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Minimal Art: Painting and Sculpture

Updated on May 16, 2013

Minimal art is a nonobjective painting and sculpture, since the 1960s, that attempts to reduce artistic decision-making to a few simple, logical choices. A conglomerate of styles, it is an extreme development of the reductivist tendency, which appeared earlier in Russian suprematism and Dutch neoplasticism. Despite its European roots, it is uniquely American in its monumental scale, anonymous intention, and conception of an artwork as an objective fact.

In reaction against the spontaneous, antiformal abstract expressionism of the 1950s, minimal art is stylistically predicated on eliminating the artist's personal "handwriting." Instead, it is made with impersonal, often industrial materials and techniques, frequently by industrial workers according to the artist's instructions. In content it tries to erase all traces of pictorial illusion, asymmetrical composition, and biological reference. Rather it employs large, basic geometric shapes that seize the viewers' attention. Associated terms—"ABC art," "primary structures," and "systemic painting"—suggest that minimal art is also concerned with more traditional formalist aesthetics.



Crucial to the formulation of minimal painting have been the hard-edge, geometric, color-field works of Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman. Color-field painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Kenneth Noland created some minimal works characterized by overall grids, bars, squares, chevrons, and circles or a single field of strong color on huge canvases. They did serial paintings on one theme and modular paintings composed of standardized units.

Such work, using industrial paint or acrylic stain, tends to be "post-painterly" or nonpainterly, often having a textureless, mechanical finish. The critic Lawrence Alloway referred to such work exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1966 as "systemic painting." Robert Ryman, Patricia Johanson, and Al Held also produced minimalist works.



Monumental, geometric, and often serial or modular, much minimal sculpture was planned to create an environment, indoors or outdoors. Tony Smith fabricated neutrally finished steel boxes. The austere, rigorous work of Robert Morris includes an 8-foot (2.4-meter) plywood column as a dance prop and massive, light gray, plywood boxes and other "unitary objects," which related to each viewer's body space. His Notes on Sculpture (1966–1969) provides penetrating and authoritative insights into minimal art.

Donald Judd, believing nonminimal sculptural traditions to be exhausted, substituted "specific objects," simple shapes that have a visually memorable unity. Multiples of such objects, of metal, plastic, plywood, or masonite, spray painted or lacquered, had a bland ubiquity. Judd and Morris often left their works untitled. Other minimalists include Sol LeWitt, known for white cube lattices; Carl Andre, who made environmental assemblages of standardized units such as firebrick; and Dan Flavin, who created environments with fluorescent lights.


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