When, in 1913, Malevich placed a black square on a white ground, claiming that ‘ art no longer cares to serve the state and religion; it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without things ‘, he laid the foundations for a secular art that was detached from utilitarian purposes and removed from the ideological function of representation.
According to Malevich, 1914 was the year when the square appeared. It was the basic Supremacist element, never to be found in nature.
Supremacism brought into being, during the second decade of this century in Russia, an art that was rigorously and single-mindedly abstract.
Like Constructivism, it celebrated rationalism and a mathematical way of thinking, while sustaining ‘ an aesthetic position in which the construction of an object would point toward an immediate, legible geometry ‘.
The sculpture was produced that had the clarity of mathematical models, and the developments of modern technology were brought to bear on artistic consciousness.
Indeed, Tatlin’s directive to cultivate ‘real space and real materials’ was to become, during the 1960s in America, the source, or point of departure, for a new kind of sculpture which would have the specificity and power of actual materials, actual colors, and actual space, and which would aestheticize technology to a degree that even Tatlin himself could not have quite imagined.
‘Symbolizing is dwindling — becoming slight ‘, wrote Dan Flavin about Minimalism in 1967.
‘We are pressing downward toward no art — a mutual sense of psychologically in- different decoration — a neutral pleasure of seeing known to every- one.
In 1964, Flavin produced a neon sculpture that was entitled Monument for V. Tatlin.
It was simply an assembly of neon tubes that had been neither carved nor constructed in any way by the artist, and it did not appear to signify anything.
It merely existed — an object resplendent in its own right.
The Minimalists shared with Mondrian the belief that a work of art should be completely conceived by the mind before its execution.
Art was a force by which the mind could impose its rational order on things, but the one thing that art definitely was not, according to Minimalism, was self-expression.
All those priorities that Abstract Expressionism, with its excesses of deep subjectivity and allusive emotionalism, had infused into American art during the 1950s, were now rejected as being too ‘sloshy’. Traditional modes of the composition had been jettisoned in favor of improvisation, spontaneity, and automatism and style had become, for the Abstract Expressionist painters, a matter of walking hieroglyphs and vertiginous gestures, with every brushstroke brought into being streaming with metaphysical and existential innuendo.
The gesture itself was meaning, and what it expressed was the primordial, subjective freedom of the artist.
Into this Heraclitean flux of gestural painting, and standing, as it were, for the ultimate minimum which would suffice for a universe, the Minimalists introduced an epistemological’ cube; it stood as a commitment to clarity, conceptual rigor, literalness and simplicity.
They wished to deflect art towards an alternative course of more precise, measured, and systematic methodologies.
Conjugating the cube to infinity, they conveyed an impression of perfect equilibrium, and produced a visual symmetry that never deviates from its own rigidly plotted field — the monotony of modular-determined units being, in a sense, the very opposite of freedom, like stars keeping their course.
In many ways, Minimalism received its initial impetus from painting, in that it was a conspicuous inversion of the values which had been exalted by the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists, but it soon evolved the aim of replacing sculpture with a new set of visual criteria — for the one thing Abstract Expressionism had distinctly failed to do was to evolve any sculptural style; all its triumphs were in the realm of painting. Those who became the leading practitioners of ‘ABC’ or Minimal art — Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Frank Stella — were all concerned (with the possible exception of Stella), ultimately, in constructing three- dimensional objects, even though many of them began their careers as painters — in the Abstract Expressionist mode.
Their mature work, however, presents common stylistic features: predominantly rectangular and cubic forms that are purged of all metaphor and meaning, equality of parts, repetition, and neutral surfaces.
The ambition they shared was to create works of maximum immediacy, where the whole is more important than the parts, and where the relational composition is suppressed in favor of an arrangement of simple ordering (progressive, permuted or symmetrical).
