Minimalist Art Through the Ages
While you may be familiar with the works of Donald Judd and Frank Stella, are you aware of the role they played in the development of the Minimalist art movement? Placing these blue-chip artists in a timeline contextualizes their work within current events and enables comparison with contemporary artists.
The evolution of modern art and the impact of Minimalist artists lends a new meaning to their creations, in time for the big fine art auctions in New York. Minimalism redefined art after the controversial Readymades of Marcel Duchamp and paved the way for the awe-inspiring sculptures of Donald Judd.
What is Minimalism?
The Minimalist art movement originated in New York City in the 1960s and focuses on materials rather than metaphors, drama or emotion. Everything non-essential is stripped away and the substance of the object is exposed. As the Technological Revolution changed the way of the world, a growing anxiety about the end of craftsmanship and originality emerged resulting in art that that had been pared down to the bare bones.
Most minimalist art is composed of simple geometric shapes without any decorative flourishes. It is seen as the culmination of simplified, abstract art.
Origins of Minimalism
Minimalism, like many art movements, was born out of opposition. Minimalist artists opposed the confines of different, antiquated schools of art. They rejected Abstract Expressionism with its high art aesthetic and metaphors. There was also a current of anxiety as a social reaction to the modern era and the Industrial Revolution. Individuality was being replaced by mechanic perfection.
To understand how Minimalism began, you have to understand the climate and what the artists who pioneer it were exposed to. Different aspects from preceding art movements were used as inspiration.
Russian Constructivism is often credited for influencing the development of Minimalist art. The construction of a sculpture became the focal point rather than the composition. These artists cared about the materials and the potential for mass production. Constructivism emerged as the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 and communism began to flourish.
Bauhaus is the foundation of many modern art movements. It attempted to marry creativity and manufacturing. While the Bauhaus artists abandoned many traditional art principles, they maintained intellectual symbolism. Using art theory, they sought to bring fine art to crafts.
De Stijl (or, “the style”) was a Dutch movement that relied on simplistic, geometric forms and primary colors. Much like Bauhaus, it bled into many art forms including architecture, typography and music. It moved away from the excess of Art Deco and sought to create something more appropriate for the modern era.
Marcel Duchamp created a series of readymades, elevating regular objects to fine art. Duchamp turned fine art on its head by challenging the fundamental definition of what qualified as art.
A Timeline of Minimalism: From Influential Predecessors to Founding Members
Famous Minimalist Artists
All of these European art movements crossed the Atlantic and found their way into New York art galleries. Abstract Expressionism maintained popularity thanks to champions like famous art critic Clement Greenberg. Artists who would eventually become Minimalist, opposed Greenberg and his influence in creative circles.
Donald Judd created Minimalist art that focused on objects in their environment. Counter to the popularity of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Judd wanted to remove any traces of the artist in his work thus attempting to remove emotion. To accomplish this, he relied on machine-made materials that questioned the nature of art.
His work drew on the industrialization, technique and aesthetic of the Bauhaus movement which create an impersonal aesthetic.
Robert Morris is often referred to jointly with Donald Judd, as the one of the founding theorists of Minimalist art. Like Judd, he initially looked to Abstract Expressionism until encountering the new art movements coming out of Europe and Duchamp’s revolutionary works. Morris explored a broad range of artforms including performance art, land art and process art and wrote extensively.
Morris began the idea of Process art which involved placing everyday materials in a different way for every installation thus highlighting the process rather than the end product.
Carl Andre is a sculptor famous for large, ordered grids. He had a close relationship to Stella and was inspired by the works of Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian modern sculptor. Much like Brancusi, he was fascinated with the base of sculptures. He took this fascination and abandoned carving for positioning. He would place the raw materials in their environment without fixing them.
Dan Flavin created iconic Minimalist art composed of fluorescent light tubes. He considered himself to be a “Maximalist” meaning he exploited a common, even ugly object. He gave up painting altogether to create exclusively in his new medium. Flavin focused on site-specific installation and how the light altered the exhibition space.
Frank Stella is a post-war icon. Inspired by the expressive paint strokes of Abstract Expressionism, he created work without any metaphors or psychological references. Expanding from black, to bright colors to 3D sculptures, he progressively included non-pictorial elements to highlight components of his creation. His Black Series highlighted the flatness of the canvas, which rejected the notion of Renaissance art that used canvas paintings as a metaphorical window into the world.
The act of cutting back to the core essence of something pervaded far beyond the confines of high art. This concept translated to music, interior design and even a way of life. The Minimalist movement opened the door for trends that are still thriving today like the concept of decluttering, capsule wardrobes and the sleek design of modern Scandinavian furniture.
As you look for signature pieces for your own home, think about why you are drawn to a highly functional coffee table or a simple geometric painting. The pioneers of Minimalist art opened the door for a new way of defining art and the world.
- Replica of “The Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, 1964, The Tate © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
- Model for the Pamiatnik III Internatsionala (Monument to the Third International) constructed by Tevel’ Shapiro, Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaia, Iosif Meerzon and Pavel Vinogradov under Vladimir Tatlin’s direction”, 1920, MoMA, Courtesy CNAC/MNAM/Dist.
- RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, N.Y.
- Club chair (Model B3)” by Marcel Breuer, 1928, MoMA
- Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow” by Piet Mondrian, 1930
- Autumn Rhythmn (Number 30)” by Jackson Pollock, 1950, The Metropolitan Museum, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
- Four Darks in Red” by Mark Rothko, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art © artist or artist’s estate
- The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II” by Frank Stella, MoMA © 2017 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
- Diagonal of May 25, 1963” by Dan Flavin, 1963, The Modern © Stephen Flavin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
- Untitled (3Ls)” by Robert Morris, 1965, Whitney Museum of American Art © artist or artist’s estate
- Equivalent VIII” by Carl Andre, 1966, The Tate © Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2017
- 15 untitled works in concrete” by Donald Judd, 1984, The Chinati Foundation