Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Minimalist art focused on the direct visual perception of objects rather than on the symbolic interpretation of them.

Summary of Event

The term “minimalist art” describes abstract, geometric painting and sculpture executed in the United States during the 1960’s. Its basic organizing principles include the right angle, the square, and the cube, rendered with a minimum of compositional manipulation. Historically a reaction to what young artists saw as the autobiographical gestures of abstract expressionism (a broad movement in art characterized by a lack of representation and by an emotional approach to concept and execution), minimalist art also encompassed the formal innovations of abstract expressionism, particularly as articulated by the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Although minimalism shared with pop art Pop art (“popular” art) anonymous design, deadpan flatness, and natural or industrial color and was even described as “Imageless Pop” in 1966, the minimalists avoided any form of comment, representation, or reference in their work. Minimalism and pop art also shared a philosophical commitment to the abstract, material object. Minimalism (art) Painting Sculpture [kw]Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as Art (Feb., 1963-1968) [kw]Art, Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as (Feb., 1963-1968) Minimalism (art) Painting Sculpture [g]North America;Feb., 1963-1968: Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as Art[07530] [g]United States;Feb., 1963-1968: Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as Art[07530] [c]Arts;Feb., 1963-1968: Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as Art[07530] Stella, Frank Heizer, Michael Morris, Robert Truitt, Anne Judd, Donald

Frank Stella’s “Black Paintings,” which were shown as early as 1959 in the Museum of Modern Art’s Museum of Modern Art Museums Sixteen Americans Sixteen Americans (exhibition) exhibit, inaugurated the period, while Robert Morris’s process-oriented work and Michael Heizer’s earthworks of the late 1960’s signaled minimalism’s decline. Although minimalist art continued to be produced into the 1980’s, it flourished from 1963 to 1968.

Anne Truitt’s exhibition of sculpture in February of 1963 at André Emmerich’s Emmerich, André gallery is generally regarded as the first identifiably minimalist show. The first minimalist exhibition to attract significant critical attention, however, was Morris’s show at the Green Gallery Green Gallery . During the fall of 1963, the gallery was occupied by Morris’s two distinct types of art objects. Smaller neo-Dada works were interspersed among huge gray plywood constructions. The future of minimalism was decisively announced by the sculptor Donald Judd’s first solo exhibition of red wooden reliefs and floor structures at the Green Gallery in December.

The most sensational New York exhibition of minimalist art was called “Primary Structures,” Primary Structures (exhibition) which consisted of sculpture of clean order and high finish, with referential connections to manufactured objects, organized by Kynaston McShine McShine, Kynaston at the Jewish Museum in 1966. Forty-two British and American sculptors were represented. The originality of the show seemed to predict a future trend—minimalist art as a unique retrospective glance at the 1960’s. By 1968, however, much of this art had become mainstream. Minimalist art lay dormant through the 1970’s, rejected, by the end of that decade, as authoritarian modernism by younger artists. It came to symbolize the final stage of the linear progress and reduction associated with the avant-garde and was sometimes referred to as “the last of the modernist styles.”

The term “minimalist art” cannot be credited to any particular individual. In the late 1920’s, John Graham Graham, John named a movement “minimalism”; however, he used the term to designate the presence of a minimum of operating means. Judd used the adjective “minimal” as early as 1960 in a review and later to describe Morris’s constructions. Although there continued to be a reaction to such a seemingly pejorative term, several critics used it without hesitation in reviews of “Primary Structures.” The artists of this period, however, never considered themselves as part of any group or movement.

Aside from being labeled “minimalist art,” the work of this period was also referred to as “primary structures,” “cool art,” “literalist art,” “ABC art,” and even “Dragnet art” (alluding to the popular television show’s catchphrase “just the facts”). It was described as nonrelational, nonhierarchical, reductive, serial, literal, unitary, and specific. Terms such as “presence,” “gestalt,”“nonanthropomorphic,” and “environmental” abounded. Minimalist objects were described as more “real” than previous art, although no one attempted to define what they meant by “real” or “reality.”

Two things distinguish minimalism from previous modernist art. First, the spectator is given a new role as contributor of meaning. As with pop and op (“optical”) art, the “meaning” of a minimalist work is considered to exist outside the work itself. It is part of the nature of these works to act as triggers for thought and emotion preexisting in the viewer, as opposed to the more traditional concept of the work of art as the source of meaning.

