Minimal Art is one of the less appreciated contemporary movements of all times, but here we will show you its most important features, to make it more accessible (remember that if you don’t like some artworks or even some movements as a whole it’s fine! You don’t have to like everything to appreciate contemporary art).
The movement is also known as Minimalism, but is not the proper name, and it can be confused with the minimalist lifestyle that is so popular among influencers right now. That lifestyle is of course related to the concept of reducing everything to the absolute necessary, but goes in a totally different direction. We will be referring only to Minimal Art for this reason.
Historical and artistic background
Minimal Art developed in the ’60s, and like the Pop Art and the New Realism it focuses on the objects, even if a completely different way. The artists at that time were feeling the need to reflect the society of that time, again absorbed by the mass consumption and the industry and communication, and the Minimalists were working towards this aim. We will see in the next paragraphs how they did it.
Also, the Abstract Expressionism was fundamental for the development of Minimal Art, as they prepared the American public to abstract images.
The basic idea of Minimal Art was to reduce all the excess the society was focusing in, going back to the essential. This concerns both the shapes of the artworks (geometrically perfect, with clean lines, basic structures) and the meaning of the art: they reduced the meaning just at what the observer could physically see.
- This bring us to the next point: this art is meant to have no meaning. I have always said many times that contemporary art is based on meaning and uniqueness, but here we have an exception. These artworks are just meant to be looked at, to bring the observer back to the essential, as we said — although some artworks have actually a deeper meaning, so take these adfirmations with elasticity.
- As we said before, the Minimalists are focusing on the object like other movements, but not in its bright colors or in its recycling: they are focusing on the primary form, on the physicality of the materials, on the weight.
The materials used are coming from the industrial world, and many times (if not always) are not produced by the artists themselves, but by specific industries: metal, neon lights, glass, wood were the protagonists. The color was many times the original one of the material used, or just black and white.
- When installed, the artworks are not indipendent from the surrounding space: the space is collaborating to create the work and it becomes a part of it. When installing a work like these you have to be careful about the color of the walls, the distances between the objects, the angles, because everything has to participate to the final installation.
- As we mentioned, most of the times the objects were not produced by the artists, who in fact wanted a technically perfect outcome; they were produced by industries, to ensure that the final work would have been without flaws and every item would have been exactly the same shape.
Carl Andre was working with scultpures made of prefabricated objects. He wanted to investigate the relationship between the space and the shapes, the gravity and the weight. Moreover, he was interested in the process of building, assembling. This process was putting everyone (the artist and common people) on the same level, and this was what he wanted to achieve.
Robert Morris was the initiatior of the movement which overcame Minimal Art: Anti-form (stay tuned for this one!), but before doing so, he was one of the most important Minimalists.
His main technique was to create very basic architectural forms, but changing some little details that were disturbing the whole view of the installation, like an angle that wasn’t sharp, a cut somewhere or a line of light like in the sculpture we have here. In his late works, already working under the label of Anti-form, he produced less rigid shapes, like soft fabric guided by gravity.
This artist was one of the first artists who worked with neon lights, an industrial material. We talked about him already in this article, and as you can see he is one of the exceptions to the “no-meaning” characteristic. We really suggest you to read that article to have a better view on this brilliant artist.
His neon lights usually don’t represent any particular object or sentence. They are just lines put together in an arbitrary shape and with symbolic colors. The whole environment participates to the sculpture, because of the influence of the light. You can see an example of this in the article about the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. The whole room becomes part of the installation and the observer can actually walk in the artwork and become part of it himself.
He was one of the most strict Minimalists: his works were always perfectly regular, industrially produced, with mathematical precision. The alternance of objects and voids was always underlined, and the participance of the surrounding environment was key.
He was a painter and incorporated all the concepts of Minimal Art into his painting, starting a series called Black Paintings. These paintings were made by painting black stripes on a frame-free canvas, alternating them with fine white ones. The shapes were absolutely regular, but still made by hand by the artist himself. The new and unique thing was that the white stripes were just blank cavas showing through, not white paint on top of it. The fact of using the raw material as an element of value in a composition was a complete novelty. Moreover, he used to change the shape of the regular canvases, escaping from the abused rectangle or square. He created unusual shapes, adapting the canvas to his ideas (and not the opposite).
Other artists and contributors
An important Minimalist was Sol LeWitt. We will speak more extensively about this artist while talking about Conceptual Art, but he was a contributor of the Minimal Art as well. He was using geometric forms to build ziqqurat-like sculptures (like the Four-Sided Pyramid, installed in 1999 at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C). But he was more concentrated on the concept behind his works, and the process of physically making them could be done by others.
For the paintings, Barnett Newman was very important, and we will explain one particular work of his soon. (The link will be posted here as soon as we write it).
After the late ’60s, the artists of Minimal Art were taking different directions (we already mentioned Anti-form, for example). The movement had a short life but a strong legacy.
However, some artists continued on this path, even much later: they are called Neo-Minimalists. Richard Serra is an example of this: we talked about him here!
Many different cultural areas adopted this style, such as music, literature, architecture and many others.