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Two discourses of Minimalism have come to determine its academic reception today, both of which reject theories by the twentieth century’s most prominent critic, Clement Greenberg. One line of thought stresses the objecthood of an artwork against Greenberg’s insistence that modernist painting remain true to the inherent, unique qualities of the medium. The other emphasizes the phenomenological experience one has of sculpture in real time and space against Greenberg’s call for a disembodied, intuitive experience of a work. Either discourse moves its results toward Michael Fried’s dreaded theatricality, where the work of art shifts to the subject who beholds the object, thus overdetermining at once the environment beyond the object and the object itself. Both strains are present in A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958–1968, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), but not always in the expected form. This is the greatest strength of Ann Goldstein’s curatorial gesture.
For Donald Judd, spokesman for the first discourse, an artwork should accentuate its concrete status between painting and sculpture (with an emphasis on sculpture). This legacy as seen in the exhibition, which includes a wall of Judd’s mounted boxes, also gives us Bruce Nauman’s Platform Made up of the Space Between Two Rectilinear Boxes on the floor (1966), a piece that documents the “negative spaces” in the studio through casts made of voids either under or between objects. Nauman’s literal interest in “between-ness” is a nice visual and conceptual extension of Judd’s argument from his essay “Specific Objects,” originally published in Arts Yearbook 8 in 1965, which asserted: “Half of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture.” For Greenberg and Fried alike, a Judd or a Nauman thus flaunted the look of nonart. In this vein, Richard Serra’s Prop (1968) is an obvious inclusion but an apt one; this work’s between-ness creates tension between physical presence and imminent collapse. The most unexpected selection is Claes Oldenburg’s Leopard Chair (1963), until we note the manner in which its flattened, geometric form places it at the interstice between sculpture and painting. And, of course, we have the satisfying encounter with (perhaps) the best-known work of Minimalism, Tony Smith’s Die (1962), a pivot between object-oriented Minimalism and phenomenological Minimalism in that it exists perfectly between object and monument.
For Robert Morris, sculpture that is conceived as a gestalt would break with Greenberg’s Cartesian, dualist notion of cognition because the body’s “eye” is what perceives the work. To demonstrate the importance of this brand of Minimalism, laid out in Morris’s famous essay “Notes on Sculpture” (first published in Artforum in 1966), the exhibition displays a wonderful arrangement of Morris’s corner piece and three L-beams. This work is crucial because the viewer literally needs to walk around each piece in order to discern physically what the mind knows but the eye denies: that each beam is in fact the same size. The L-beams and corner piece were remade for this exhibition under Morris’s specifications but were dated 1964 by the artist, exposing his Conceptualist leanings in privileging the date of conception rather than that of production. (Notably, Carl Andre’s reconstructed works shown here have a recent date.) Robert Smithson’s Mirage No. 1 (1966), a series of wall-mounted mirrors butted to the floor that incrementally increase in size, also relates to a gestalt or phenomenological viewing. As you walk along them, you have to move either closer to or away from the wall (depending on which direction you are going) if you want your reflection to remain “in the picture.” And then there’s Haacke’s famous Condensation Cube (1963–65), with insides that determine its outside: the water within this Plexiglas cube condenses based upon the temperature of the room, something that physically and conceptually indexes the presence of our own bodies in time and space. But at twelve inches cubed, who knew the work was that small! For scholars of my generation, its diminutive physical reality doesn’t match its discursive monumentality.
Goldstein’s narrative could have stopped here, as the conventional Minimalist retrospective might have. However, this exhibition seeks not to present a Minimalist canon, but rather a Minimalist moment through which artists of diverse practices traveled. As such, there are some interesting surprises.
For instance, midway through the exhibition, we are confronted with what I would call the “lost painting” of 1966: Brice Marden’s beeswax paintings, Ralph Humphrey’s frame paintings, David Novros’s shaped canvases, and Paul Mogensen’s mathematic-geometric paintings, all of which were shown at Bykert Gallery in the mid to late 1960s and were marginally cited in the essays collected in Gregory Battcock’s Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968). I say “lost” because the work was made at the boundary between the discourses of Greenberg’s modernist painting and subsequent Minimalist practice, therefore belonging neither to Greenberg’s legacy (they were too object-based) nor to those artists who negated the critic, even when this lost work was included in shows alongside the Minimalists (the work was still considered painting). The most distinguished and oddball work that might be grouped with the artists mentioned above are the frame paintings of Jo Baer, who adamantly refuted, in both discourse and practice, Morris’s general assertions that painting was outmoded and Judd’s specific assertion that “the main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangements of whatever is on or inside of it” (quoted in Lucy Lippard, “10 Structures in 20 Paragraphs,” reprinted in the catalogue, 26). Another instance of a hold out against Judd and Morris’s polemic are the frame and line paintings of Patricia Johanson, who in 1962–64 went to Hunter College, where her classmates included Morris, Robert Barry, Robert Huot, and Anthony Milkowski and where, as the catalogue informs us, Tony Smith was among her instructors.
