Defining Minimal Art, Part One

MINIMAL ART AS ART/NOT ART

Part One

“Installation Art” is an all-inclusive term encompassing performance art and public and and art exhibitions in which the objects and the way they are displayed are dependent upon the particular space and the presence of the audience. Installation art is called site specific art, meaning that that site or that place is the only site where the object/s can be shown. Once the object/s is removed from the site, the object ceases to exist. Because it exists only for the viewer and has no life or purpose or meaning without the spectator, installation art raises real questions as to the status of a work of art. Installation art, by Modernist definitions of “art,” cannot be “fine art.”

An installation is a temporary arrangement of objects in a space, usually a museum or gallery room. An installation can also be mounted outside of the domains of the White Cube, in the open environment, far away from the art world. Like performance art, installation art was largely a product of the years following the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and, by extension, painting. A painting is an object that has been designated as “a work of art” and does not change over time and remains “art,” regardless if it is hung on a wall or stored in a warehouse. Installation art may include objects but it is the site itself that is significant, hence the term “site specific art.” These distinctions are profound because the line between object/not object is also the line between art/not art.

Like the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp, installation art subverted previously unquestioned definitions of art and with it the traditional way of writing about art. Modernist art criticism, meaning art writing focused on an object, was the dominant mode of art writing in the 1960s, with Clement Greenberg and his followers having a hegemonic or controlling position in New York. Formalist art writing or a concentration upon line, color, composition, form, texture, surface and so on, is completely dependent upon the autonomous and permanent art object and once this object ceases to exist in a timeless manner, formalism cannot function as a mode of analysis. At the precise peak of formalist art writing and the Modernist point of view, Neo-Dada and Pop Art and then Minimal Art emerged to challenge the previously unchallenged definition of art and of art writing practiced by Greenberg and his acolytes.

The term “Minimalism” was coined by the art writer, Richard Wollheim, and was fleshed out by Donald Judd in “Specific Objects,” 1965, Robert Morris in “Notes on Sculpture, Parts I and II,” 1967, the same year as the famous rebuttal essay by Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood.” A form of Installation Art, Minimal Art was referred to by critics as “ABC Art,” “Primary Structures,” or “Literalist Art.” Eventually the term “Minimal” stuck, referring to the work of several artists, all of whom had their own vision of the response to traditional sculpture and painting. The Minimalist painting is a flat object that hangs on the wall and is covered with paint, but there, any resemblance to Modernist painting ends. The Minimalist object is a three dimensional, existing as free-standing objects in an open space, but there, any resemblance to Modernist sculpture ends.

Emerging within and during the dominance of Modernism and its attendant mode of analysis, Formalism, Minimalism was at once the consummation of Modernism and a distinctive break with historic object-based aesthetic philosophy. Like Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Fluxus, Minimalism was a direct rejection of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism which proposed the work of art as a sacred special object of a specific form of viewer contemplation made by an equally unique type of human being, the “artist.” Minimalism rejected the concept of the artist as an actor, as a specific personality with a signature touch. Minimalism was a rejection of Modernist aesthetics, stripping the object of any points of reference or meaning or physical attractiveness.

Minimalism was the product of university-educated artists. Unlike previous generations of artists who were largely self-taught or who had limited education, the artists of the late 1960s were products of intellectual institutions. These artists, who thought in terms of ideas rather than actions, were also writers who actively defended and explained their art, attempting to create and control the discourse on Minimalism. In contrast to Modernist art, which progressed from the history and tradition of Modern art, Minimalism emerged from non-art sources and entered into the art world with an oppositional frame of mind. For many Minimal artists, their installations and objects were connected to philosophy, not the aesthetics branch of art for art’s sake, but to the philosophy of phenomenology.

The next posts will go into more detail on the thinking of the leading philosopher, Edmund Husserl of phenomenology, but at this point it can be briefly said that phenomenology is an attempt to locate the grounds of knowledge in the phenomenon of perception: what do I actually see, rather than what do I know about what I am seeing? Pure perception forces the individual to observe the world or reality, stripped of it meaning. The action of “bracketing” knowledge to concentrate on pure vision resulted in the fabrication of a certain kind three dimensional forms—forms that are shorn of definition or history.

Minimalist artists attempted to create what Donald Judd called “Specific Objects.” Compared to a painting which always referred to the tradition of painting, or to sculpture which always referred to an object in the real world, a Minimalist object is a thing unto itself, or specific. In order to stress the stripped down, reductive aspects of seeing, the Minimalist artists created objects that did not refer to anything outside of itself. To further stress the impersonal nature of these objects, the artist’s touch was removed by sending concepts or plans to fabricators who were the actual makers. Donald Judd’s shapes were painted a dull and non-descript gray, as devoid as possible of any symbolic associations.

But why is the specific object also not a formalist object, a product of art of art’s sake? Because when Minimalist objects were presented in an installation format, the objects existed for the brief exhibition period, after which they were simply put in storage. Once in storage, a Minimal object could not be recognized as “art,” for it had been removed from an art context. In contrast, a painting by Helen Frankenthaler is always recognizable as a work of art: the painting carries its own self-contained art context. A Minimalist object (or objects) without its companions is not intended to function as an independent work of art. Ronald Bladen’s X was constructed in 1967 for a specific place, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D. C., but outside the site, the shape would lose its “art context” and would be problematic as “art.”

In contrast to the state of dependency of the Minimalist object, Modernist work of art is always independent of the viewer and of the exhibition context. Likewise the Minimalist installation is always a temporal arrangement, dependent upon the spectator. Installation art, for the Minimalists is always a site specific, a time-based event that, like an presentation in a theater, exists for the audience. The Specific Objects of a Minimalist installation are, like actors on a stage, “presences” which confront the spectator who is required to move among the three-dimensional shapes and encounter the objects. Rather than existing in that rarified mental space, called an “aesthetic experience,” the Minimalist experience is local and time-based, and always changes with the venue.

Theoretically untouched or unmade by the artist, the Minimalist object challenged the idea that “art” was unique, made by an art maker, beautiful and psychologically special, and attractive to look at. Although tethered to the legacy of Duchamp, Minimalism took the extra step suggested by the older artist—art is a language: before art is anything else, it is an idea and this idea can be expressed in words. Duchamp made this point with his elaborate visual-verbal plays but Minimalism based its precepts upon the rigors of analytic philosophy: art is a proposition.

When Minimalism became a known and recognized movement at the Jewish Museum in the Primary Structures exhibition in 1966, the art world perceived a shift had taken place—away from the personal painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and away from the celebration of trivial popular culture of Pop Art and towards a new philosophical seriousness. If the 1960s was anything else in the world of New York art, it was the decade of a very pertinent question: what is art?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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