The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art: 10 Artists Who Mastered the Art of Simplicity

Introduction to Minimalism: Donald Judd, Untitled (Stack), 1967. Donald Judd, Untitled (Stack), 1967. Image courtesy of Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder via Flickr.

Breaking free from the notion of art being a form of expression, Minimalist art and painting countered the emotion of Abstract Expressionism and questioned what actually constituted art, as part of a movement that continues to have a profound effect today. 

“What you see is what you see”

Frank Stella

Rejecting anything related to the real world, or reflecting any emotion, Minimalist art extended the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not imitate any other thing. Instead, Minimalism forces viewers to respond to what’s in front of them, which is evident in the philosophy and artwork of Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, and Frank Stella.

Emerging as a reaction to the emotional qualities of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-20th century, Minimalism reduced art to its essential elements, focusing on geometric shapes, flat surfaces, and primary colors. Many Minimalist painters explored variations on a theme, which often involved subtle changes in color, shape, and scale. Used as a device to catch the eye and create rhythm, repetition is a common technique in Minimalism, with paintings often emphasizing the flatness of the canvas.

Challenging traditional notions of artistic expression, Minimalism pushed the boundaries of what art can be – and its concentrated form of beauty would leave a lasting legacy. Creating artworks exploring the relationship between form, color, and space, a number of artists greatly influenced other artistic disciplines, including sculpture, architecture, and design in the development of Minimalism, each contributing their own unique interpretations of the Minimalist aesthetic.

10 Masters of Minimalism

Agnes Martin (1912–2004)

The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art - Agnes Martin, Untitled #6.

Agnes Martin, Untitled #6. Sold for $5,011,000 via Christie’s (November 2023).

A key figure in male-dominated mid-century abstraction, Agnes Martin is perhaps most recognised for her evocative painted canvases, covered with pencil drawn grids and finished with a thin layer of exterior paint mixture, gesso. Her paintings were typical of the systematic repetition of Minimalism, but were also tied to her spirituality, which was drawn from Zen Buddhist and American Transcendentalist ideas. “Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness,” Martin wrote “one cannot make works of art”.

Donald Judd (1928–1994)

The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art: Donald Judd, Untitled.

Donald Judd, Untitled. Sold for $8,492,400 via Sotheby’s (November 2023).

Considered a leading exponent of Minimalism and an important theoretician with Specific Objects (1964), which celebrated a new art unchained from traditional painting, Donald Judd started out as a painter, but grew disillusioned with painting’s limitations. “The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall.” Instead, he would be championed for his ‘stacks’ of cantilevered boxes hung vertically in equal intervals, often painted in bright colors to form a striking optical image.

Sol LeWitt (1928–2007)

Prolific in drawing, printmaking, photography, painting, and installation, Sol LeWitt distilled art into its essentials by exploring ideas rather than conventional aesthetics. Finding fame in the late 1960s with his wall drawings and sculptures that he preferred to call ‘structures’ LeWitt’s work is characterized by serialization, repetition, and progression. His vocabulary of visual art contained lines with simplified colors and shapes, which are evident in his Wall Structure Blue (1962) and his Wall Drawings.

Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015)

For seven decades Ellsworth Kelly built a reputation for colorful abstraction and art that would influence the Color Field and Pop Art movements. Kelly’s simplified organic forms were typically large scale pieces in a monochromatic palette that gave them an imposing presence. Kelly wanted to eliminate any trace of the artist so that his works were, as he put it, “objects, unsigned, anonymous”. Despite this impersonal approach, Kelly’s art featured sensual curves and bold color, as he converted snapshots of everyday life into euphoric shades and geometric shapes.

Frank Stella (1936–2021)

The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art: Frank Stella, Point of Pines.

Frank Stella, Point of Pines. Sold for $28,082,500 via Christie’s (May 2019)

An early practitioner of non-representational painting, Stella’s Black Paintings would be an important catalyst for Minimalist art in the 1960s. A decisive departure from Abstract Expressionism, the series comprised parallel black stripes in smooth house paint. The striped pattern was, in Stella’s words, forced “illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate.” Stella remains in demand at auction, where Gray Scramble IX (Single) doubled its low end estimate to sell for $5,155,500 in November 2019.