One of the reasons for the external orientation of minimalism and subsequent emphasis on the spectator is the requirement that the work be literally and metaphorically empty; the work is a hollow object. The lack of expressive content then induces the outer-directedness of the object, forcing the spectator to locate the meaning of the work within the experiencing self rather than within the object.

Materiality—an unparalleled commitment to matter—was an essential goal of minimalist art. Literal, nonreferential “objecthood” took priority over any form of reference, representation, or illusionism. While theories such as objecthood and all that it implies necessarily exist outside the work of art, however, they are dependent on the work for their justification. Minimalist art, although austere, is essentially visual. It stimulates perceptually and kinesthetically as well as conceptually. Since much of its impact results from experiential factors such as presence and scale, face-to-face confrontation with the physical object is essential. Since its objects lack what were traditionally necessary conditions for being considered works of art, minimalist art appeared to many observers not to be art at all.


Minimalism represents one of those periodic movements of revolt against the “vulgar prosperity” that resulted from the collision of democratic politics and capitalist ambition. Minimalism embodies the frustrated American ideal of simplicity, refracted through the formal idioms of modern art; it exerted a powerful influence on the complex patterns of American culture.

The minimalist moment of stylistic clarity, simplicity, and critical purpose in art was a brief one, partly because no stable community existed to sustain it. Its social basis was the art world—a competitive, sometimes fickle subculture the economy of which depends on a constant renewal of novelty both in art and in opinion about it.

The demise of minimalism is the story of how its critical stance was neutralized by the art business and by the general backlash in American society against the liberal spirit of the 1960’s. A kind of self-righteous greed began to supplant its iconoclasm. By the mid-1970’s, minimalist art had become the currency of lucrative careers for a number of artists, despite the contradiction inherent in the conversion of works of critical import into marketable commodities.

The political intensity associated briefly with minimalism reemerged in the late 1960’s in conceptual art Conceptual art , which reached the conclusion implicit in minimalist sculpture that elimination of the artwork-as-commodity was the only logically consistent basis on which artists could criticize the culture from within. The conceptual artists’ basic strategy was to eliminate the art object completely, offering only written or spoken ideas or enigmatic performances as works, leaving little or no artistic remnants except documentation. Since documentation can be converted into marketable goods, not even conceptual art could circumnavigate the art market, yet certain conceptual art activities that were never documented—and so eluded the commodity system—continued to live in people’s memories as a kind of artistic folklore.

Minimalism was a compelling and important episode in American art because it clarified the fact that artists, despite their ambitions, can only play at superseding the values by which society’s ruling groups legitimize their power. At its best, minimalist art was a plea for commitment to values—such as a clear, contemplative vision, the recognition of illusions for what they are, and a love of physical reality for its own sake—that are not, and probably could not be, widely shared in a highly technological, economically unstable mass society, no matter what its form or content.

The artistic backlash against minimalism was slow in coming, but by the late 1970’s it hit powerfully. A desire for “forbidden” content and emotional surprise coincided with the need to stimulate a cooling contemporary art market and gave rise to a number of works in new media. “Pluralism” Pluralism (art) became the catchword for the new forms and for the resurgence of painting marked by decoration, narrative, fantasy, and pastiche. Some works in new media reflected social struggles; many others merely registered career ambitions with a new shamelessness characteristic of the time.

Because minimalism was considered not an “art style” by some critics, they believed that it would be little more than a mere passing phenomenon in art history. Its objects were industrially produced in rigid materials without any trace of the artist’s hand. Its forms were those of an idealistically conceived geometry rather than of intuitive self-expression. Since its dominant period (1963-1968), however, critics have used the word “minimalist” to categorize any painting or sculpture that is nonfigurative, nonreferential, and nonnarrative or that is even remotely geometric.

What made minimalist art unique was not so much its materials or methods as its philosophical underpinnings. Minimalist art expresses beliefs about the self and the self’s perception of the world that are based on material—objecthood—and space as occupied by that material and the artist/viewer’s body. It is the condition of objecthood that elevates the work of art, theoretically, from the status of mere physical things.

Minimalist art influenced and was superseded by conceptual art, which can be seen as one more step in the reductive process, or what has been called the “dematerialization” of the object. Conceptual art can also be viewed as a reaction to minimalism’s materialistic commitment to the object, for which conceptualists substituted photographic and typescript documentation. Unlike minimalist art, conceptualism placed no premium whatsoever on the object. Both minimalist and conceptual art, however, shared a commitment to straightforward simplicity and austerity through a denial of figurative or formal elaboration. It was exacting art that placed strong demands on the spectator. These demands were anathema to the neoexpressionists, who returned to the hand-painted figure, apparently replete with emotive expression. Art in the late 1980’s revived geometry and industrial production but put them at the service of political, rather than aesthetic, content.

