Home Magazine The Minimalist Art Movement

Minimalism is an influential art movement that emerged in the US in the 1960s. Clear geometric shapes, simplicity and a deliberate lack of expressive content characterise Minimalist artworks.  

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“No to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience”. These words by Robert Morris describe well the essence of Minimalism. The material, the medium, the form of the artwork is the reality; there is no other intent. Minimalist artists do not express feelings nor experiences, they rather focus on highlighting the purity and true essence of the material or of the medium to develop the art itself. The movement is born in reaction to forms of artistic expression that Minimalist artists considered too academic and stale. They firmly rejected the over-dramaticity and over expressivity of Abstract Expressionism, favouring the purity, beauty and anonymity of the art object itself.  

The emergence of Minimalism 

In the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant art movement in the US. It was characterised by loose, gestural and spontaneous works; a strong emotional and “dramatic” content; and a profound biographical component in each artwork. In stark opposition to this movement, by late 1950s a group of young artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin were gradually drifting away towards new definitions of visual arts. They were inspired by the freshened ideas coming from European movements such as the Dutch De Stijl or the German Bauhaus, which were not only far beyond the traditional attitude towards painting and sculpture, but also very distant from Abstract Expressionism’s influence: Surrealism

Many artists dropped paintings and sculpture altogether in favour of objects, questioning the conventional boundaries of what can be considered an artwork. From the beginning of 1960s, Minimalism rose to prominence thanks to a combination of different factors including an increasing interest of the art market and museum curators; publications; and lastly, a new patronage system (both private and governmental). The Primary Structures Exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1966 was particularly important for establishing the movement. It included the works of Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, and Carl Andre, who presented naked materials alongside geometric, formally reductive works of art. 


Installation view of “Primary Structures,” 1966. Courtesy of Jewish Museum


The development of Minimalism is closely linked to the flourishing of another art movement: Conceptual Art (What do we mean by using the word "Conceptual" in Art?). Both movements challenged the elitist and misplaced attribution of importance to an art object as well as the traditional structures for making and viewing art.

But, what is Minimalism? And which are its main characteristics? 

What is Minimalism? Its aims and characteristics

Frank Stella, one of the best-known Minimalist painters, famously explained his paintings: “What you see is what you see”. The idea that artists not only did not represent an outside reality, but also did not attempt to convey any meanings through their works, was truly ground-breaking at the time. Minimalist artists profoundly rejected expressing any emotions or feelings in their artworks along with incorporating metaphors as well as suggestions of the artist’s biography. The object of art existed in itself, in its purity and beauty. Thus, the medium or even the material from which the work of art is made, together with the form, is the reality. Minimalist artists were opposed to the definition of an artwork as the unique representation of a genial and gifted individual; this idea was perceived as a distraction from the artwork itself. The aesthetics of Minimalist art reflect the artists’ intent: purified forms of beauty representing qualities such as harmony, simplicity, truth and honesty, in the sense of not pretending to be anything other than what it is. The artwork is reduced to the minimum possible number of shapes, textures, colours and lines. 

These ideas are well exemplified in the work of Donald JuddUntitled” (1972). The artwork consists of a large open box with sides made of copper and the base made of aluminium enamelled in cadmium red, which is reflected in  the interior faces of the box. The simple and rectilinear form, its physical material presence and the deliberate lack of expression make it a truly Minimalist object. In the object, there is no trace of personal, biographical expression, there are no emotions. 


Donald Judd, Untitled, 1972. Courtesy of: Donald Judd Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2021


The re-definition of art is reflected in many Minimalist artists’ choices. Influenced by Russian Constructivism and the readymade of Marcel Duchamp, Minimalist artists favoured the use of commercial materials and industrial manufacturing for their works. This allowed to eradicate any evidence of authorship, of the artist’s hand, like the one that would be found in brushstrokes. Moreover, they used house paint or fiberglass, considered cheap and not so valuable. Colours did not express moods or feelings, but they simply delineated space.  In Frank Stella’s “Hyena Stomp” (1962), for instance, the material and the colour chosen are non-referential: the artist did not pretend to suggest something else. This painting is named after a track by the American jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. Stella painted four converging forms giving shape to a complex prism of colour. 


Frank Stella, Hyena Stomp 1962. Courtesy of ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.


In Minimalist art, the physical space surrounding the artwork becomes an important part of the art experience. Viewers are involved in a more physical way, the artworks demand not only a visual response, but also a material and physical one. The viewer experiences unusual artworks’ qualities such as the artwork height, weight, gravity and even the light as a material presence. On top of that, the perception of the work changes as the viewer moves in the exhibition space, expanding the opportunities that a work of art can offer. What is really important for Minimalist artists is that the experience of their art is also immediate, absolute and accessible to everyone. Each visual and physical response to a Minimalist artwork should come from the viewer's personal connection with and experience of it, not from a previous artistic knowledge or a knowledge of the artist’s biography and oeuvre. Minimalist art aims at de-mystifying artworks, bringing them to their most basal and fundamental entity.