Goldstein also presents a series of pairings that seems alternately uncanny and didactic. The most intellectually challenging of these is Smithson’s Mirage piece, mentioned above, and Judy Chicago’s decoratively painted Rainbow Pickett (1966, remade 2004). On the one hand, the dialogue seems morphologically contrived and/or politically correct, as Chicago (then Gerowitz) destroyed the work after it was shown and would go on to make feminist work that explicitly countered Minimalism’s industrial, serial iconography. On the other hand, the two artists were shown side by side in the Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966, which reveals a bit of latent historicist meaning. A more comfortable pairing is that of Andre and Frank Stella—the two shared a studio in 1959. Though the visual dialogue may be unsurprising for the viewer, the visual conclusions are not, as you can actually see how close Andre was to Stella (as opposed to Judd or Morris) and thus how close Andre was to Fried’s logic of Abstract Expressionism (albeit by negation). Finally, since A Minimal Future? appears only in Los Angeles, the gallery of work by the East Coast artists Andre and Stella is adjacent to a room of “finish fetish” works by the West Coast artists John McCracken and Craig Kauffman. Thankfully, James Meyer takes the discursive cliché of regionalism to task in his catalogue essay, though he relies on the so-called historicity of the moment, which I think should be examined further.
On the subject of Minimalism’s “history,” an important issue to consider vis-à-vis the show’s provocative title, is a crucial but overlooked point made by Rosalind Krauss in her Artforum article “Sense and Sensibility” (from November 1973), which, in part, founded the phenomenological basis for Minimalism. Simply, she urges that we resist a chronological, and by extension morphological, account of Minimalism because it advances the teleological claim that Postminimalism (i.e., Smithson et al.) and dematerialization (i.e., Barry et al.) supplanted Minimalism. From an historicist viewpoint, those who posit a movement of “Postminimalism” assume that artworks which look different (i.e., Andre’s bricks and Serra’s lead splashes) are not (in fact) working within the same sensibility; conversely those who propose a movement of “dematerialization” assume that artworks which look similar (i.e., Mel Bochner’s measurement pieces and Barry’s empty rooms) are not (in fact) philosophically opposed. As Krauss put it, within generational models of art that understand Postminimalism or dematerialization as heirs to Minimalism, a Stella is always understood in relation to a Barnett Newman and not, say, to a Morris or a Judd. Latent in such models is Greenberg’s notion that aesthetic solutions and evolutions in avant-garde painting advance art to pure abstract form.
On this note, it is refreshing to read Diedrich Diedrichsen’s catalogue essay on Minimalist music, in which he considers, on the one hand, the intellectual similarity between Minimalist music and the phenomenological branch of Minimalist sculpture, and, on the other, Minimalism’s presumed antithetical counterpart, psychedelic culture. The imperative to see beyond historicizations and related morphologies is also made for so-called Postminimalist artworks:
Keith Strickland is … at a loss to understand “what Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) has to do with Minimalism.” At first sight he would seem to be correct, in terms of virtually all of the current attempts to define the characteristic features of the Minimalism of this or that particular form or medium. However, the situation changes when one attempts to establish a connection between various Minimalisms by describing them in terms of their underlying philosophical questions. (127–28)
A consideration of Yvonne Rainer’s dance work in A Minimal Future? would have substantiated Diedrichsen’s argument. Regrettably, her work is explored only in the catalogue by Carrie Lambert (though MOCA did cohost a night of Rainer’s performances at the J. Paul Getty Museum). Lambert makes a like-minded argument to Diedrichsen when examining Rainer’s We Shall Run performance, which I feel is important enough to cite at length:
With We Shall Run’s internal complexity and even compromise, I might seem to have located at least one clear difference between performance and visual art at that moment. Then again, many writers have pointed out seeming contradictions within key examples of Minimal visual art: the provocative, literary titles of Stella’s Black Paintings, for example, or Judd’s use of color. And here is where We Shall Run becomes meta-Minimalist. Rainer’s use of juxtaposition and tension in performance might be understood to further adjust our vision to Minimalism’s play of opposites—to help us see the way the photographs of even Morris’s plain, grey plywood exhibitions present a visual background of forms, with objects hanging from the ceiling, running up the wall, tilting as if in a funhouse mirror. Or to help us find, with Rainer herself, a largely overlooked aspect of Minimal sculpture: its funny bone. “I am still able to see them as stolid, intrepid entities that keep the floor down,” she wrote of Morris’s works in 1967, “and then I laugh.” (109)
This ability to look beyond the usual morphological or chronological connections of Minimalist artwork, instanced by Lambert and Diedrichsen, is the strength of Goldstein’s curatorial vision, even when, at times, we resist what we encounter against our conventional expectations.
With all this talk of history, the question remains: what is Minimalism’s future? The exhibition is the latest of MOCA’s attempts to establish a chronology for postwar practices. Conceptualism’s moment was established as 1965–75 in the museum’s 1995 exhibition Reconsidering the Object of Art, while Minimalism’s time frame is now defined as 1958–68 in A Minimalist Future?. The problem with chronologies is that by nature they assert a “been there, done that” aspect to artwork. However, as Anne Rorimer states in the catalogue for the present show, there are “intersecting and shared lines of thought” (78) between the two movements, witnessed in the work of Smithson, Bochner, Nauman, Haacke, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and Michael Asher, which appeared in both MOCA exhibitions. For me, the most visually arresting overlap was seeing the same work by Dan Graham, his Homes for America (1966–67), in both shows. (If Goldstein does a Pop retrospective, it would be fantastic to see it there as well!)
Should we take MOCA’s call to consider Minimalism’s future seriously, the answer may not be the continuation of Minimalism’s orthodox, canonical form against subsequent “movements,” as Andre’s contemporary practice or Judd’s Marfa project would insist. Rather, it may be a return to that moment of overlap among Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Pop—a return informed by later semiotic- and psychoanalytic-based works (produced by many of these same artists) that, in fact, did not supplant Minimalism or Conceptualism but instead continued key philosophical claims made within the visual paradigms of the 1960s.
Assistant Professor, University of California, Irvine
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