Minimalism and the Object


The Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966 made official the existence of a new art movement, Minimalism. As would be the case in identifying any new trend, the collection of artworks and which artists were included, caused some controversy. In her 1966 review of a follow up show at the Guggenheim, Lucy Lippard wrote the “confusion of styles and quality” in McShine’s show. The curator, Kynaston McShine, noted the fact the young artists had a university education, were interested in philosophy, and that they were looking for a new way “to make sculpture.” Regardless of whether or not we would agree with his inclusion of Ellsworth Kelly and Tony De Lapp in his exhibition, McShine articulated the essential concern of the core of Minimal artists—how to redefine sculpture as an independent object.

In his beginning sentence for his seminal 1966 article, Notes on Sculpture, the Minimal artist Robert Morris noted that “There has been little definitive writing on present day sculpture.” The factual statement reflected the way in which, up to this point, painting had dominated the art scene in New York City. Like Donald Judd, Morris had to begin his explanation of Minimal Art by removing sculpture far from the domain of painting. The essay by Morris has labored language and suffers from disorganization but it lays out the argument against traditional painting and sculpture along two lines: anthropomorphism and opticality.

Unlike Judd, Morris seemed more comfortable with the term “sculpture.” In fact Morris wanted to set off the “distinctions sculpture has managed for itself” in that “the concerns of sculpture have been for some time not only distinct from but hostile to those of painting.” Morris explained that the (possibly illegitimate) concerns of painting have been with structure or “the literal qualities of the support,” which were the result of painting’s long entanglement with “illusionism.” His quarrel with illusionism was the beginning of his attempt to set three dimensional objects apart from the lingering effects of the Renaissance attempt to copy reality. Morris wanted “sculpture” to be a thing unto itself.

Since the prehistoric origins of sculpture, the role of three dimensional objects, no matter how symbolic, conceptual or abstract had been to respond to real, living beings from the actual world. Carl Andre laid the flat units of his grids in order to avoid the inherent anthropomorphism of sculpture—the uprightness of the object itself; the uprightness that referred to the human being. Morris put forward David Smith’s Cubi sculpture series as examples of an artist who failed to capitalize on the significant move away from anthropomorphism by the Russian Constructivist movement in the 1920s. The relationship between sculpture and the human body, canonized by Greco-Roman sculpture, linked three dimensional art to “illusionism.”

Morris also objected to the role of color and light—color which “transcended” painting and light which reflected off the surfaces of sculpture, such as Smith’s Cubi structures. When I was studying in Paris, I visited a gallery showing a large group of sculptures by Donald Judd. A colleague and I were discussing the ways in which light reflected off the highly polished metallic wall sculptures which also cast shadows. As we were speaking, a man on a tall ladder was carefully switching off each spot light on each object. When we asked him why, the man stated that he was the photographer for Donald Judd’s art and that the artist wanted his works to be seen under natural light only. In other words, it was the object that was paramount not ancillary effects, such as reflected light and shadows.

Wary of object that had many “relational” parts, in Notes on Sculpture, Morris discussed the role of the gestalt in Minimal Art. For Morris, the “poetic” meanings of his objects vanished in favor of a phenomenological experience of a mute geometric object. The artist was interested in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and wrote frequently of the “gestalt” experienced by the viewer in the encounter with the object. By stripping the objects of any representational or historical traces, Morris sought to intensify the spectator’s experience of the pure form that could be “bracketed” or cleansed of extrinsic suggestions.

Relationships among parts implied composition and arrangements or the intervention of a decision making process of the artist. Rather than offering itself solely to the delighted eye, reveling in the “opticality” of the painted surface, the Minimal object, secure unto itself, had no parts and was all that gestalt implied—wholistic and essential—self-definitional. The viewer “sees” a Sol Le Witt grid, not as a group of parts, but as an whole, an entirety, and s/he sees not just visually but also conceptually. One understands in a gestalt moment of comprehension that the grid is an infinite measurement of space. Because the Le Witt grid can be extended mentally, its physical existence implies that there can be no beginning, no end, and hence no center. Without composition, without a central spine or organizational feature, the Minimal object escapes the confines of traditional “art.”

A specific Minimalist object, whether three or two dimensional, cannot be analyzed in Modernist or formalist terms or subjected to a formal analysis. As Michael Fried pointed out, Frank Stella’s paintings are “deduced” from the shape of the canvas, the support, which determined the internal organization of the painted surface. The uninflected marks on the canvas were devoid of artistic touch or presence. The paint is applied “out of the can,” as Stella said, without being changed or modified in any way. Stella’s large shaped paintings are literal presences, projecting outward from the wall by three or four inches. Large and imposing, these shaped canvases questioned the distinction between painting and sculpture and become “Specific Objects.”

