The Inspiring Simplicity of Minimalism in Art, Architecture and Design
It lasted only a decade during the 1960s, but Minimalism still stands as one of the most significant and influential movements of the 20th century. A turning point in the history of Modernism, Minimal art introduced a new way of producing, looking at and experiencing artworks in the manner of a proper avant-garde. Not only can its roots be traced back to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, its ideology can also be found in the revolutionary 1913 black square on a white ground by Kasimir Malevich, which turned our perception on painting upside down. Furthermore, when Abstract Expressionists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Robert Morris, inspired by the works of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, the Dutch De Stijl group, the Russian Constructivists and the German Bauhaus, intentionally abandoned the principles of the beloved and dominant American movement, it was clear that the new and exciting era in the arts was about to take over. But what exactly did it mean and take to create Minimalist art and why were so many of those working in architecture and design so fascinated by its philosophy and aesthetics?
What is Minimalism?
Breaking away from the excessively expressive Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism stripped its artworks of any form of meaningful, symbolic, emotional and personal content and began exploring the essence and substance of things. Just like Action Painting relied on gesture to convey a feeling, Minimalists used the medium and material of its works to highlight the simplicity through sleek, geometric works that offered a radically different, literal and objective aesthetic appeal. The artists employed prefabricated industrial materials, as well as extremely simple, often repeated geometric forms and pure qualities of color, form and space in order to allow the viewer an immediate, visual response. As such, a Minimalist artwork did not refer to anything other than itself, which is exactly what these artists wanted to portray in the first place. Their geometric abstraction did not describe anything, neither the external world nor the narrative of a story; the neutral monochromatic palette of primary colors was only there to delineate space, rather than express a feeling; the raw, mass-produced traditional materials did not symbolize or represent anything else but their own selves. As a result, Minimalism and its objects blurred the line between two and three dimensions, painting and sculpture.
Less is More – The Concepts Behind Minimal Art
By the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s, a group of artists previously linked to Abstract Expressionism shifted their creative course toward geometric abstraction, in particular, creatives like Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Color Field painters like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, as well as Hard-edge master Ad Reinhardt. However, turning away from such a successful art movement at the time seemed like a real challenge, since it enjoyed a lot of attention from the public and great critics such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Between 1958 and 1960, Frank Stella created his seminal series of Black Paintings, for which he abandoned brushwork, depth and the regular canvas form altogether to make concentrically striped canvases stretched on a thicker wooden chassis that thrust them out from the wall aggressively. This way, Stella gave life to an object swaying between painting, sculpture and even architectural ornament. What followed is the proclamation of Minimalism as a proper movement, with Donald Judd’s manifesto-like essay titled Specific Objects from 1964 and Robert Morris’ 1966 Notes on Sculpture 1-3”. It was all sealed with the 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition held at the Jewish Museum in New York and Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art written in 1967. Minimal Art was finally on the Contemporary art map and its simple aesthetics was shining bright.
Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, published in Artforum in 1967 and considered to be the main Minimalist manifesto
As paintings were no longer paintings in a traditional sense, a few key abstract painters such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman introduced the simple, Minimalist canvas that had some well-defined characteristics. For instance, because these artworks were entirely self-referential, their presence was meant to be “felt” immediately, through their “hard edges”, or the abrupt transition between areas of solid, unvarying color from a restricted palette, as well as the repetitive patterns and geometric forms resulting in flatness and two-dimensional space. Razor-sharp and bulky, these paintings could easily be considered something else, although they were not exactly sculptures, which still had their own successful category.
Perhaps even more than paintings, Minimalist sculptures had an important role in the movement, as it was largely about creating three-dimensional forms in space using industrial materials like fiberglass, plastic, plywood, sheet metal, or aluminum, and geometric shapes in bright colors. The viewer was to examine the relationship between different parts of an artwork within a repetitive circle of geometric bodies, such as cubes, placed on the gallery floor rather than on a pedestal, like we’re used to. Minimalism was everything but conventional, and artists like Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Anthony Caro and Tony Smith all experimented with different aspects of physicality and space. Their frequent grid-based compositions asked for the artist’s originality and the creation of a special relationship between the viewer and the artwork, and in many cases this relationship aimed for a physical direct contact in order to work. The minimalist sculpture was all about the piece, and it had nothing to do with the artist.