A good example in these regards is Robert Morris’s “Untitled” (1965). The artwork is composed of four identical mirrored cubes. The inexpressive surfaces and rigorous geometry capture well the essence of Minimalist art. Morris displayed the cubes in different ways depending on the exhibition space. He arranged them into different “situations” where “one is aware of one’s own body at the same time that one is aware of the piece”. The viewers are invited to walk around the cubes. The mirrors not only create shifting interaction between the gallery space and the spectators, but also force the spectators to confront themselves in the act of looking at the artwork. The fact that each cube is roughly as tall as a table offers the viewer a kinesthetic experience that is very different from the traditional art experience. 


Robert Morris, Untitled,  1965 (reconstructed 1971). Courtesy of ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020.


Sculptures, paintings and light installations

The Minimalist movement focused on three visual art forms: sculptures, paintings, and light installations. Many Minimalist artists focused on creating sculptures or art objects, giving form to the most experimental and innovative facet of the movement. Through the use of simple forms and industrial materials such as fiberglass, plastic, aluminium, they created three-dimensional forms in space. These works resemble more simple objects than traditional sculptures. Every trace of authorship was cancelled, the work had nothing to do with the artist. A particular attention was posed on the way these works were displayed. Usually placed on the floor rather than on conventional pedestals, the sculptures acquired meaning through the interaction with the viewer. Minimalist artists such as Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Robert Morris thus experimented with the possibility of compositions and the space surrounding them.


Donald Judd, Untitled, 1968. Courtesy of 2018 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Minimalist painters focused on painting canvases with very simple and geometric compositions. They usually used lines or geometric forms, and solid colours. In line with the movement, bulky support for canvases and non-traditional shapes of painting were employed to make the painting itself resemble an object. As in the case of sculptures, the paintings were all about the piece, entirely self-referential. The viewer’s visual response was meant to be immediate, absolute. The paintings were again washed away from any trace of the artist’ hand. Striking examples are the Minimalist drawings by Sol LeWitt. Sol LeWitt created a large number of wall drawings, roughly 3500 installations at different venues such as museums, galleries and universities. LeWitt was helped by others to create and paint these works, and since he passed away in 2007, other artists have recreated his wall minimalist drawings. These drawings consisted in simple, repeated geometric compositions exploring the relationship between art and architecture. 


Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #260 at San Francisco Museum of Art. 1975


Light installations were another way in which Minimalists distanced themselves from traditional art forms. Minimalist artists used fluorescent light tubes to sculpt space into colour zones. The tubes were typically arranged in simple geometrical forms, while emphasis was put on the light emitted. The light works bathed the visitors in artificial glows, creating unique experiences. An example is Dan Flavin’s installation “Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3” (1977). The work consists of pink, yellow, blue, and green fluorescent light and metal components displayed in a grid and mounted in the corner of a room. He used inexpensive, standard-size materials that were available in commercial stores, in line with the Minimalist notion of employing industrial material. The installation creates a gorgeous and seductive aura of colours and light, filling an entire room with an intense energy. The light attracts the viewers in the corner, but at the same time the grid stops them and pushes them away. Thus, the light is a piece of art. As Dan Flavin explains: “One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do. And it is, as I said, as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find”.


Dan Flavin, Untitled (in honor of Harold Joachim) 3 (1977). Courtesy of the Pulitzer ArtsFoundation.


The influence and impact of Minimalism 

The Minimalist movement had a huge influence in the later development of modernism: it offered a new way not only of creating works of art, but also of exhibiting and experiencing them. But the impact of the movement did not stop there. The minimalist philosophy, with its glorification of simple elements, of the minimum, of the real essence has been translated into music, interior design, graphic design, even into a lifestyle. The Minimalist aesthetic is explored and re-interpreted in different fields, especially in architecture and design. The goal is to reduce the subject to its essence, to its function. An example is the work of the architect van der Rohe, whose famous motto: “Less is more” perfectly describes the idea of Minimal Architecture. The Minimalist aesthetic is also explored through drawings, which are nowadays very popular. Minimalist drawings are usually characterised by simple black lines, few elements that truly capture the essence of the subject, and the use of few pastel colours.

Why collect Minimalist Art?

The tremendous influence of Minimalism on modernism as well as its current popularity have resulted in a large diffusion of Minimalist artworks. Minimalist art is immediate and quite easy to understand, it does not require any knowledge of events or art history to discover its meaning. It focuses on the essential elements of an object, which exists in itself, in its purity and beauty. This makes it a perfect option for anyone interested in starting an art collection and has little knowledge of art history and the art market. In addition, Minimalist art comes in different and in a variety of forms: paintings, prints, photography, design, sculpture, as well as in a variety of prices. There are a lot of versatile artworks that can fit desires, budgets and taste. 

This versatility makes Minimalist artworks a perfect addition to homes and workspaces. Clean lines, solid colours, hard-edged and geometric forms can add a good sense of rhythm and cohesion to the space. 


Cover image: Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967. Courtesy of 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Written by Francesca Allievi

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