Compared to the emphasis on personal and subjective approach to art on the part of the Modernist artists, Minimal artists confined the art making process to the planning of the object. Once the basic concepts were decided upon, the process was ended. Execution is secondary. Most importantly, the concept guided, controlled and directed the end result. Once the “system” was in motion, the outcome was pre-determined. Compared to the tradition of “chance” and “accident” in fine art, the procedure of the Minimal artists resembled that of an engineer who hands over plans to a construction firm and walks away. Indeed as Frances Colpitt pointed out in her 1990 book Minimal Art. The Critical Perspectives, Donald Judd’s Minimal objects were manufactured by Bernstein Brothers in order to remove the “touch” of the artist.

Thus, many of the Minimalist makers of three-dimensional objects were not “makers” at all in the traditional sense of making. They sent their plans to fabricators who made the objects for them. The resulting art work is modern in the industrial, manufactured as pristine and untouched by the artist’s hand. The materials used were non-traditional non-art materials, coming from contemporary industry, unsanctified by the art world. Carl Andre went even further from the craft of “art” by simply buying squares sheets made of various metals for manufacturing purposes or ordinary building bricks. He did not alter or carve or add to these spare materials in any way. Responding to an inspiration from Frank Stella, Andre arranged the industrial elements to cut into space, slicing across the gallery floor, defying the visitor to step on them or not.

Andre thought of his placements as “cuts” into the space of the gallery. The assortment of materials consisted of, for example, a square composed of eight plates horizontally, and eight plates vertically, making a total of 64 plates. The viewer immediately “got it” in a gestalt of instant understanding: 8 X 8 = 64 and the square could be endlessly extended. There was a strong relationship between serial or system based painting and Minimal sculpture. However, this apparent similarity was based more upon the historical juxtaposition of the exhibition in the Jewish Museum and Lawrence Alloway’s exhibition of Systemic Painting at the Guggenheim Museum. The artists selected by Alloway began with an idea of a system but actually “made” their own works.

Although Alloway’s description of a system seems to lend itself to an impersonal approach, he immediately stresses the occurrence of “trial and error” which took place off “off the canvas.” For Donald Judd, Minimalism was “one thing after another,” that is, a sequence of “specific objects” that generated a serial format. Because repetition and counting are pre-existing systems, Judd’s concepts are not “systems” created by the artist through a process of “trial and error.” The whole concept of “making art” is therefore eliminated, firmly separating Alloway’s selected artist, Kenneth Noland, from Minimal Art.

In fact, Judd began his career as a painter but moved away from painting and began to conceive of objects that were neither painting nor sculpture. For Judd, Minimalism was based upon systems, pre-existing, a priori, or beforehand, before the actual execution. These systems are numbers based and the system of counting generated the resulting objects. The mathematical system, not the historical forces that presumably generated art, drove the work to its final form. Like Frank Stella, Judd was concerned with eliminating the elements of composition or “relational art” inherited from Mondrian in which the artist arranged elements into a composition or design. In a dialogue with Stella, Judd insisted, “…I don’t have any ideas as to symmetry. My things are symmetrical because, as you said, I wanted to get rid of any compositional effects, and the obvious way to do it is to be symmetrical.”

Minimalism was the product of concepts that were non-art concepts, ideas that existed extraneous to high art, procedures that were pre-determining and that eliminated the creative process and even banished the artist. Nevertheless, each Minimalist artist acquired a signature look to the seemingly bland objects: Dan Flavin borrowed but did not alter florescent bulbs, Carl Andre used industrial materials, uncut and unchanged, Sol Le Witt made pristine wooden sticks and fitted them into conceptually endless grids that mapped the world. Robert Morris presented large gray objects that were geometric but that were not geometry. Judd is best known for his cantilevered forms made of industrial materials projecting from the wall.

Morris concluded his essay with a long section discussing the importance of the relationship between the object and the visitor to the gallery. Quoting Tony Smith, who did not want to make a “monument” or extremely large structure or a small “object,” Morris insisted that Minimalist works had to be body sized. By stating that the Minimal sculpture is “autonomous” Morris implied that the viewer and the object are co-equals in their specificity. The object, Morris stated, became “self-important.” The object, as Judd insisted became “specific,” complete unto itself, serving no other purpose, such as referring outward to something else. Minimal objects reacted to the installation space and to the spectator but remained completely self-sufficient. As Frank Stella, expressed it, “What you see is what you get.”


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Defining Minimal Art, Part One


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.

[email protected]