The Aesthetics of Simplicity – Minimalist Design and Architecture
The Minimalist philosophy, as we could see, glorifies a style in which it all comes down to its simplest, most necessary elements. As such, it was widely accepted in the fields of Minimal architecture and design, which were more than willing to explore, interpret and apply the dynamics of clean elements. The goal was to reduce the subject to essentials that were all functional, thus creating void spaces and a sense of freedom, in a way. Minimal design and architecture, like visual art, roots in the works of De Stijl, its rectangular forms and primary colors, as well as the designs by the pioneer of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German architect who laid the ground work for “large-scale” Minimalism after the Second World War. Finally, there’s the traditional Japanese design, infused with culture and Zen.
Minimal design and its practitioners aim to employ elementary geometric forms without ornament or decoration, focusing on a product’s aspects of being useful, rather than being pleasing to the eye – although such focus often brought pleasant aesthetics as well. The items are honest, in terms of being exactly what they look like delivering nothing more than they promise, are environmental-friendly, thorough and quite long-lasting, counting their every detail. Today, many Minimal designers work in the field of consumer products; Dieter Rams, the designer to Braun, created many record players, radios, calculators and consumer appliances in line with the Minimalist concepts. Another example of Minimalism in design would be the Swedish furniture company Ikea, which promotes a sort of purity through the fact anyone can assemble their pieces with ease.
With his famous “Less is more” motto, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe perfectly describes the idea behind his Minimal architecture, which was then adopted by many to follow. In many of his works, we can find many elements serving a variety of purposes – for instance, we would design a floor which would also be a radiator. Minimal architecture, therefore, typically uses basic geometric shapes, harmonious colors, natural textures, open-plan spatial arrangements, neat and straight components, clean finishes, flat or nearly flat roofs, large windows and satisfying negative spaces. The early examples of such visual impact can also be found in the work of Le Corbusier in the 1920s, who also looked to establish functional architectural designs with the minimum focus on the appearance. The innovations in the field came through materials as well, where steel, concrete, and glass provided new challenges to overcome.
The Influence of Japanese Minimalism
Perhaps the Minimalism movement is most prominent in Japan, where the presence of Zen Buddhism instills a desire for a kind of candor. For them, less truly is more, and this way of thinking fits perfectly with this large island nation in such little space to operate with. One other thing to consider is the fact that Japan is regularly beset by earthquakes, which makes it logical not to have valuable, hanging objects around the house. If we look at the old architecture and interior designs, we’ll find that they ooze with simple color, clean lines and forms, following the tendencies present in their culture at large. The Japanese Minimalism embraced this way of life and the people did the same in return, although today there are examples of extreme dedication to the aesthetic which goes beyond the already scarce principles of keeping only what’s necessary. It had a great influence on Minimalism in the West, particularly in America in the 18th and 19th century and it is interesting to see how their ideas merged with Western cultures and design needs – take Frank Lloyd Wright, who adopted the Japanese sliding door that allows bringing the exterior to the interior.
Guided by the search for an essence and substance of things, Minimalism attracted a wide range of practitioners such as painters, sculptors, designers, and architects. After the 1960s when the movement had its peak, some of the artists radically changed their practice and moved in different personal directions. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent names involved with the movement.
A key figure of American Modernism, Frank Stella played a seminal role in the development of Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Color Field painting. Rising to prominence in 1959 with a series of black striped paintings, Stella made a decisive departure from Abstract Expressionism. Dismantling the devices of three-dimensional illusionism and emphasizing the flatness of the canvas, this series served as a catalyst for the emergence of Minimalism. He continued making more complicated work following a natural progression of dynamism, tactility, and scale. Over time, he moved from a monochrome palette to include a wide range of colors. He focused on basic elements of the painting such as color, shape, and composition, following a principle of “line, plane, volume, and point, within space”.
