So here we have a bunch of artists, all basically making boxes and wanting the art world to accept them as Capital “A” Art. So how could it be that none of them get along? Today we look at the Minimalists, and interestingly, we see that the more similar the work of artists is, the more likely it is that they are going to need to describe what it is that they personally are doing, and how it differs from others who are doing a very similar thing.
First, we backtrack a bit and look at the work of the sculptors who were working at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists. Although they followed tendencies from European Modernism (found object assemblage, balanced compositions, biomorphic shapes), and AbEx tendencies (the brushed aluminum surfaces of David Smith look like expressionist brushwork, for instance), these artists were also free to follow Greenberg’s advice that “each art should preserve it’s own opacity bla blah.” This meant that sculpture in the 1950s often worked in it’s own world, inventing modernism on it’s own terms.
Next we look survey the work of artists grouped under the name Minimalism. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, or even the Pop artists, these are not artists who felt grouped in a common purpose. In fact they often occupied distinct perspectives on the work and their reason for producing it.
Robert Morris made boxes that were more about places to perform, or making the viewer aware of his or her body in space, than the craft of making them. Frank Stella painted lines, but never wanted to give up the history of painting or painterly illusion, even when his pieces resembled aluminum slabs suspended on the wall. Donald Judd wanted more than anything to upend traditional concepts of art, and creates the “Specific Object” that is “neither painting nor sculpture” by drafting plans for factory produced objects constructed of exotic industrial materials. Anne Hamilton also produces boxes, but hers are hand crafted, cared for, lovingly painted and talked about as if they were babies carried to term. Sol Le Witt saw that the Idea was as interesting as the piece, and produced descriptions of works that were then brought to term by assistants in his absence.
No matter the distinctions these artists made amongst themselves, they still created a collective body of work that felt cohesive enough to outside observers, and seemed relevant enough in it’s comments on modern life, assembly, and mass production, to earn the lasting label of Minimalism.
Similarly cohesive, yet distinct in it’s fascination with organic shapes, new and expressive materials, and interest in the actual means of production were the process artists who we look at next. And then finally, a quick look at Op art, which in our computer savvy world still impresses with it’s use of tight geometrically controlled lines.