Nor would any account of the period be complete without mention, in this context, of Tony Smith’s enormous black monoliths, Larry Bell’s mirrored glass boxes, John McCracken’s brilliantly colored leaning planks, and Sol LeWitt’s grid constructions (although LeWitt prefers to refer to himself as a Conceptual artist).
All these artists went in for industrial materials — used as neutrally as possible with their specific identity unimpaired — such as galvanized iron, cold-rolled steel, fluorescent tubes, firebricks, Styrofoam cubes, copper plates, industrial paint; and all of them preferred simple, unitary geometrical shapes, used either on their own as a simple gestalt, or as a series of repeated identical units.
‘I object to the whole reduction idea,’ Judd told Bruce Glaser in an early historic interview. ‘If my work is reductionist, it’s because it doesn’t have the elements that people thought should be there. But it has other elements that I like.
The new aesthetics of exclusion first emerged significantly on the scene when the twenty-three-year-old Stella exhibited a haunting quartet of paintings, consisting of nothing but symmetrical pin- stripes, as part of the ‘ Sixteen Americans ‘ show, along with works by Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959.
There had, of course, been signposts all along the way, even during the most vibrant phase of Abstract Expressionism: Barnett Newman’s painting Abraham, for instance, made in 1949 after the death of his father, which contained nothing but a single black stripe on a black field; Ad Reinhardt’s symmetrical, one-colour paintings, culminating in 1960 in the series of cruciform black squares; Yves Klein’s all-blue monochromes; Robert Rauschenberg’s bare white canvases of 1952; Agnes Martin’s uninflected grid paintings, which were exhibited at Betty Parsons’ Gallery in 1961.
All the same, and more than anything else at the time, Stella’s ‘black’ paintings, as they came to be known, seemed to test the limits of art, contracting it to an irreducible essence and stripping away the technical virtuosity of gestural painting.
Arranged in rectilinear or cruciform pattern, Stella’s stripes were painted with black enamel straight from the can.
There were two problems, he claimed, which had to be faced before the assumptions of Abstract Expressionism could be satisfactorily contravened: one was spatial and the other was methodological.
‘I had to do something about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other,’ he stated. ‘ The obvious answer was symmetry [sic] — make it the same’. . . to find a method of paint all over.
The remaining problem was an application which followed and complemented the design solution. This was done using the house painter’s technique and tools.’
Die Fahne Hoch!, for instance (or The Banner High! ,so-called for its reference to Jasper Johns’s flags), contains four quadrants of stripes in mirror reversals of each other.
The paintings are about nothing but relations, orderly relations, embodied in an impersonal and inflexible composition of stripes.
Like numbers, they are morally and metaphysically neutral. Carl Andre, who was sharing Stella’s studio during this period, wrote about his friend’s painting in the catalogue preface: Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes.
There is nothing else in his painting. Symbols are counters passed among people. Frank Stella’s painting is not symbolic.
His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only to painting.’
It was only a few months later that Ad Reinhardt declared, everything is prescribed and proscribed.
Only in this way is there no grasping or clinging to anything. Only a standard form can be imageless, only a stereotyped image can be formless, only a formularized art can be formulaless. ‘
The neutral emptiness of the black paintings appeared, to many people, as such a total retreat from humanistic concerns that they could only be an aberration, synonymous with all the anti-subjective, materialist, determinist, anti-life in our culture aspiring to nothing more elevated than boredom and futility. Their baffling aloofness inspired a good deal of hostility from the critics.
Brian O’Doherty described Stella as ‘the Oblomov of art, the Cézanne of nihilism, the master of ennui’.
Irving Sandler found Minimalism, in general, to be ‘mechanistic’ and uninformed by any creative struggle or search, and more recently, Donald Kuspit has attacked it for being circular and pedantic, mechanically self-referential and ‘ authoritarian ‘, its fixed forms being, in his view, a repressive denial of the life-world. There is no doubt, even now, that Minimalism remains perhaps the most difficult, embattled, and controversial art ever made.
