Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
James Meyer, ed. Minimalism Phaidon, 2005. 304 pp.; 186 color ills.; 110 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (071484523X)

James Meyer’s Minimalism is a large, weighty book, filled with pictures, in between which are crammed immense amounts of information, ranging from snippets of commentary to exhaustive philosophical analyses. The middle section of this tripartite tome contains most of the illustrations, each of which is captioned with a Cliff’s-Notes-like summary. Many are very insightful and precise, providing information on materials, size, scale, and proportions along with abbreviated, sometimes amusing, interpretations. The caption writer, identified as Catherine Caesar in the author’s acknowledgements, relates an anecdote about a shipment, identified as “paper,” of Robert Ryman’s Classico paintings to Germany. When customs officials levied a high tariff on the works, Konrad Fischer “declared that the paper was indeed expensive, yet used, and thus the crates arrived at the gallery labelled Used Paper’” (158). There is only one glaring misinterpretation in the plates section. John McCracken’s untitled yellow pyramid is shown on a gallery pedestal—with a label clearly affixed to the top of the base—yet the work is explained as “a two-part structure,” distinguished by the colors yellow and white and resembling a building with a roof (148). With the exception of an egregious distortion of Donald Judd’s untitled 1964 piece colloquially known as “the red raft” on the book jacket’s spine, the photos are beautiful.

The plates are bracketed by Meyer’s thirty-two page introductory survey of the history and issues of minimalism and a concluding “documents” section anthologizing more than sixty examples of period and recent criticism. If the brief captions in the plates section will appeal to page-flippers seeking information bytes, the “documents” will be primarily used by scholars and students delighted to have these sources at their fingertips.

Meyer’s selection of artists is broad and inclusive (except for the strange near-exclusion of Tony Smith, who receives but an illustration and scattered mentions), and characterized by thoughtful distinctions. Agnes Martin’s and Anne Truitt’s links to abstract expressionism differentiate their works from the hardcore minimalism of Judd, while Eva Hesse’s sculptures are described as “softened and suffused with bodily metaphor” despite their relationship to the art of Dan Graham and Mel Bochner (32). Bochner and Robert Smithson establish the connection of minimal to conceptual art based on their use of serial composition, derived from Sol LeWitt. Southern California artists are also taken seriously as are the many abstract painters associated with minimalism. Meyer acknowledges the significance of the wall for these painters (analogous to the floor for artists working in three dimensions) as “an actual place, . . . a positive term within the work as a whole” (31).

Meyer’s essay raises important issues, which were little remarked upon in the sixties but are central to postmodern interpretations of minimalism. Why, so many people have asked, do the works reveal no effect of the political upheavals of the decade? Meyer counters by noting Judd’s affiliations with the War Resisters’ League and Carl Andre’s role in the Art Workers Coalition. Judd’s politics—or the avoidance of politics in his work—were taken to task by Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn in an essay from The Fox included toward the end of the book. Judd’s defense, “I’ve thought that the situation was pretty bad and that my work was all I could do” (261), has always failed to satisfy those who think art must be a subversive political activity. Andre was less oblivious to the dilemma and Meyer develops a convincing argument reconciling Andre’s Marxism with his involvement in the “capital-driven art world” (35). One of Andre’s solutions, noted in the plates section of the book, was to price a series of his 1971 works at one percent of the buyer’s income.

Another contentious issue raised by Meyer is the elitist nature of minimal art. “Even today,” he writes, “Minimalism represents a popular conception of an elitist art form inaccessible to the common viewer” (36). At the end of the essay, this supposedly elitist work is seen to be “recast within the spaces of the Postmodern museum as visual entertainment” (41). It’s difficult to see how visual entertainment—what most viewers expect today—is elitist. Meyer does not pursue the contradiction nor does he deny the elitism of minimal art by claiming that it is art that everyone can enjoy. On the other hand, he could have taken the unpopular position that minimal art may not be for everyone and requires a commitment to a certain level of difficulty.

Fifteen years ago, Hal Foster raised the issue of minimalism’s sexual indifference by assuming an ungendered viewer (see “The Crux of Minimalism,” 270-75). Meyer’s survey rightfully includes Judy Chicago’s feminist work, which evolved from Finish Fetish, a west coast variant of minimal art. Minimalism is “male-oriented,” he admits, because it represses female subjectivity and thereby “affirms a sexist status quo” (36). Finally, “Minimalism matters” (42) because it rejected the myth of the expressive author and initiated the institutional critique so widely practiced in the 1980s. Meyer compiles a rangy assortment of artists, from Cindy Sherman to Charles Ray, to attest to minimalism’s influence and bring his introduction to an optimistic conclusion.