Anne Truitt (1921–2004)

The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art: Anne Truit, Prescience.

Anne Truit, Prescience. Sold for $317,500 via Sotheby’s (September 2023)

Recognized for her bold use of geometry and color, Anne Truitt was a major figure in American art for more than 40 years, who spearheaded a new direction for modern sculpture. Truitt gained acclaim in the 1960s as one of the early Minimalists, whose hand-painted column sculptures explored the realms of her emotional and psychological life, but unlike her fellow Minimalists, she shunned industrial processes and made her sculptures by hand.

Robert Ryman (1930–2019)

The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art: Robert Ryman, Gate.

Robert Ryman, Gate. Sold for £2,500,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2023).

Best known for his white-on-white paintings, Robert Ryman initially moved to New York to study under jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, but it was after taking a job at MoMA as a guard alongside fellow part-time museum guards Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and Al Held, that his interest in Minimalism piqued. Ryman worked with white and variations of whiteness throughout his career, and he was often classified as a Minimalist, but he preferred to be known as a Realist, as he was uninterested in creating illusions and preferred to present materials at their face value.

Dan Flavin (1933–1996)

After serving in the US Air Force and the National Weather Analysis Center, Dan Flavin found fame with his sculptural objects and installations made from commercial fluorescent lights. He called them ‘icons,’ which he initially paired with monochromatic canvases. He soon removed the canvas and developed his sculptures into room-size installations of light, notably filling an entire gallery with ultraviolet light at Documenta 4, Kassel (1968). His influence was confirmed when the Dia Center for the Arts opened a permanent exhibition of his works in 1983 at the Dan Flavin Art Institute, New York.

Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967)

“Art is art. Everything else is everything else,” said Ad Reinhardt to offer a glimpse of his priorities in life. Famous for his ‘black’ or ‘ultimate’ paintings, he was a staunch defender of the purity of abstraction who sought to strip his paintings of everything external to painting. In fact, Reinhardt believed that art should be divorced from everyday life and should instead be a pure, disinterested, and ethical pursuit. His early paintings in bold, geometric shapes in an increasingly limited range of colors, would be replaced by black, which he adopted until his death from a heart attack in 1967.

Carl Andre (1935–2024)

The Essential Guide to Minimalist Art

Carl Andre, Pyre (Element Series). Sold for $1,762,500 via Sotheby’s (November 2011).

Carl Andre died aged 88 in 2024 and his legacy remains one of pure Minimalism and controversy. Known for his large public sculptures and ‘pile of bricks’ at the Tate that led to vigorous debate about what constituted art. In 1970, he had a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but the death of his third wife and artist Ana Mendieta would lead to him being charged with second-degree murder in 1979, before being acquitted of all charges.

Where Can I See Great Minimalist Paintings?

Minimalism’s lasting legacy is evident across art, architecture, and design, as well as in some of the country’s most renowned museums, allowing people to explore the relationship between form, color, and space, up close and in-person.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York has an extensive collection of Minimalist pieces by Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, and Ellsworth Kelly, while along Madison Avenue, the Guggenheim Museum houses works by Dan Flavin, Robert Ryman, and Sol LeWitt. Staying in New York, Dia Beacon is dedicated to Minimalist and conceptual art, with installations by Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Fred Sandback.

Similarly, the Art Institute of Chicago hosts Minimalist paintings from Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt. Heading west, the Menil Collection, Texas showcases art from Robert Ryman, Barnett Newman, and John McCracken, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a diverse collection, including pieces by Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, and Ellsworth Kelly. Can’t make it in person? Then why not step inside the Guggenheim from the comfort of your home.

Sources: – Minimalism | – Minimalism | – Minimalism | | – What is Minimalism | – Minimalism | – Agnes Martin | – Agnes Martin | – Donald Judd | – Sol Lewitt | – Sol Lewitt | – Sol Lewitt | – Ellsworth Kelly | – Ellsworth Kelly | – Why Ellsworth Kelly Was a Giant in the World of American Art | – Stella Frank | – Anne Truitt | – Anne Truitt | – Robert Ryman: the master of white who took painting apart | – Robert Ryman | – Dan Flavin | – Dan Flavin | – Ad Reinhardt | – Ad Reinhardt | – Carl Andre | – Carl Andre Obituary