Key Artists: Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt
What is Minimalism?
In New York City in the Mid 1960’s, artists such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin were beginning to become disillusioned with the principles of abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, artists at the forefront of this movement, had relied on singular subjective expression as the main impetus for creating artworks. They created (often) huge canvases covered with wild gestural brushwork and huge painterly areas of form and color.
‘I am not interested in the kind of expression that you have when you paint a painting with brush strokes. It’s all right, but it’s already done and I want to do something new.’ Donald Judd
Minimalism emerged partly in rejection of these ideas, and in favor of creating a democratic, stripped down approach to art making that also reflected the giant leaps that had been made in the industrial industries. Minimalist artists avoided emotional content and symbolism, instead creating paintings and sculptures that concentrated on the real, physical properties of the materials they used, rather than trying to create illusion or use metaphor and allegory.
Take Richard Serra for example. At college, he had worked at a ship building steelworks, and this material became a signature for his work. He bent and manipulated gigantic single sheets of steel into new shapes and forms that were free standing, and carved the spaces of the galleries and public areas in which they were placed in new and exciting ways. They interacted with their environments, and the audience had to walk around and through these works in order for them to be experienced. Serra stated that ‘the subject of the work is your experience, your walking…I consider space to be a material’
Minimalist sculptors concentrated on the intrinsic qualities of materials, and these were in turn used to concentrate attention on the spaces on the world around us, and how we interact with them. Donald Judd fabricated a series of ‘Stack’ sculptures that were rectangular slabs of steel and light attached to the walls of galleries like rungs on a ladder. Each gap between the slabs was exactly the same dimensions as one of the slabs itself. These negative spaces became important parts of each sculpture. Judd was shaping not only the physical properties of the artwork, but also the space around it.
Minimalism was less about the expressive mind or action of the artist, and more about a collective experience, and a show of possibility for the potential of materials. This mirrored industrial principles and simplicity was favored in the name of stripping away any sense of personal biography, or unnecessary and superfluous influences. Milled steel, fabricated copper, brass, aluminium, wood and bricks were all used, and industrial fabrication was preferred because it removed any traces of the individual human hand.
Minimalism also sought to destroy a great deal of the distinctions between painting and sculpture. Clemens Greenberg, a renowned art critic, had many formalist concepts, especially regarding painting, that the minimalists rejected. This in turn helped to forge the identity of their principles and aesthetic choices. Donald Judd was also a great writer, and many of the ideas behind the movement were well articulated in his texts. These became reference points for many critics and collectors, and also helped to solidify the intentions and direction of Minimalism within the context of art history.
By the late 1970’s, Minimalism was a worldwide phenomenon.
With Minimalism, painting had changed from being a window to another world. Works in the minimalist style instead emphasized the flatness of the canvas and the literal qualities of the paint, how it could be used as a material in it’s own right, rather than concentrating on its ability to create an illusion of space, light and emotional expression. Piet Mondrian, The Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism and the work of Constantin Branscusi, with his simple yet elegant sculptural forms, were all inspirations on the aesthetics and concepts that helped to form Minimalism.
Minimalism, its style and principles have had a huge impact on the worlds of design, architecture and fashion. You can walk into high end flagship fashion stores today, and the way that many of them have been decorated in a simplistic, ascetic fashion steals a great deal from the advances that minimalism made.
The Bauhaus movement was built around utility and the employment of simplistic color palettes and geometric forms, and with artists such as Judd and Stella adding their own take through their own artworks, these influences can be felt in almost all contemporary design in some form or another.