The “documents” section is very thorough and includes almost all of the influential texts on minimalism. Only five are reprinted from Gregory Battcock’s classic Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (1968; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). A few of these pieces were unknown to me and some would have benefitted from contextualization. Harold Gregor’s “Everyman’s Infinite Art,” published by Chapman College in California in 1966, seems to be a sarcastic spoof on minimalism’s mundane simplicity: “The works need not be viewed; they can be described in words. . . . No skill is required to make the works” (223). It is not clear whether Meyer’s or Gregor’s tongue is in his cheek.

In his selection of articles as well as in his essay, Meyer acknowledges the origins of some of the artists in the Dada and assemblage tradition. In “Blank Form,” Robert Morris’s comment, “the subject reacts to it in many particular ways when I call it art. He reacts in other ways when I do not call it art” (193), surely distinguishes him from an artist like Judd who never relied on language, concept, or context to transform an object into art. Judd’s opinion of Morris’s early forays into minimalism, “I need more to think about and look at” (203), also elucidates the differences between these two leaders of the movement. Morris’s role has always been controversial, as Barbara Rose indicates in an early comparison with Jasper Johns: “Morris seems an artist of such a singular mind that one scarcely fears his becoming an epigone” (194).

Two philosophical rather than art-critical essays, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “The Theory of the Body is Already a Theory of Perception” and Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” are included. Rounding out the intellectual climate of the sixties, both selections were widely read by artists. For scholars, two of the most significant period documents are an excerpt from “[Symposium on] The New Sculpture,” a 1966 panel discussion, never before published, with Mark di Suvero, Judd, Kynaston McShine, Morris, and Rose, and “New Nihilism or New Art? Interview with Bruce Glaser” (which appeared under the title “Questions to Stella and Judd” in the Battcock anthology). Meyer returns to the original WBAI radio recording of the Glaser interview to restore Dan Flavin’s participation in the interview, excised (at Flavin’s request?) by editor Lucy Lippard for the original publication in ARTnews in 1966. Stella’s contradictory remarks about whether or not his paintings are objects in the previously published versions are cleared up in the original interview, which, it should be noted, was consulted and explained several years ago by Caroline A. Jones in Machine in the Studio (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). In Meyer’s restoration (and Jones’s text), one can see that Stella is defending himself in the face of challenges by Flavin, admitting that his painting is an object although he is trying to make it less of one.

Objecthood forms the core of Michael Fried’s famous attack on minimal art in “Art and Objecthood.” Meyer’s excerpt includes only eight abbreviated paragraphs from that essay, which cannot convey Fried’s complex reasoning. This may be the result of failing to secure permission for the entire essay. Incredibly, the book’s acknowledgements advise that “Every effort has been made to secure all reprint permissions prior to publication. However, in a small number of instances this has not been possible” (304). While a few essays verge on irrelevance, Rosalind Krauss’s “Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on Post 60s Sculpture” hits the mark and still resonates today. Another excellent inclusion is the 1975 critique by Beveridge and Burns, which refers to Judd as “the first complete capitalist artist” (262). This will be the theme of subsequent revisionist critiques of minimalism, such as Foster’s and Anna C. Chave’s.

Leftist presumptions, deconstructive techniques, and accusations dominate the final section of documents. After 1980, terms like specific, nonrelational, and objecthood were replaced by ideology, institutional critique, advanced capitalism, and “brute displays of power” (276). The latter summarizes Chave’s attack on the masculinist and implied fascistic nature of minimal art. One can only wonder what such a frequently reprinted misrepresentation of minimalism has on the uninformed reader.

Despite a recent statement by John McCracken, the book comes to a downbeat end with reminiscence-laden obituaries for Judd and Flavin. A little-known essay on the use of color by these two artists, written by Marianne Stockebrand for a 1998 exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston, could have moderated the sense, at the book’s conclusion, that minimalism is dead and buried.

Frances Colpitt
Professor and Deedie Rose Chair of Art History, Texas Christian University