Defining Minimal Art, Part Two

THE DIALECTICS OF MINIMALISM AS DISCOURSE

Part Two

As an art movement, Minimalism was one of the first to attempt to establish its own art writing and its artists attempted to assert themselves against the art critics.  By the mid-sixties, cracks in the edifice of Modernist art writing had begun to appear.  From the years of Neo-Dada and Pop, avant-garde art had been moving beyond the limits of formalist writing. Given its basis in Kantian ideas, which appeared to diminish the significance of content or subject matter, formalist art writing had limited itself of an analysis of the surface elements of the object: line, color, form, shape, texture, composition, and so on. One could, of course, write of an Andy Warhol in a formalist manner, concentrating on the Modernist “flatness” of the picture plane, but such an account would have little of significance to say of the social conditions of its making or the cultural production of the imagery. The art world had moved beyond the art critics, leaving a rare opening for new writers and new kinds of writers.

The previous post discussed the definition of Minimalism and laid out the Minimalist “case” against Abstract Expressionism. Although Minimalist objects were three-dimensional, Minimalism was not concerned with sculpture; the target of Minimalism was tradition of Modernist painting itself. When Donald Judd wrote of Minimalism in Specific Objects in 1965, he opens his essay by stating,

“The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again, not in it as it is being done by those who developed the last advanced versions…The main thing wrong with painting,” he elaborated, “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 arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”

When Judd stated, “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting,” he was also pointing out the modern sculpture had been a reaction to modern painting and has not been a thing unto itself.  David Smith and Anthony Caro transformed abstract geometric paintings into the third dimension and these works, especially for Smith, tend to be frontal, like painting. Judd similarly compared Franz Kline and Mark di Suvero, stating, “Di Suvero uses beams as if they were brush strokes, imitating movement, as Kline did.”

“The main thing wrong with painting,” Judd explained, “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 arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it. In work before 1946 the edges of the rectangle are a boundary, the end of the picture. The composition must react to the edges and the rectangle must be unified, but the shape of the rectangle is not stressed; the parts are more important, and the relationships of color and form occur among them.”

For decades painting had dominated and sculpture had been relegated to the position of follower. Nothing had challenged the hegemony of painting which was why painting had to be Judd’s major target. Painting is relational or composed and Judd lauded Frank Stella’s painting for eliminating the practice of arranging parts in relation to a whole:

“Stella’s shaped paintings involve several important characteristics of three-dimensional work. The periphery of a piece and the lines inside correspond. The stripes are nowhere near being discrete parts. The surface is farther from the wall than usual, though it remains parallel to it. Since the surface is exceptionally unified and involves little or no space, the parallel plane is unusually distinct. The order is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another. A painting isn’t an image. The shapes, the unity, projection, order and color are specific, aggressive and powerful.”

Judd’s analysis of  Stella’s work understood his friend’s painting in a way that was similar to the analysis in Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters” of 1965, with its excellent section on the painter Frank Stella.  Fried, like Judd, saw Stella’s paintings as shapes stamped out and thrusting themselves forward, projecting aggressively from the wall.  With the hindsight afforded by the past fifty years, it is possible to place Frank Stella’s work out of the category of Modernist painting—which was where Fried analyzed it and to position his work from 1958-1965 in the Minimalist column. As Merve Ünsal wrote in an undated article,  Minimalist Art vs. Modernist Sensibility: A Close Reading of Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,

“The issue of defining Minimalism is thus one of modernist genealogy, where different critical opinions contextualize the work. The multiple narratives of modernism were an issue for Frank Stella himself, whose work was one of the central elements of disagreement between the Minimalists and Michael Fried. Stella’s work was claimed by Minimalist Carl Andre, as well as by Michael Fried. Retrospectively, Fried commented, ‘Carl Andre and I were fighting for his soul.’”

