interest in ‘expression’ hints at the kind of art Stella was reacting against. As author James Meyer explains in our Minimalism overview, “Exhibited in 16 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, Stella’s works announced a turn away from the gestural action painting of the previous generation. Avoiding the rhetorical brushwork of artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, which fostered an illusion of spontaneity and individualism, Stella painted in a methodical manner, filling in regulated painters with even strokes.”
Rather than following the swooping painterly works of the Abstract Expressionists, Stella went against both the earlier generation’s style and substance. Stella's Black Paintings aspired to reveal nothing more than the mode of their organisation. For Stella, painting stripes on a canvas was valid enough. This ran contrary to claims made by earlier abstract painters, such as Mark Rothko, who believed the shapes in his canvasses could convey ‘a tragic and timeless subject matter’; or Wassily Kandinsky, who believed that 'colour is a power which directly influences the soul'; and Stella’s contradiction proved revelatory.
As the sculptor and fellow Minimalist Carl Andre later recalled, “It was not basically the appearance of Stella’s paintings that influenced me, but his practice.” Stella’s canvases suggested a planned, predetermined way of building sculpture by means of methodically repeated forms, without the need of pseudo-spontaneity, soulfulness, or lofty, artful individualism.
Following on from Stella’s pictures, Andre began to present very simple objects just as they were in an attempt to reveal, as the sculptor put it, “‘wood as wood, and steel as steel, aluminium as aluminium, a bale of hay as a bale of hay.”
Stella, Andre and co weren’t entirely alone in this approach. Other artists had been producing works not too dissimilar from Stella’s works – most notably Russian Constructivists such as Kazimir Malevich. Yet as Meyer explains in our book, Stella and his fellow artists “were not well informed about their avant-garde precursors, largely due to the suppression of Constructivists during the Cold War by both the US and the Soviet Union.”
Instead, Stella and co were more allied with avant-garde composers such as John Cage and La Monte Young, as well as authors such as Samuel Beckett, critics such as Roland Barthes, and philosophers including Ludwig Wittgenstein, who were exploring similar ideas, though in different media. All were working against the idea of the artist as a genius, revealing near-mystical Modernist truths. The Minimalists, instead, thought that their works held no greater meaning than their immediate, physical facts.
One of the clearest thinkers and creators in this group was Donald Judd, an American writer and painter turned sculptor. Judd asserted that this new type of art rejected the idea that a picture could represent the world in a singular, coherent and truthful manner. The highly structured, ordered composition of, say a Piet Mondrian painting, represented, to Judd, outmoded European ideas of order that he and his fellow Minimalists rejected.
As Meyer puts it in our book, “It was Judd’s opinion that this new American art was more ‘advanced’ because it did not posit a rational viewer who can discern an ideal order, only one who perceives simple, material facts.”
The irony of Minimalism was that, despite all its simplicity and modesty, a lot of the accompanying theory was pretty knotty, austere, and plain hard for a general audience to digest. These spare works and stark ideals gained popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but did not find long-lasting, wide-spread appeal.
The British author and commentator Keith Waterhouse expressed a fairly standard reaction when he wrote in the UK newspaper The Daily Mirror in 1976, reacting to the Tate's display of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (1966), a simple arrangement of 60 fire bricks, “Bricks are not works of art. Bricks are Bricks. You can build walls with them or chuck them through jewellers' windows, but you cannot stack them two deep and call it sculpture.”
Most in the art world today would now disagree with Waterhouse, yet that didn't stop Minimalism going out of fashion. By the 1980s, a style of neo-Expressionist painting came back into vogue, on the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and David Salle.
Nonetheless, the artistic difficulties first raised by Stella, Judd and Andre in the very late 1950s and early 1960s, in New York City, continue to trouble contemporary art. They have, for example, influenced Bruce Nauman; some say the early works of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst bear some Minimalist influences, while the spare elegance of John Pawson's architecture and the product designs of Dieter Rams, owe a lot to Stella and co. Yet Minimalism remains a lively area within contemporary art, precisely because its ideas are so confounding. As long as a sizeable proportion of educated commentators agree with Waterhouse – and a sizeable number still do – the movement founded by Judd, Stella and Andre over half a century ago, will live on. As Meyer concludes, “Minimalism continues to generate new controversies and uses; it is unlikely to diminish. Whatever else you say about it, Minimalism matters.”