One of the reasons people cannot bring themselves to appreciate Minimal art is that they do not consider that a row of Styrofoam cubes, or firebricks, can be art at all.
They see no evidence of the artist having done any ‘ work’, and consequently, they quite sincerely believe that they are dealing with a gigantic fraud which has been allowed to spread its ramifications over the whole of Europe and America.
Writing in 1965 on the new art, Barbara Rose had linked Minimalism not only with the renunciations of Malevich but also with those of Duchamp, whose ideas were, indeed, critical to the development of the Minimalist ethic.
The importance of Duchamp in this regard had to do with how readymades challenged the prestige in our aesthetic thinking of the notion of work as an essential ingredient in art.
By proposing a urinal and a bottle rack as examples of ‘ readymade ‘ art, Duchamp had minimized the role of the artist’s hand as well as the value of artistic craftsmanship.
He assigned aesthetic value to purely functional objects by a simple mental choice rather then through any exercise of manual skill.
What he wanted to demonstrate was that art-making could be based on other terms than the arbitrary, tasteful arrangement of forms.
The Minimalists, for their part, enlisted the module, with its serial potential as an extendable grid, towards the same end.
The module is not a matter of taste; it precludes any arbitrary formal arrangement of parts by tasteful manipulation.
By 1970, Robert Morris was ready to claim that ‘the notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer has much relevance . . .. What matters is ‘the detachment of art’s energy from the craft of tedious art production ‘.
Moholy-Nagy was perhaps the first artist ever to execute a series of paintings by telephoning instructions to a factory, hut for Judd, it’ is the normal course of affairs to have his boxes fabricated outside the studio, just as Flavin chooses standard fluorescent tubes because of their neutrality and their availability, and leaves the work itself to be carried out by electricians and engineers.
At the time that he was sharing Stella’s studio, Andre was making vertical sculptures from building timbers that entailed some carving and modeling of the wood.
He has credited Stella’s influence for his realization at a certain point that ‘the wood was better before I cut it than after ‘. Working the wood, he felt, did not improve it in any way.
‘Up to a certain time I was cutting into things. Then I realized that the thing I was cutting was the cut. Rather than cut into the material, I now use the material as the cut in space.’
At this stage, he eliminated, as part of the sculpture-making process, any activity that involved carving (or taking away) and constructing (or adding on). He began stacking and piling beams in 1961, but it was a bit later that he was to introduce the new element that became his special preoccupation and even a hallmark: horizontality.
He wished to make his sculptures hug the ground. His earlier work had begun to seem ‘ too architectural, too structural ‘, and one day, while he was canoeing on a lake in New Hampshire, it came to him that his sculpture should be as level as water.
The fact that, during the early sixties, Andre had been employed as a brakeman and conductor for Pennsylvania The railroad has been pointed to by many critics as another important element in the development of Andre’s vision — the long lines of freight cars, the endless tracks extending to infinity, which also must have had an effect.
Horizontality appeared, like a cold wind, in Andre’s first major piece entitled Lever, which was specifically designed for the ‘ Primary Structures ‘ exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966, one of the first museum shows to present Minimalism as an accomplished body of work.
Andre’s piece consisted of 137 unjoined commercial firebricks that extended along the floor for 341 feet. The vertical element, he claimed, had been the hardest thing of all to get away from.
Once he had achieved it, he was able to say: ‘All I am doing is putting Brancusi’s Endless Columnon the ground instead of in the air… The engaged position is to run along with the earth.’
Lever was still partly engaged with the wall, but the metal-plate pieces, begun in 1967, simply occupy the floor.
By far the most corn- plex of these are one called 37 Pieces of Work, which was made to occupy 36 square feet of the Guggenheim Museum’s ground floor.
It is composed of 1,296 units: 216 each of aluminum, copper, steel, magnesium, lead, and zinc. Andre once claimed that his ideal sculpture is a road, and in these — what could be termed ‘classic’ Andres, of unjoined metal plates placed along the ground, you can walk, or even drive a Mack truck, across them.
