Minimalistic Art of The 1960’s
Instructor: Ralph A. Parente Jr.
Art 121 B1: Contemporary Art
16 March 2012
Minimalistic Art of The 1960’s
“Minimalism” thought as the name not of an artistic approach but of a historical instant, an outbreak of critical thinking and invention in the line of postwar American art. Because the artists, critics, events, and publications that contributed mainly to it were centered in Manhattan, I will focus on New York art. Many of the American artists known as Minimalists have in general little more than the fact that their works met with some acknowledgment and success in the New York art market as it began to set the pace of international traffic in contemporary art. Yet “Minimalism” is more than a New York buzzword. A number of artists who worked on the West Coast during the 60s, such as Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, and John McCracken, might be called Minimalists because they made highly distinguished objects and installations that raise questions about how art relies upon its viewers.
The word “minimal” is used freely these days in mention of any stylistic strictness in the arts. The term “Minimalist” is only slightly more accurate when applied to works of visual art. It carries two distinct implications, each with its own historical resonances. The term may refer to art, primarily carving or three-dimensional work made after 1960, that is abstract or even more lifeless visually than “abstract” suggests and unproductive with decorative detail, in which geometry is stressed and meaningful technique avoided. The works of artists such as Donald Judd, Ron Bladen, and Tony Smith qualify as Minimalist in this sense. The art history of this strain of work includes Supremacist, De Stijl, and Constructivist abstract painting and sculpture, from that of Russians such a Kasimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Almost as important to this mode of Minimalism as its art history past is the wide background of American mass production. Artists such as Judd and Smith responded to the skeptical abundance of industry by using its services to produce objects purposely unlike what the wealth of mass production lets out. These artists recognized that industry restricted the physics of objects to a degree that no single artist could, and they resorted to industrial production in order to benefit themselves.
The tension between these two currents of Minimalist sensibility and industrial aesthetics and the blur of difference between art and non-art gave American art of the 1960s a rational intensity scarcely seen in art before or ever since. The tension is obvious in contrasts between early works of such artists as, Ron Bladen and Carl Andre, and even in works from different years by the same artist, as in the cases of Robert Grosvenor, Robert Morris and Robert Smithson. Whether the idea or terms of a work of art have precedence over its material reality and who decides this were issues throughout the Minimalist years. The works of some artists regardless of what they may have said to the contrary, confirmed understanding as the determinative dimension of people and of art; others gave dominance to the observers physical attentiveness as the point of view from which he must interpret an artworks basis and his own role in figuring out what he sees. A widely held assumption in the New York art world of the 1960s was that in expressions of the way his work resists easy reading, an artist might suggest without words a guess of how and where significance occurs and of what it is to see perceptively. Among the so-called Minimalists were artists who attempted to do just that.
Artists of all postwar generations concur that to accept without question the seemingly self-explanatory worth of everyday life in America is to be persuaded by entertainment, advertisement, and political exhibition into dwelling selfishly in a world of built illusions. The question is whether contemporary art offers any genuine contrast to consumer consciousness. Minimalist artists tried to do that by challenging people with the dead honest facts of art, making them graze, so to speak, rather than welcoming them to throw themselves into the aesthetics.
I deviate with purpose from the ordinary critical practice of distinguishing between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism because the difference implies that the categorization is more precise than it can be. “Minimalism,” for what it is, arguably explains everything from the early sculptures of Donald Judd and Tony Smith to early and recent offerings of materials and techniques by Tony Cragg, Meg Webster, Wolfgang Laib. For the meantime, the artists themselves correspond in little but their rejection of “Minimalism” as a term fitting to what they have done. “Art excludes the unnecessary,” Carl Andre wrote in 1959, and added, twenty-five years later, “That is the only true sense for me of minimalism.” I agree with Andre.
Some of the most confusing terms in the terminology of modern art end in “ism.” A few, such as “Futurism” and “Surrealism,” were coined by artists, and backed up with manifestos, to serve as code words for a stylistic or ideological agenda. Most subsequent “isms” have begun as the shorthand of critics seeking to spotlight affinities in works of various artists, regardless of the artists alleged intentions. “Minimalism” is an example: what the term really denotes is a manner of remembering, grouping, and ranking certain artworks of the recent past.
“That is the only true sense for me of minimalism.” — Carl Andre 1959
“This to me is the true sense of minimalism for today.” — Bobby C. 2012