Home Magazine A Comprehensive Guide on Minimalist Art

“What you see is what you see.” “Less is more.” “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else.” These are only some of the quotes describing Minimalist art, used by its own proponents such as Frank Stella, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Dan Flavin respectively. Take a glance to our area ArtPills to find more informations about your favourite artistic movements.

Direct yet simplistic, it brought together those who thought art should only be a reference to itself, at a time when a chaotic kind of abstraction was in full bloom. But in order to offer a satisfying Minimalist Art definition, we must first delve into the circumstances and the visions of its creation, and examine the work of those who turned this exciting movement into a force, a revolution, a lifestyle.

What is Minimalist Art?

Spanning visual arts, architecture, design but also music, Minimalist art - also known as ABC art, Object art, Cool Art, Literalist art, Primary Structure art - by definition encompasses works that are stripped down to their essence, both aesthetically and in meaning. Belonging to the vast and highly influential field of Abstract art, it is designed to promote simplicity and substance of form, void of any symbolism, meaning, narrative, metaphors, emotion. Minimalism is also often described as radical, slightly aggressive and quite literal, relying on clean, straightforward structure and colors to achieve an image that simply is what it is. Working primarily with painting and sculpture and using mass-produced industrial materials, Minimalist artists gave their work “a completely literal presence”, as the exact opposite of the trending artistic currents of their time. Discover more about abstract art by reading our article about "Colour in Abstract Art"...


Sol LeWitt, White Cubes in Frankfurt, 1991


The History of the Minimalist Art Movement

Although its official beginnings are tied to the United States (New York in particular) and the 1960s, the roots of Minimalist art can be found in artworks created during the early 1900s in Europe. Some critics go even further back in history, to the first Incoherent arts exhibition in Paris in 1882, which showed an entirely black painting by poet Paul Billhaud, and then to the subsequent showcases as well, which also featured what can now be considered predecessors to Monochromatic painting. Of course, when we are speaking of this particular style, we cannot not mention Kazimir Malevich’s revolutionary “Black Square” from 1915, which famously depicted exactly that - a precise square of black paint against a white background. Together with other geometric abstractions associated Russian Constructivism, but also with the Bauhaus school, De Stijl movement, a new way of looking and understanding art was ushered, one without a personal touch, experience or expression, one entirely dedicated to the purity of form. What Minimalism did in comparison to its peers in Abstraction was take this concept and keep all of its characteristics to a bare minimum - even more so than Mark Rothko’s Color Field Painting, or Ad Reinhardt’s Hard Edge Painting. If you want to deepen more inside the history of American art, don't miss our Art History Timeline...

Like it is the case with many art movements of the 20th century, Minimalism too was born as a rebellious response to the establishment - particularly to Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting, which dominated the market and were the public’s favorites. Jackson Pollock was the nation’s darling, someone whose emotions became palpable with every drip of the paint during his performances, while the expressiveness of Willem de Kooning left no one indifferent. This excessiveness and exuberance in creativity was considered unnecessary by a group of artists - among them Frank Stella, he himself a former Abstract Expressionist - and so they decided to go the opposite way, to give life to artworks that were wholly non-referential and mechanically perfect.

The pioneering examples of such relationship to canvas, and a little bit later to three-dimensional art, were Stella’s “Black Paintings”; the series, made between 1958 and 1960, was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a 1959 group show “16 Americans”, as a group of paintings featuring lines and patterns of black enamel paint. Indeed, seeing these works right next to those of Abstract Expressionists, one could sense a kind of stylistic and linguistic war going on, where Minimalist art uses little, yet carefully elaborated visual elements to fight. 


Frank Stella, Jill, 1959. Courtesy Albright Knox Art Gallery; Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, 1959. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; Frank Stella, Zambezi, 1959. Courtesy SFMOMA


Throughout the 1960s and some of the 1970s, Minimalist art and its artists had notable success. Apart from Stella there was Yves Klein, with his famous Blue artworks; Dan Flavin, whose neon artworks elevated the medium to “high art”; the almighty expansion of Minimalist sculpture, courtesy the concrete pieces of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. Morris’ contributions to Minimalist art are even greater than that - the artist’s “Notes on Sculpture 1-3”, a three-part series of essays published in Artforum in 1966, stand as strong theoretical support of the movement. Minimalism’s intentions to break away from the inherited artistic values hailing from Europe were previously also confirmed by Donald Judd, in his paper “Specific Objects” published in 1965.