One of the things that Minimalism hoped to achieve was a new interpretation of the goals of sculpture.
Judd and Morris were its main polemicists, and (together with Barbara Rose), they published numerous articles anatomizing the new aesthetic and dictating the terms on which they wished their work to be apprehended.
Judd, especially, saw his activity as an alternative to the conventions of painting and sculpture. All painting, he felt, was illusionistic, which made it seem ‘not credible ‘.
It seemed important to get rid of spatial illusionism, and the only way to do that was to eliminate figure-ground relationships:
‘The only paintings that didn’t have that kind of problem were Yves Klein’s — the blue paintings,’ he stated. ‘But for some reason, I just didn’t want to do monochrome paintings.’
Judd’s early works are a combination of sculptural and painterly concerns — low reliefs, made of such materials as wood, asphalt pipe, and Liquitex and sand on canvas; these, eventually, in his more mature phase, give way to fully three-dimensional floor and wall-pieces — always untitled, and therefore difficult to identify.
By making his work occupy three dimensions, Judd felt he had successfully dealt with the problem of illusionism, actual space being more powerful and specific, he felt, than depicted space.
And because they were no longer a ‘stand-in’ for reality — but were an actuality rather than a mere reflection — he called his new works by a new name: specific objects.
The prototypes for Judd’s specific objects were a group of painted wood sculptures that was shown at the Green Gallery in New York in 1963.
The first plexiglass boxes with metal sides were fabricated slightly later, from these prototypes, and were a significant feature of the Primary Structures’ show at the Jewish Museum in 1966.
Stacked boxes may appear deceptively rude and simple, but they successfully achieved Judd’s ambition to redefine the terms for making sculptures.
Critical to that redefinition is the fact that the forms are assembled rather than being modeled or carved or welded. There are no adhesives or joints, no base or pedestal, so the work can be dismantled, stacked, and stored.
Each sculpture is composed by a simple arrangement of identical and interchangeable units, laid out in a repetitive manner, like a limitless chain.
Sometimes the boxes are cantilevered from the wall, so that the wall, floor, and ceiling become a part of the sculptural experience.
Classic Judds offer an extraordinary vocabulary of surfaces and contrasting materials that range from the opaque to the translucent and reflective.
But always, the module serves as ordering the principle, which does away with the need for relational composition (in Judd’s work, all the parts are equal), eliminating, at the same time, the kind of moment-to-moment decision-making and rearranging that depends on arbitrary whim.
Composition depends instead on the more predictable factors of repetition and continuity.
Describing the specific look of this kind of contemporary abstract art, Leo Steinberg wrote in 1972 that ‘its object quality, its blankness and secrecy, its impersonal or industrial look, its simplicity and the tendency to project a stark minimum of decisions, its radiance and power and scale — these become recognizable as a kind of content — expressive, communicative, and eloquent in their own way ‘.
Morris, too, had been equally interested in this ‘state of non- depiction’ and in doing away with the figure-ground duality of representation.
But whereas Judd wanted the kind of wholeness that can be achieved through the repetition of identical units, Morris addressed himself to the notion of self-sufficient wholes, unitary shapes on their own.
He wished to construct objects without separate parts, to avoid divisiveness. In 1961 Morris fabricated his first unitary piece, an eight-foot-high grey plywood column.
(Morris painted all his plywood sculptures grey, since he believes that color has no place in sculpture. In 1965 he exhibited nine L-beams which, although they were all identical, were perceived as different shapes when laid on their side, up-ended, tilted, etc. [illustration 1131.
With Judd’s regular and identical blocks, set apart by equal spaces, we are made to concentrate on visual likeness, but with Morris’s L-beams, we have many different perceptions of what is actually a single shape.
Placement, of course, becomes critical: a beam on its end is not the same as the same beam on its side.
All of which would seem to prove the point of Judd’s remark that ‘it isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate.
