An Overview

Simple shapes. Pared-back design. Clean lines. We all have a basic understanding of minimalist aesthetics, but how and when did this first show up as an art movement? 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist style known as abstraction was just beginning to emerge. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse encouraged the idea that painting should not represent anything from the material world. In particular, Kandisky’s big idea was that painting should (and could) do the same thing as music, that is, emote nostalgia and fascination with a moment. Picasso’s analytical cubism, which he popularized in the 1910s, sought to reflect the creative happenings of the modern age by deconstructing three-dimensional figures, and reassembling them into an overlay of flat monochromatic planes. His work “Portrait of Ambroise Vollard” most clearly defines this style of abstraction, as seen here


By the 1950s, the abstract expressionists had thoroughly taken ahold of the art world, changing the way art was conceptualized. 

An abstract expressionist painting by Arshile Gorky

Minimalism emerged as a direct response to abstract expressionism. It was in sharp contrast to their frenzied mark-making and emotional decisions. Minimalist artists focused solely on the formal qualities of an object; color and form were primary in their creative explorations.

A Minimalist piece by Auguste Herbin

 Minimalism can be considered an extreme interpretation of geometric abstraction, a form of abstract art based on geometric forms. These abstract artists weren’t very interested in interpreting the world around them. Most of their work was non-representational; it didn’t represent anything in the external world. When it did, it was simplified into shapes that bore little concrete resemblance to the objects of inspiration. Minimalism pushed the idea of abstraction to its limits.

New York was the birth place of minimalism. During its emergence, many artists were challenging conventional ideas and trying out new ways of creating. They did away with self-expression and subjectivity in favor of chilled objectivity. The value of objectivity is that, in theory, all people will see and interpret the same thing from an artwork. Objectivity aims to remove emotion and personal bias and to uncover collective truths. Through the lens of objectivity, the meaning of an artwork can remain constant no matter who is looking at it.

Image -1 The integration of painting and sculpture can be seen in this uncharacteristically colorful work by Donald Judd

One of the most essential ideas for minimalism was the exclusion of unnecessary details. Nothing was included in a minimalist piece unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. Pictorial and illusionistic devices were no longer relevant. That included techniques like shading and perspective, which created space and forms in representational images. Without these traditional painting techniques, quite a few minimalist artists decided to do more sculptural work. Sometimes, these works occupied an interesting non-place between painting and sculpture, eluding categorization (see Judd’s work above). Most of the artists that did continue to paint were preoccupied with the idea that flatness is a limiting condition of pictorial art. Their works embraced and emphasized the quality of flatness, the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, the very conditions under which painting exists (this is evident in Ryman’s works below).

Image 2 – The idea of flatness is exemplified in the white paintings of Robert Ryman

Many minimalist artists found an objective means of art-making by using the art material’s properties as a framework for the process of creation. The alignment or measurements used in their work would be taken straight from the elements. For example, positive space occupied by an object was rendered equal to the negative spaces in a sculptural arrangement, or measurements of painted shapes were dictated by the size of the canvas stretcher (see an example below in the work of Carl Andre). This system of using just the raw materials themselves to create an artwork, by which we mean the qualities that already existed before the artist even touched it, removed personalized decisions from the piece to make it entirely objective.

Image 3 – The arrangement of Carl Andre’s floor works are dictated by the size of the materials, and play with the idea of repetition

The psychological theory of gestalt strongly informed the minimalists. Gestalt is the idea that the attributes of a thing may not be deduced from its constituent parts. In other words, an object or artwork as a whole can not be understood from any one part in isolation; it needs to be read as an overall object in order to be fully understood. This is really important in visual perception because we get an overall impression of an object before we can identify the individual parts, which are then seen in relation to one another. Also, our mind actually reorganizes complex shapes and simplifies them into one whole form. These ideas influenced the minimalists to create simple, often modular artworks that asserted their objectivity through visual clarity and were able to be understood intuitively. 

Image 4 – This important early work by Robert Morris is a wonderful example of simplified forms created in response to the gallery space, to give one complete impression of the work

The holistic approach of gestalt theory led to a new consideration: the space that an artwork sits in. Pieces were created in relation to their context, reacting to the conditions of the exhibition space through both placement and form. The minimalists thought about the implications the surrounding space has on the way we see an artwork; the architecture became an influence on the work. This is seen in Robert Morris’s work above. 