As one of the first artists who created irregularly shaped canvases, Ellsworth Kelly has been a widely influential force in the post-war art world. In his work that included painting, layered reliefs, flat sculptures and line drawings, he focused on the dynamics between shape, form, and color. His paintings are characterized by irregular forms and bold and contrasting colors free of gestural brushstrokes. His visual vocabulary is drawn from the everyday life, using shapes and colors found in plants, architecture, shadows on a wall or a lake. He once stated: “In my work, I don’t want you to look at the surface; I want you to look at the form, the relationships”. Characterized by pure form and color and imbued with spatial unity, his works influenced greatly the development of abstract art in America.
Best known for her evocative paintings marked out in subtle pencil lines and pale color washes, Agnes Martin imparted a legacy of abstraction that has inspired generations of artists. She was guided by the conviction that art has the emotive and expressive power. Strongly believing that spiritual inspiration is seminal in creating great art, her work was influenced by nature, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism. Exploring subtle variations of color and using the grid as and organizational element in canvases, she blended styles of Minimalism and Color Field. Her pieces capture the innocence and simplicity of everyday life. Being diagnosed with schizophrenia, she moved to New Mexico in 1967 to lead a life in solitude and silence. She continued making visionary paintings for over three decades.
A major figure in American art for more than 40 years, Anne Truitt is best known for her large, vertical wooden sculptures that were covered in many coats of paint, but she also created paintings, drawings, and writings. The use of bright colors and her dedication to the relationship between meaning and form set her apart from other Minimalists. Her graceful sculptures were made from standing blocks of wood five to seven feet high. After sanding the wood and priming it with several coats of gesso, she would apply several coats of acrylic paint to create a mesmerizing visual intensity. Her most important works were created in the early 1960s anticipating in many respects the work of minimalists like Donald Judd. Throughout her five-decades long career, she worked within an extremely limited set of variables.
A synonym for Minimalist art, the work of Donald Judd was built upon the idea of the object as it exists in the environment. He used geometric and modular creations that were characterized by plain design and the lack of content, questioning the very nature of art. Free of the artist’s personal touch, his sculptures were intended to emphasize the purity of the objects themselves rather than any symbolic meaning they might have. Rejecting classical ideals of representational sculpture, his pieces assumed a direct material and physical presence. He combined various industrialized materials such as iron, steel, plastic and Plexiglas. Created without the base, his pieces stood directly on the floor and used real materials in real space. His work was often presented in a serialized manner, referring to the standardization of forms or systems.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
As one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe followed a philosophy of open space and clean surfaces. By revealing the industrial materials used in construction, he helped define modern architecture. He was guided by the mantra “less is more”, believing that the most important feature of a housing object is its functionality. Interested in the theory of construction and philosophy, he wanted to complete a theory of aesthetics that would unite the modern needs of a modern man. Favoring new materials such as steel and glass over concrete, he designed buildings that were functional, modern and visually pleasing. His most famous pieces are The New National Gallery in Berlin, The Barcelona Pavillion, Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York City.
Helping establish Conceptual Art and Minimalism of the postwar era, Sol LeWitt created wall drawings, structures, painting and conceptual pieces. His work was pivotal in the creation of the new radical aesthetics of the 1960s. Believing that the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work, he perceived creation as an intellectual and pragmatic act. His visual vocabulary consisted of lines, basic colors, and simplified shapes applied to his own formulae resembling mathematical equations. He employed traditional materials such as wood, canvas, and paint, but placed a great emphasis on concepts and systems. These traditional materials were meant to demonstrate their own vulnerability to decay, destruction, or obsolescence. Sol LeWitt redefined the art production, reducing it to its essentials.