The thing as a whole, its qualities as a whole are what is interesting.’
Both Judd and Morris were concerned that the work should present itself as ‘ one thing’, a simple gestalt that can be perceived as a whole, effective as an all-at-once experience rather than the kind of sequential, relational, reading-in-the-round that Cubism had generated.
What they actually succeeded in doing, according to Barbara Rose, was to turn the central premise of Cubism inside out — by replacing Cubist simultaneity (or the superimposition of successive views of the same object from different angles) with gestalt-based instantaneity.
Judd’s wall-pieces, for instance, can only be looked at frontally, whereas the floor sculptures, even though you can walk around them, have no fixed sense of front, back, or sides.
As with all Minimalist works, the composition is a less important factor than scale, light, color, surface or shape, or relation to the environment.
In a Minimalist work, the environment frequently becomes, as it were, the pictorial field; this is particularly apparent in the way that Flavin’s neon sculptures diffuse an elusive iridescence upon the surrounding walls.
It did not take long for Minimalism to become one of the most uncompromising and pervasive aesthetics for our time, bringing about decisive changes not only in painting and sculpture, but also in music and dance.
Both Philip Glass and Steve Reich has been composing, for quite some years now, music that has a modular structure — music based on repetition, stacked parts and grids, which, in the case of Glass, sometimes means playing only one line of music over and over.
In the early days of the Judson Dance Theater in New York, Yvonne Rainer had revised her choreographic procedures to incorporate ‘found’ movement (standing, walking. running — matter-of-fact, concrete, and even banal movements), performed so neutrally and non-expressively that they left no need for the dancer’s technical virtuosity.
In Carriage Discreteness, for instance, a work for twelve performers, the dancers become neutral ‘doers ‘, performing task like activities such as transporting odd materials across the stage: 100 wood slats, 100 cardboard slats, 100 foam rubber slats, 5 mattresses, 2 styrene cubes, 2 plywood sheets, I brick, and so on.
(Morris was himself a collaborator of Rainer’s for a short time during the mid-sixties.) Emptied of all ambiguity, of any traditional dramatic content or climax, Rainer’s work leaves movement itself, as it were, walking on its own two feet.
More recently, Lucinda Childs has evolved a mode of dance that is even more drastically Minimal, in which implacably repetitious movements enacted on an empty stage seem more like the miming of asymmetry than like performing.
The self-sufficient language of the grid — with its indifference to moral, social and philosophical values, its preoccupation with worlds comparable to those the mathematician calls forth when he plays with axioms, its mechanical habits developed in the very place where freedom existed, it’s meaning hemmed in by the network of set forms — remains as nothing less than a kind of Rosetta stone for our age, the significance of whose code has not really been broken.
Not all the Minimalists, however, have held to a steady course, retaining the rarefied forms of Minimalism like a ritual language of priests.
Even during the time that he was, properly speaking, Minimalism’s most eloquent and germinative force, Morris, for instance, was simultaneously making sculptures of the human brain wrapped in dollar bills and piling up felt in heaps, and he continues, even now, to thread his way in and out of various genres; Stella’s career, too, is riddled with stylistic discontinuities.
The chromatic patterns of Stella’s protractor’ series, with their complex reference to Islamic architectural decoration, deliberately brought illusionistic devices back in play, and his recent, very rambunctious, relief-collages have long since left Minimalist austerities behind.
In the case of Judd, Flavin, and Andre, Minimalism has remained an instrument perhaps a little changed in outward appearance, but not at all in the manner of its employment.
These artists (so far) have not compromised the stylistic integrity of their original statement, and have found it possible to renew their art without, like Orpheus looking back, losing the stable meaning of their enterprise.
As Andre says, ‘I’ve produced a body of work that tends to generate its own future. This is the definition of having a style, when work you ‘ve done becomes an objective condition of work you will do. “
For Andre, Flavin and Judd, the future gradually reveals in suspension a whole past of increasing density, like a cryptogram.
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