Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2002
James Meyer Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties Yale University Press, 2001. 320 pp.; 30 color ills.; 130 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300081553)

The late Craig Owens began his 1979 review of Robert Smithson’s collected writings1 with a gloss on a passage from the artist’s “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” which, Owens noted, fell “precisely at the center” (on page 67 of 133) of the first section of Smithson’s book. Owens’s conceit not only acknowledges the centrality of language in Smithson’s work, but the way in which the essay itself both figures and performs the decentering effects of the “eruption of language into the field of the visual arts.” The fact that James Meyer’s discussion of Donald Judd’s essay “Specific Objects” begins at the center (on page 134 of 270) of his book, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, might also reinforce the centrality of language in his account of the emergence of Minimal art. Meyer understands Minimalism as both a “practical field” and a “critical debate” rather than a coherent style or movement, and concludes that it “now seems desirable to come to terms with Minimal discourse itself as an historical object” (6). Because his objective is to account for both the heterogeneity of Minimal practices and the relation of discourse to these practices, Judd’s essay—in its own heterogeneity—might function here in the way that Smithson’s did for Owens, since it both thematizes and participates in Minimal art’s discursivity.

Meyer’s attempt to map the topography of Minimalism by historicizing the relationship between the work and the texts is one of the most valuable aspects of the book and, coupled with his meticulous and thorough research, allows him to make a number of significant observations. Underlying his analysis of the stakes involved for the participants is a close attention to historical detail—a description of “who-met-whom-when” and the personal and professional alliances that formed (or didn’t) as a result. Meyer’s attentiveness to these interconnections makes clear the multiple determinants that led to Minimalism’s emergence; but the fruits of his significant research might also allow for other conclusions. My own interest in Judd’s essay (whose literal centrality in the book was probably unintentional and whose thematic centrality Meyer might not acknowledge) leads me to draw inferences that differ markedly from Meyer’s, but my understanding of the relationship between Minimal discourse and practice has benefited from Meyer’s insights.

The mutual inflection of discourse and practice is a structuring principle of the book as a whole, which is particularly articulated. Divided into eight sections, each dedicated to a single year between 1963 and 1968 (with additional sections on Minimalism’s prehistory and the 1966 exhibition Primary Structures), the book is further divided into very short chapters that provide brief discussions primarily of the exhibitions and critical essays that function as statements within the enunciative field (to borrow Foucault’s terms) of Minimal discourse. These statements not only surface in relation to one another within a structural network, but also figure against the ground of the chronological divisions that constitute this narrative. Each section of the book therefore serves as a kind of annual cross-section of Minimal theory and practice, reflecting Meyer’s genealogical approach to historical narrative and his reading of Minimalism as a “field of difference, as a strategic game with potential positions to be occupied,” each of which “comes into view, is set in relief, when considered in a differential relation to the other” (4).

However heterogeneous Meyer imagines Minimalism to be, the field he constructs is strictly limited, composed of a familiar roster of names—Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, and Judd—that has been expanded to include Anne Truitt, whose work has been marginalized in most discussions of Minimalism (with the exception of Frances Colpitt’s Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective [Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1993]). A serious revisionist effort to address the relationship between Minimal art and gender, Truitt’s inclusion raises the issue of Meyer’s criteria for determining the boundaries of this field. If her work is “best understood in relation to minimal practice,” as Meyer says, it is because it diverges from the “literalist” practices of other Minimalists (63). But, if Minimalism is inherently differential, how do we understand Truitt’s difference in relation to these practices? While Meyer argues against the “orthodox” Minimalism that Clement Greenberg produced to set Truitt against by virtue of her sex (and against the subsequent gendering of these practices), her work seems to occupy a liminal space in relation to the field Meyer delineates (226). Nevertheless, Meyer’s organization of the Minimal field around these six names provides a framework for discussing issues related to it, including fashion and design as well as gender. The structural field allows him not only to differentiate amongst the practices within the field, but also to broaden our understanding of its relationship to positions and practices outside it, ranging from the work of Tony Smith, Ronald Bladen, and Robert Grosvenor to that of Smithson, Mel Bochner, and Eva Hesse.

