Updated: Oct 27
In 1958, a young Princeton graduate,
having just failed his induction exam for military service, decided to move to New York City to find himself. As he worked as a house painter to pay his rent, he inadvertently helped to give birth to a new and one of the more influential art movements of the 60s and 70s.
Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, 1958–60, first appeared on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a group show. Only 23 years old at the time, critics were shocked by his paintings, a series of pinstripes, intentionally two-dimensional and refusing any representative quality.
This was the beginning of the minimalist art movement. Stella’s
famous words, “What you see is what you see,” became its mantra and vision.
What is minimalism?
Minimalist artists in the 1960s viewed the previous movements of Abstract Expressionism and gestural art as elitist and only for the select few. In response, they wanted to create art that removed the importance given to the artwork itself and, instead, focused on the immediate response of the viewer.
Much of minimalist art was also dependent on the conditions in which it was to be exhibited. Conditions such as location, spacing, light and interactivity all played a role in the viewer’s relationship with the piece.
Essentially, minimalist art was never to be representative of anything other than what the viewer got from it within a specific framework of time and space.
Minimalist art used materials that were very stripped down. Industrial materials such as wood, sheet metal, fibreglass or plastic often made up the structure of sculptures. Minimalist paintings used solid colour, hard transitions between colour and repetition to reduce the piece to a basic physical character that held it within its two-dimensional space, never pushing the viewer to see anything beyond what was specifically on the canvas.
Both minimalist sculpture and painting used geometric shapes to give their pieces an almost uncomplicated, yet highly distilled, sense of beauty. To a minimalist artist, this was the representation of truth because the piece was not pretending to be anything other than what it was.
The challenge to the viewer
Minimalism challenged perceptions of what art was and what art could be. It was purposely simplistic, pushing viewers to focus on the immediate response of the piece within its space, its materials and its construction.
For some critics of the movement, the immediate response was to call out minimalism for not actually being a form of visual art. Instead, critics saw the movement as a form of theatre where the relationship between art piece and viewer became a sort of performance. The idea that art did not have to be representative of anything was a difficult one for many to swallow.
And yet, minimalism has lived on even to today, visible in art, design, architecture and more. At its heart within all of these disciplines is a desire to reduce, to provide order, and in doing so, showcase what minimalists believe is a real concept of truth.
By Nathan Durec