Judd was alert to the object-like qualities of Stella’s work and he was careful to set it apart from historical painting and sculpture. When referring to Minimalism, Judd used the term “three-dimensional work” and explained why the three-dimensional objects solved the problems of painting:

“Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors – which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present.” He continued,”In the new work the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. There aren’t any neutral or moderate areas or parts, any connections or transitional areas.”

As Roberta Smith summed up in her April 2012 article on Frank Stella, Laying the Tracks Others Followed,

“They (his black and metallic paintings) provide a heady sense of the first few fastest-moving years of his development, when he helped bring the Abstract Expressionist chapter of New York School painting to a close and lay the foundation for Minimalism.”

The specificity of the objects rests in the ways in which the “new” works lie outside the precincts of the emotive anthromorphism of sculpture. These works use non-art materials.  As Judd explained, “Most of the work involves new materials, either recent inventions or things not used before in art.” In addition, “Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific. Also, they are usually aggressive. There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material,” he said.

One of the greatest irritants to a formalist writer or a Modernist critic would be Judd’s flat statement, “A work needs only to be interesting.” Minimalism staked out a claim on a new and unexplored territory outside of the precincts of “art.” “Interesting” was far removed from the concept of art as a transcendent concept and threatened “art’s” claim to uniqueness. In fact, the biggest impediment to writing about Minimalist art was the fact that Minimalism challenged the very definition of “art.” It is on this precise epistemological battleground that the literary skirmishes too place.  Clement Greenberg retired from the fray and the battle to save Modernism was left to his acolyte, Michael Fried. Greenberg, however, put his ever-perceptive finger on the Modernist problem with Minimal art:

“Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper…. Yet it would seem that a kind of art nearer the condition of non-art could not be envisaged or ideated at this moment.”

 It is here with Greenberg’s statement on “non-art” that Fried began his analysis. Fried wrote a perceptive  essay on Minimalism, “Art and Objecthood” in 1967, where he signaled his eventual retreat into nineteenth century art that would begin with, Absorption and Theatricality published in 1980. In many ways, “Art and Objecthood” was  dress rehearsal for the book to come.  For an object to be “art” this object (painting or sculpture) must “defeat” its object-ness.  In other words, a work of art must be unique, singular, a universe of its own, a thing set apart from all the other objects in the world. Minimal art is what Fried calls “literalist” in that it insists on its “objecthood” in order to be “specific,” as artist Donald Judd wrote, and is set apart from the precincts of Modernist definitions of art.

Fried moved immediately in his essay—without any explanatory intervening logical steps—to his conclusion that the objecthood of Minimal art is “theatrical” and non-art: “…the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.” The “theatrical” quality of Minimalist three-dimensional works results from the viewer’s body which inhabits the same space as the “object” and the object is not set apart from its environment. A traditional sculpture would be placed on a socle, a painting would be hung on a wall, a vase in a vitrine, and so on.

But the Minimalist work is fully integrated with the space and becomes a stage presence.  Furthermore the object is hollow, a condition Fried decrees to be “almost blatantly anthropomorphic” not to mention “a kind of latent or hidden naturalism” which constitutes a kind of “presence.” The viewer has wandered into–not a sacred site for art where the work will be contemplated–but into a theater where s/he will have an experience.

For Fried, Modernist art is fighting for its life or to be more precise, the critic is attempting to salvage the traditional Kantian definition of “art” in all its supposed purity. The success of art, he maintains, lies precisely in their ability to “defeat theater” because art “degenerates” when it approaches theater. Fried would go on to elaborate upon this theory in his 1980 book in which he exalts art that is “absorbed,” that is art which is not “theatrical” and does not play to the audience as if it is an actor on the stage. Only art that is self-suffient can reach the place where it is free of the taint of the real world.  For Fried the very literalness of Minimal art rests in its traffic with all that is non-art so that it is “corrupted and perverted by theater.”