The chapter on Judd’s pivotal essay reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Meyer’s project, but, more importantly, it raises larger issues for his history of Minimal art. Since the publication of “Specific Objects” in 1965, Judd’s use of the term “specific” has been the source of as much debate as his syntactically challenged statement, “A work of art needs only to be interesting.” Meyer deals with the latter by tracing Judd’s understanding of the term “interest” to the pragmatist philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, establishing the crucial link between interest and value for Judd. This is a cogent and convincing argument, and I find that Meyer’s acute dismantling of Michael Fried’s willful misreading of Judd’s statement is surpassed only by his equally skillful explication of Fried’s notion of “presentness,” which involves a more nuanced understanding of the tenuous nature of Fried’s model of spectatorship than has generally been acknowledged.

Fried is, of course, a principal contributor to Minimalism’s discursive field; his writing and Frank Stella’s practice mark the discursive and practical limits of that field, respectively. As Meyer’s title indicates, Minimal discourse was not only a critical debate, but also a polemical one, and the internecine conflicts that Meyer perceives within Minimalism are set within—or determined by—the larger polemics surrounding formalist modernism and what Greenberg dismissed as Dada. Although Meyer rejects the primacy and coherence of Stella’s influence that he finds in other accounts of Minimal art—arguing against the singular Minimalism these readings imply—its importance cannot be understated since, for Meyer, Stella’s position becomes the nexus between modernism and Dada, on one hand, and his “practical field” and “critical debate” on the other. Relying on the original transcript of a group interview with Bruce Glaser, Meyer argues that Stella’s discussion of his own work led Flavin (who asked to have his comments removed from the published version) to realize that his “color sticks…were each self-sufficient, they could no longer comprise the kind of unified field with which Stella was grappling” (93). Flavin’s rejection of the “unified field” of painting thus becomes, in essence, an originary myth of Meyer’s Minimalism.

In spite of his emphasis on distinguishing between the practices within this field, Meyer, who rightly points out that Judd, like Greenberg, was very much concerned with the issue of judgment, is not convinced of the link Judd proposed between “specificity” and value. Instead, he considers Judd a kind of “minimalist Greenberg” (paradoxical as that might seem) based on his perception that Judd was preoccupied with Greenbergian quality. Like a number of other writers, Meyer dismisses specificity as a criterion for judgment because of the apparent contradiction between Judd’s call for specificity and the “fugitive visual effects” of his own work—a point made originally by Smithson in 1965 (138). Arguing backwards from Judd’s comment in a 1991 interview that he thought he and Greenberg “wanted the same thing,” Meyer claims that Judd developed an alternative narrative of modernism that was distinct from Greenberg’s in only one particular: its refusal of formalism’s medium specificity (140). Consequently, he reads Judd’s disjunctive statement that the best new work was “neither painting nor sculpture” conjunctively—"The Specific Object was a hybrid form between painting and sculpture" (135)—and concludes that Judd ultimately adopted “the teleological, historicist model of Greenberg he otherwise criticized” (140). But how could this teleological model account for Judd’s inclusion of such a diverse group of artists as Larry Bell, Yayoi Kusama, and John Chamberlain (to name only a handful of the forty-five cited) in “Specific Objects?”

While Judd certainly recognized artistic precedents for the new work, Meyer collapses a number of important distinctions between Judd and Greenberg by claiming that their theories are structurally identical (which is linked to his argument that Judd’s critique of Greenbergian modernism came from within). In my view, Judd’s evaluation of this work was not based on a “narrative of modern art that leads, with a seeming inevitability, from the essentially Cubist art of ‘Europe’ to the non-relational ‘American’ work of Judd and his contemporaries” (134). Rather, when Judd asserted that “linear history has unraveled somewhat,”2 he was positing the very synchronic “field of specific practices” that Meyer proposes, albeit a much more inclusive one. This begs the question of what it would mean to write a history—or perhaps a theory—of the specific object that does not involve an attempt to locate it either within the Greenbergian narrative or Meyer’s canonical Minimalism. For, just as Smithson’s essay would contribute to a more comprehensive decentering of the “field of the visual arts,” one could see “Specific Objects” as a decentering of Meyer’s Minimalist field. Ultimately, Meyer’s impulse to construe Judd’s theory as teleological belies the accuracy of his own conclusion: “Judd’s ‘Modernist apostasy’—his simultaneous proximity to and distance from Greenberg—was a formidable challenge to modernism itself, opening up, perhaps more than he himself would have liked, the field of theory and practice of postmodernism” (141).

Mary Leclère
University of Virginia

1 Nancy Holt, ed., The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: New York University Press, 1979)

2 Donald Judd, “Specific Objects” in Donald Judd: Complete Writings, 1959–1975, ed. Kaspar König (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 181