When they were trying to create new systems for making art, the minimalists, like so many before them, were influenced by the world around them. The swift development of large scale industrial manufacturing processes caused significant changes in everyday life. It also provided many new, uniquely modern materials that the minimalists began to use to make their art. There were so many more possibilities using these industrial materials. Artists were no longer confined to the limitations of traditional sculptural mediums.

With this rich theoretical foundation, you can now see why the minimalists were driven to create their modest, often monochromatic works. The overriding goal of objectivity weaves together these different ideas and theories that the minimalists were dealing with. Most of the theory was a means to create artworks that were more objective. Some saw their art as cold, partly due to their use of peculiar materials, but I think it is more accurate to describe them as stylistically pure, and quiet. Their art gives the viewer space to contemplate simplicity, and understand rudimentary forms (Tony Smith’s work below demonstrates this).

Image 5 – This work by Tony Smith celebrates the complexity present in this simple form

Minimalism has always received its share of criticism. The critic Michael Fried’s text “Art and Objecthood” was probably the most famous criticism of the movement. It dismissed minimalist art as theatrical, transforming the act of viewing into pure spectacle, only concerned with the works’ relation to the physicality of the viewer; that is, objects which rely only on their size and occupation of space, and are dependent on the act of observation. He believed aesthetic engagement was just not there in the minimalist’s works and dismissed them as superficial. While Fried was certainly right about the importance of the physical qualities of the art piece, his judgment may have been giving too little credit to the thought process behind minimalist pieces and what communications were being made by the artist.  His claim that these works are nothing but spectacle definitely underestimates the reasoning behind these artists’ actions.

Now that we’ve touched on the theory and motivations of this group, let’s look at who some of these artists were.

Donald Judd is arguably the most recognized of the minimalist sculptors. His works are characterized by hard-edged, modular forms, and they often sit on the wall rather than being freestanding sculptures. His seminal text ‘Specific Objects’ outlined much of the minimalist ethos. 

Donald Judd, Åke E:son Lindman · Chinati Foundation. photo essay by ÅKE E:SON LINDMAN · Divisare

Donald Judd

Robert Morris also published a series of influential writings “Notes on Sculpture.” His early involvement with minimalism was characterized by sculptural installations of polygonal forms, created with an array of materials. Later in his career, he was also an important player in the art movements of conceptualism and land art.

Robert Morris

Carl Andre was another prominent minimalist sculptor. Many of his works use untreated materials arranged in a repetitive modular manner. He often used simple blocks of material, choosing to focus on their mass and relationship to space.

Carl Andre

Sol Le Witt is most well known for his sculptures based on arrangements of cubes. He also produced some great theoretical writing and is recognized for an extensive series of wall paintings and drawings, where the work is created directly on the wall of the gallery.

Image 6 – one of Sol Le Witt’s famous white cube works

The work of Tony Smith is characterized by his large black steel sculptures, which were often exhibited outdoors. Mathematics was a huge source of inspiration for Smith; he used numbers and formulas to generate geometric forms. These pieces were often way more complex than the works of his contemporaries. His background in architecture was a massive influence on his sculptural aesthetic.

Image 7 – Tony Smith

Frank Stella is most well known for his stripe paintings and simple geometric compositions. His intention was  to create a narrative through shapes. His series of Black Paintings were quite influential in the early minimalist movement. He also made unconventionally shaped canvases to investigate the object-like nature of painting, these were generally awesome and very cutting-edge at the time.

Image 8 – Frank Stella

The white paintings of Robert Ryman brought him much acclaim, and they demonstrate his highly experimental approach. His works examine the materiality of paint, light, and space. He also made work in many different printmaking mediums.

Image 9 – Robert Ryman

Interestingly, many minimalist artists rejected the term minimalism. They didn’t want to be associated with a defined movement, because this could limit their freedom to innovate and experiment. That said, these artists were definitely working in similar ways, and they’ve had a lasting impact on art and aesthetics. Their influence can be clearly seen in contemporary art and design. It is difficult to even imagine visual culture today without the profound practices of the early minimalists.

“Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.”

– Robert Morris

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