In 1966, the seminal exhibition “Primary Structures” took place at the Jewish Museum in New York; what made this group show special was that it put on display all the leading Minimalist artists and their bare, stripped-down artworks. The audience had the opportunity to look at art differently and as independent from their creators, as there was no meaning to it, and to experience (and even interact with!) the works as they are, plain and simple (pun intended).


Installation view of “Primary Structures,” 1966, at the Jewish Museum, New York


Because of these very characteristics, Minimalist art was never in the critics’ favor - in fact, it was quite the opposite. The movement was mainly heavily criticized, most notably by Michael Fried in “Art and Objecthood” (Artforum, 1967), which disses the works for being too theatrical and for relying on the engagement from the audience in order to exist and function.

Nevertheless, the impact that Minimalism had on the world of Abstract art but also other movements to come, is great. By the 1970s, Minimalist art did dissolve into many sub-groups, introducing Post-Minimalism as the natural heir of at least a part of its values. Here we can find works of Richard Serra, but also Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, Larry Bell, James Turrell, but also younger generations of contemporary artists including Anish Kapoor, Martin Puryear (the US representative at the 58th Venice Biennale), Charles Ray, Rachel Whiteread…

Minimalist Abstract Art in Painting and Sculpture

To understand the intentions and visions of Minimalist artists, perhaps it is best to take a look at some of their most representative artworks. These tend to belong to the genres of painting and sculpture, both highlighting experiments with physicality, of the work itself and the space it is in.

When it comes to painting, it very often constitutes canvases in a particular shape, straight lining, and solid color (most typically only one). This couldn’t be more obvious in the case of Frank Stella’s straightforward “Black Paintings” - his mechanic white lines turned to rectangular patterns against a black canvas. By proposing these paintings as canvases with paint on them and nothing more, the artist makes a strong statement against Abstract Expressionism and its leading critic, Clement Greenberg, who suggested that each medium should stay within its own boundaries and never overlap with others - something that Stella directly challenges with paintings proposed as objects. Stella famously stated:

My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. . . All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion…

But perhaps an even better mirror of the Minimalist art is its sculpture, predominantly made of widely available materials such as concrete, plastic, fiberglass, aluminum, or plywood. The aim of the Minimalism artists was for their artworks to exist on their own, deprived of any connection with those who made them. These works were to take up any space available, something that was not expected of an artwork at the time, so they could often be found on the floor, obstructing movement or simply standing in the way.

For a few artists, this element of posed nuisance was in fact intentional; such was the case with Carl Andre’s “Lever” in the “Primary Structures” exhibition, when 137 firebricks were “coming out” of the wall and spreading across the floor, or Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc”, which was removed from Foley Federal Plaza years later for being disruptive of those who worked in the area, due to its size and position.


Carl Andre, Lever, 1966


Indeed, the relationship between Minimalist sculptures and their environments was an important one. Robert Morris’s “mirrored cubes” certainly reflect that as they absorb it; they also invite the visitors to interact with them and themselves on their surface (a method also adopted decades later by Anish Kapoor). Another artist fascinated with cubes was Sol LeWitt, whose works typically stood in open-air, singular or in grids, almost as design elements rather than artworks made by a famous artist.

Somewhere between paintings and sculptures were Dan Flavin’s site-specific works comprising of fluorescent light tubes. Sometimes featuring only one element and sometimes coming in grids, these pieces define their space not through their materiality, but through the composition of light, shadows and color combinations they create, thus introducing us to yet another way of interpretation of what’s in front of us.


Dan Flavin, Untitled. Courtesy Fondation Louis Vuitton


Minimalism Today

Minimalism’s legacy also still thrives in the fields of architecture and design. As an objective, they too had to make functional elements using only what’s necessary, again as previously seen in the works of the Bauhaus school, De Stijl, but also traditional Japanese designs. In the creations of the aforementioned Mies van der Rohe, but also Tadao Ando and an array of Scandinavian designers for instance, we can see clearly defined structures, colors set in harmony, neat textures, precise and clean finishes, lots of uncontaminated space, and more stylistic decisions now typically Minimalistic.

Minimalist art also found its place within the field of Land art, whose artists applied its tendencies to make art outside of its usual space (the fact that nature itself is the artwork itself also complied with the Minimalist “rules”), but also in the works of “independent” artists such as Agnes Martin, Jo Baer, Brice Marden, Blinky Palermo, Anne Truitt, David Novros, and many more.

Today, Minimalist art is considered one of the turning points in the history of art and the 20th century avant-garde movements, thanks to its modern understanding of art that could have also been inspired by one Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades - anything could be art, and everything is art. The concept behind Minimalist art went to occupy other spheres of arts and life itself, as well as many esteemed art collections, both private and public, around the planet.


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