Minimalism was theatrical, because it existed only when the viewer was present, performed only for a limited period of time, like a play.  As theater, Minimalism could not be defined as “art” in Modernist terms. From the standpoint of Kantian aesthetics, which implied that art had to be independent of life, Minimalism, therefore, was “dependent” upon its audience and upon its site.  The lack of reference, the defining characteristic of Western sculpture, the lack of a statement of essentialism, and the intrusion of the quotidian, the utilitarian, and even the non-artistic was considered by the formalists to be a “loss for art,” a “dismantling” of the very definitions of art that was a distinct threat to high art.

Traditional Fine Art existed in a mental space of contemplation and independence and self-absorption, but Minimalism was part of the actual world and interacted with temporality and the audience’s reception.   Minimalism also broke with sculpture as representation or analogy of the human body but incorporated the human body in a different fashion.  The viewer had to interact with the installation and its objects, over a period of time. Thus the Minimalist object existed only in relation to the viewer and was dependent upon the viewer’s presence, and, therefore, existed in time.

The Minimalist object is repositioned as an object among objects, refusing the sitelessness or the “art space” of idealist sculpture on a pedestal.  The viewer enters into a particular space and encounters the Minimal work, which becomes a place in which the spectator intervenes.  Thus a body encounters another body–the human meets, not “sculpture” in the traditional sense, but an object located in a specific and defined zone. In sharp contrast to Judd who also condemned anthromorphic forms and claimed that Minimal objects were free of human references, Fried insisted that due to the theatrical elements of Minimalism anthromorphicism was present. At one point, apparently referring to the work of Robert Morris,  he mentioned the hollowness or humanness of Minimalist objects.  However, few Minimal works are hollow but Fried’s sense of an “encounter” between two beings is intriguing.

Towards the end of the essay, Fried summed up the position of Modernism,

“I want to claim that it is be virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist painting and sculpture defeat theatre. In fact, I am tempted far beyond my knowledge to suggest that, faced with the need to defeat theatre, it is above all to the condition of painting and sculpture—the condition, that is, of existing in, indeed of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present—that the other contemporary modernist arts, most notably poetry and music, aspire.”

What is ironic about the Modernist arguments against Minimalism is that this movement was uniquely dependent upon the art world—these objects were fabricated purely for the esoteric gallery setting. Unlike Abstract Expressionist or Pop paintings, a large gray object by Robert Morris does not blend into the home of an art collector; a temporary grouping of Carl Andre’s metal squares or plain bricks would not survive exposure to the great outdoors. Minimalism, whether the fragile florescent lights of Dan Flavin or the obdurate steel cube of Tony Smith, must be installed in a museum or a gallery. Without the art world as its specific site, Minimal Art could not exist.  In addition, if one accepts the “institutional theory of art” put forward by Arthur Danto and George Dickie, then by simply installing these works in the Greene Gallery or the Jewish Museum, the “institution” or the art world had decreed Minimal Art to be “art.”

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s insightful essay can be seen as one of the last strong defenses of Modernism but it is also an excellent analysis of Minimalism.  Fried expressed the problems that formalist writing and Modernist theory would have with Process Art, Performance Art, Installation Art, and other artistic expressions that were temporal and ephemeral and contingent on their specific sites and upon their temporary conditions. Today, one might argue against Fried and made a case for art as theater but it is clear that this writer perceptively understood the stakes in the game and knew that Minimalism was changing the rules.

It is an intriguing “coincidence” that Minimalism as an art movement emerged at the precise point in time when Continental philosophy was rethinking the very bases of the Enlightenment.  Contemporaneously, Derrida, in 1966, was deconstructing Modernist philosophers, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss and Husserl, Barthes was rethinking his own structualism work, such as his book Mythologies, Foucault was reconsidering the “archaeology of knowledge” as ever-changing “discourse,” and Kristeva was re-introducing the Russian concept of intertextuality or hetroglossia. All of these French writers rejected the concept of the “author” and proclaimed the “Death of the Author” and shifted their focus to the importance of plurality of meanings and sources and stressed the lack of origins.  While the French writers were dismantling conventional artistic wisdom, the new generation of Minimalist writers were dismantling Modernism, bringing the art world to the edge of Postmodernism.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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