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Minimal art

The term Minimalism emerged in the writings of the critic Barbara Rose during the mid-1960s. “ABC Art,” the title of an influential article she wrote for the October 1965 issue of Art in America, did not catch on as a name for the movement, but in that article she referred to art pared down to the “minimum,” and by the late 1960s Minimalism was commonly being used. It aptly implies the movement’s modernist goal of reducing painting and sculpture to essentials, in this case the bare-bones essentials of geometric abstraction. Primarily descended from early-twentieth-century constructivism, Minimalism was heavily influenced by the clarity and severity of works by the postwar artists Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and David Smith. Minimalism is the first art movement of international significance pioneered exclusively by American-born artists.

Minimalist painting eliminated representational imagery and illusionistic pictorial space in favor of a single unified image, often composed of smaller parts arranged according to a grid. Despite this tendency toward mathematically regular compositions, Minimalist painting varies widely—from the evocation of the sublime in the nearly monochrome canvases by Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman to the spare and rigorous essays in geometry by Robert Mangold or Brice Marden.

Minimalism was more frequently associated with sculpture than painting. Minimalist sculpture also eliminated representational imagery, pedestals (human scale predominated), and sometimes even the artist’s touch. Typically produced by industrial fabricators, such elemental geometric forms came to be known as primary structures, after an influential show of the same name organized by Kynaston McShine at New York’s Jewish Museum in 1966.

Committed to the ideal of creating new forms rather than recycling old ones, Minimalist sculptors hoped to transcend the production of mere art objects by producing three-dimensional works that straddled the boundary between art and the everyday world. Robert Morris’s boxlike cubes and Donald Judd’s shelflike slabs resembled the similarly geometric forms of then-contemporary International Style architecture and late-modern interior design. Despite the artists’ interest in infiltrating the urban environment, the public generally found their works inaccessible. Ironically, Minimalism became the sculptural style of choice for corporate collections during the 1970s, at the same time that the sleek glass boxes of International Style architecture came to symbolize corporate power.

Minimalism dominated the art of the late 1960s just as Abstract Expressionism had dominated the art of the 1950s—and as no single style would do in the 1970s. International variants arose in Mexico and in Japan, where an important school of Minimalist sculpture, called Mono-Ha, was centered in Tokyo between 1968 and 1970.

The term Post-Minimalism was coined by the critic Robert Pincus-Witten and appeared first in “Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism into Sublime,” in the November 1971 Artforum. Pincus-Witten used it to distinguish the more embellished and pictorial approach of Richard Serra’s cast-lead works and Eva Hesse’s pliable hangings from the stripped-down, prefabricated look of pre-1969 Minimalist works by Judd and Morris. The late 1980s saw the return of the sleek machined look of Minimalism in the work of young sculptors who rejected the high-pitched emotionalism of Neo-Expressionism.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.