First appearing in New York beginning the early 1960s, Minimalism was a renunciation of the contemporary art which seemed stale and academic in the eyes of young artists. New influences and rediscovered styles motivated these young artists to question and push conventional boundaries, very similar to the social movements of the decade. By the end of the 1970s, Minimalism was flourishing in the United States and Europe alike with the rise of numerous forces including museum curators, art dealers, publications, and new forms of both private and public patronage.
There are a few distinguishing features of the Minimalist movement. Foremost, Minimalists sought to distance themselves from Abstract Expressionists by removing any personal biographical elements or metaphors of any kind from their work, as well as favoring sleek, geometric works rather than any thing that could be traditionally classified as “fine art”. Such geometric pieces of work were lent to the revival of interest in Russian Constructivism, which heavily used industrial materials and modular fabrication over traditional mediums for sculpture. Additionally, Minimalists began to push the boundaries of art by not only creating artwork with nontraditional materials but also required a physical response of the art’s weight, height, or space it occupied. Distinctions between paintings and sculptures also began to blur with the rise of Minimalism.
From the early years of Minimalism, an undeniably important piece of the movement was Tony Smith’s sculpture “Die” made in 1962. It is a six-foot, which were dimensions determined by the proportions of a human body, cube made of quarter-inch hot-rolled steel with diagonal internal bracings. Weight at about 500 pounds, any larger and it would be a monument, any smaller and it would just be a random cube. The piece invites viewers to walk around it and see one or two blank, rather visually unspectacular sides at once, undermining the traditional aesthetic or emotional appeal art was “supposed” to have. Its title alludes to both die casting, as well as death. Smith remarked, “Six feet has a suggestion of being cooked. Six foot box. Six foot under.” It was through this piece that Smith transformed the way sculpture could look, be made, and even understood.
The first public introduction to Minimalism was through Carl Andre’s entry at the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition, “Lever” which was simply a row of 137 firebricks aligned to protrude out of the wall like a fallen column. It immediately startled visitors, who were simultaneously intrigued and annoyed at its simplicity — after all, couldn’t anybody do that? Andre’s piece challenged the conventional way which art was situated in a gallery and the way viewers interacted with pieces. It was no longer simply a visual experience, but a more complex and thoughtful interaction.
Other notable pieces such as “Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards)” and Sol Lewitt’s “Two Open Modular Cubes/Half Off” continued to push the conventional boundaries of art. It culminated in pieces like Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim)”, which used fluorescent light fixtures and colored tubes in order to create a piece that focused on the lights’ shapes and colors emitted as the art rather than the physical medium. Its nod to Joachim, a British Idealist philosopher, essentially argues that this piece was the essential truth-value of his art and his art was pared down to the true essence of art itself.
View fine examples of limited edition prints by leading proponents of Minimalism here.