Introduction to Minimal Art
Minimal Art is a school of abstract painting and sculpture where any kind of personal expression is kept to a minimum, in order to give the work a completely literal presence. The resulting work is characterized by extreme simplicity of form and a deliberate lack of expressive content (source).
The central principle is that not the artist’s expression, but the medium and materials of the work are its reality (source). In other words: a work of art should not refer to anything other than itself (source). As minimalist painter Frank Stella once said: “What you see is what you see” (source).
Minimal Art emerged as a trend in the late 1950s and flourished particularly in the 1960s and 1970s (source). It is also referred to as ABC art, literal art (source), literalism (source), reductivism, and rejective art (source).
Through much of the 1950s, the dominant art movement in the United States was Abstract Expressionism. The expressionist artists seeked to express their personal emotions through their art.
A highly popular branch of Abstract Expressionism was called Action Painting. This was a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas (source).
In the early 1960′s, a new movement emerged; Minimal Art. The Minimalists felt that Action Painting (and as such, Abstract Expressionism) was too personal, pretentious and insubstantial. They rejected the idea that art should reflect the personal expression of its creator (source). Instead, they adopted the point of view that a work of art should not refer to anything other than itself (source). Their goal was to make their works totally objective, unexpressive, and non-referential.
One of the first painters to be specifically linked with Minimalism was (the former Abstract Expressionist) Frank Stella. Stella’s instantly acclaimed minimalist Black Paintings (1958-1960), in which regular bands of black paint were separated by very thin pinstripes of unpainted canvas (source), contrasted the emotional canvases of Abstract Expressionism (source).
The most prominent theorists were Donald Judd, who wrote the manifesto-like essay “Specific Objects” in 1964 (download) and Robert Morris, who wrote the three part essay “Notes on Sculpture 1-3″ in 1966 (download).
A historic moment for the art movement was the group exhibit “Primary Structures”, held in 1966 at the Jewish Museum in New York. Amongst others, it featured work of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, and Tony Smith (source) and really put Minimal Art as a name on the map.
The minimalist artists wanted to allow the viewer an immediate, purely visual response (source) and let him experience all the more strongly the pure qualities of colour, form, space and materials (source). Minimalism sought to de-mystify art, to reveal its most fundamental character (source): the medium and materials of the work were its reality, and that is was what the artists wanted to portray (source). This concept of pure aestheticism was highly revolutionary at the time (source).
In order to achieve this, they attempted to remove all suggestions of self-expressionism from the art work (source), such as:
- Complexity of form
- Metaphorical associations, symbolism, suggestions of spiritual transcendence
- Representation, reference or association
- Meaning, sentiment, emotion
- Social comment
- Elements of traditional work
- Any other signs of personal expression of the artist, his guiding hand or thought processes
From then on, all choices stem from the intention of giving the work a literal presence:
- Use of unitary, geometric forms, as these could be mistaken neither for representations of the external world nor for the narrative of a story (source)
- Use of monochromatic palettes of the primary colors, as these are the most basic and thus neutral of colors. Color was not used to express feeling or mood, but it simply to delineate space (source)
- Use of plain, industrial, factory-made or store-bought, mass-produced materials, as these underscored the absence of the artist’s individual ‘mark’ (source). These modern materials also defy the traditional artistic materials (source). Materials were left raw or unaltered and were not intended to symbolize anything else (source).
The minimalist artists created objects that often blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture (source). In this article, these two disciplines are still considered separately.
The minimalist sculptors were chiefly interested in how the viewer perceives the relationship between the different parts of the work, and of the parts to the whole thing. To highlight the subtle differences in this relationship (source), minimal ‘objects’ (as the artists preferred to call their sculptures) were often serial arrangements of extremely simple, geometric bodies such as cubes.
Sculptor Sol LeWitt once wrote that “the most interesting characteristic of the cube is that it is relatively uninteresting.” This comment speaks to what Minimalism aims to achieve, which is to use objects in and for themselves, and not as symbols or as representations (source).
The non-hierarchical character of the grid-based compositions challenged the notion of artistic originality (source), while the visual rhythms were strongly reminiscent of a production line (source).
Minimalist sculptures encouraged the viewer to be conscious of the space. The artwork was carefully arranged to emphasize and reveal the architecture of the gallery, often being presented on walls, in corners, or directly onto the floor (source). By eliminating the pedestal or base on which it sat, the minimalist sculptors sought to reject traditional sculpture. Minimalist sculpture shared common space as simply another object in the world. With no barrier between the audience and the artwork, viewers were forced to reconsider their relationship to the art object. Audiences could now interact with a piece on their own level, approaching, retreating, walking around it and sometimes even standing on it. (source)
Minimalist artist preferred industrial materials, prefabricated and/or mass-produced: fibreglass, Plexiglass, plastic, sheet metal, plywood, and aluminum. Steel, glass, concrete, wood and stone are also returning materials. The materials were either left raw (or hardly processed by the artist), or were solidly painted with bright industrial colours.
The result are objects of charged neutrality; objects that directly engage and interact with the particular space they occupy; objects that reveal everything about themselves, but little about the artist; objects whose subject is the viewer (source).
Well-know minimalist sculptors from the 1960′s and 1970′s:
For a comprehensive overview of all minimalist artists, please refer to my list of all famous minimalist artists, architects and designers.