A preeminent member of the Minimalism, the most significant contribution of Carl Andre was to distance sculpture from processes of carving, modeling or constructing. Not carving into the substances, nor modeling forms, his works simply involved sorting and placing of raw materials such as bricks, blocks, ingots, or plates. These materials would be stacked on top of each other without fixatives to hold them in place. He often created repeating units with a studied, reduced and stark feel to invoke the pure essence of the artistic form. Calling himself a “matterist”, he claimed that his sculptures explore the properties of matter. He later referred to his pieces as “sculptures as place”, alluding to the fact that his pieces are produced by placing objects on the floor.
Regarded as one of the early proponents of Minimalism, Robert Morris was guided by the vision of art pared down to simple geometric shapes stripped of metaphorical associations. Focused on the artwork’s interaction with the viewer, he believed that the simplicity of the shape doesn’t imply the simplicity of the experience. He was concerned with new notions of chance, temporality, and ephemerality. Yet, his practice exceeded Minimalist ethos, being at the forefront of some other movements such as Process Art and Land Art. Describing Minimalist sculptures as dependent on the context of their perception, he believed that artwork cannot be self-sufficient in and of itself. He advocated the use of simple forms in order for the sculptures to be grasped intuitively by the viewer.
Characterized by geometric forms and distinct black finish, sculptures of Tony Smith represent one of the supreme achievements of American sculpture. A sculptor, visual artist, architectural designer, and a theorist, he studied architecture with László Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes and Alexander Archipenko and was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. While working as an architect, he designed more than 20 private residencies. His sculptures were based on the concept of a continuous three-dimensional space lattice and a standard tetrahedral module. His most famous piece is Die, a six-foot black steel cube inspired by the two muscles on the back of the neck and characterized by its cold, imposing nature. Covered with black paint, its unreadable surface undermined traditional understandings of art as something emotionally and aesthetically appealing.
What You See is What You See
Also known as ABC art, literal art, reductivism, systematic painting and art of the real, Minimalism was present in almost every sphere of our lives. Apart from visual arts, architecture and design, its influence can be found in literature and music, in plays and novels of Samuel Beckett and the compositions of John Cage and Philip Glass. Minimalism did exist as a movement, although many artists used its principles without actively participating in its creation, and by the late 1960s it all began showing signs of breaking apart in different directions. The need and appreciation of the essential found home in the works of Post-Minimalism-dubbed works of Richard Serra and light installations of James Turrell, as well as sculptural works of Eva Hesse, Larry Bell and Lynda Benglis. Its influences are also incorporated in Land art, through the work of Michael Heizer, Richard Long and Walter de Maria, the famous examples of Feminist art… Today, we still have many contemporary artists associated with Minimalism and the durability of its ideology can perhaps be attributed to the fact that achieving such aesthetics is difficult, yet quite rewarding, both for the audience and the artist. Minimalism employs no emotional content, yet it conveys a strong one with its viewer, which is why it managed to break down all barriers and to meet no limitations on its short but impactful journey through art and life.
Part of Phaidon’s Themes and Movements series, the book offers the first straightforward and useful summary of the output and outlook of the artists associated with the movement in its heyday, as well as its subsequent development into more nuanced visual forms and its relationship to postmodernism. Editor James Meyer is a specialist who has written extensively on many significant artists belonging to Minimalist art. Despite the intellectual thorniness of this art, Meyer avoids the turgidity that marks much of the writing associated with it. The 141 pages of color and black-and-white photographs (including rare glimpses of early work by some artists) and a generous assembly of texts by such key commentators as Michael Fried, Barbara Rose, Rosalind Krauss, and the artists themselves.
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Featured images in slider: Objects and Logotypes: Relationships Between Minimal Art and Corporate Design, Installation View at the National Design Center in Chicago, 1980; Robert Ryman – Twin, 1966; Tony Smith – Amaryllis, 1965, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – The Barcelona Pavilion, 1929; Robert Morris – Untitled (mirrored cubes), 1965/71; Ronald Bladen – The X, 1965; Dan Flavin – Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3, 1977; Robert Mangold – 1/3 Gray-Green Curved Area, 1966–67. All images used for illustrative purposes only.