By the end of the 1960’s, a decade that viewed the future optimistically, it was clear that minimalist abstraction had been challenged by a new set of formal and moral values, imperatives tempered by despair over the conduct of American politics (Vietnam, Watergate) and energized by the insurgency and success of the women’s movement. “Postminimalism” was a term coined to denote the shift in sensibility away from the frozen and hierarchical American abstract painting and sculpture of the 1960’s and to characterize the radical nature of new efforts. These attempts embrace open and unstable modes, forms beautiful in themselves despite their unfamiliarity—beautiful on the level of unmediated sensation—as well as forms that called into question the stabilized appearance of the day’s abstraction.

Younger artists, excluded from a circle of elect painters and sculptors, were repulsed by the agenda based in modernist self-referentiality. Abstraction thus became the adversary, and postminimalism emerged. Minimalism (art) Painting Sculpture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Kenneth. Minimalism: Art of Circumstance. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988. In this insightful volume written for general readers as well as specialists, the author is concerned not with minimalism as a style but as a historical moment. Numerous illustrations and artist statements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Battcock, Gregory, ed. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. A collection of twenty-eight enlightening essays by both critics and artists analyzing all aspects of “minimal art” in American painting and sculpture. More than 170 photographs showing important minimalist works are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, J. M. “Aporia of the Sensible: Art, Objecthood, and Anthropomorphism—Michael Fried, Frank Stella, and Minimalism.” In Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting, by J. M. Bernstein. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. A scholarly look at minimalist art and its engagement with materiality, in this case the fleshly human body.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colpit, Frances. Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990. In this excellent documentary history, Colpit chronicles the minimalist art movement of the 1960’s. Drawing on the critical writings of the artists themselves and on interviews by herself and others, Colpit sets forth issues and arguments and identifies key concepts that are crucial to an understanding of minimalist art. Includes an appendix listing major exhibitions and reviews influencing the growth of the movement, numerous illustrations, and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Harry, and Megan R. Luke. Frank Stella, 1958. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. Explores the year 1958, in which Stella painted thirty of his famous “black paintings,” which marked the earliest works of the art movement soon to be called minimalism. Most paintings reproduced in color.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elderfield, John, ed. Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004. A 536-page presentation of modern painting and sculpture since the late nineteenth century. The final chapters discuss minimalist art: “Art of the Real: Pop, Minimal, 1960s,” “Pop Art,” “Abstract and Minimalist Painting and Sculpture,” “After Minimalism,” “Untitled (Contemporary): Modern Art Since 1970.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fried, Michael. “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings.” Artforum 5 (November, 1966): 25-27. Fried’s criticisms of sculpture with respect to surface were first aired in this article. The author’s argument is intricate; he claims that opticality cannot be achieved in sculpture because of the medium’s emphasis on surface. According to Fried, sculpture does not partake of spatial illusionism because it is without a picture plane.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, James. Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An impressive work on minimalist art of the 1960’s. Meyer devotes considerable discussion to sculptor Anne Truitt. Includes color plates, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Minimalism. London: Phaidon, 2000. A thorough account of minimalist art from its early manifestations in the late 1950’s, through its flourishing in the 1960’s, to its influences at the end of the century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munro, Eleanor. Originals: American Women Artists. New ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. A comprehensive survey of American women artists of the twentieth century, with an essay on sculptor Anne Truitt. Includes color plates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pincus-Witten, Robert. Postminimalism into Maximalism: American Art, 1966-1986. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. This scholarly collection traces the history of avant-garde American art over two decades. Aside from the rejection of formalist values and the emphasis on autobiography, the artistic persona and psyche stripped bare, the essays reveal an essential constancy of modern art—the uniqueness of the personality. Numerous illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandler, Irving. American Art of the 1960’s. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. In this well-written and well-researched survey of American art of the 1960’s, Sandler discusses minimalism in its historical context. He examines the political, social, and economic—as well as artistic—reasons for its emergence and decline. Numerous plates, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seitz, William C. Art in the Age of Aquarius, 1955-1970. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Presents a survey of art from 1955 to 1970 and includes a discussion of minimalism. Serves as a time capsule of the 1960’s, providing an interesting angle of vision on the culture of the decade. Illustrations, chronology.

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