The minimalist art movement began after World War II and rose to prominence in the American art scene in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thought to be a reaction to movements like abstract expressionism, another post-war movement that was centered around spontaneous creation that highlighted an idea of the subconscious. Minimalism challenges conventional art standards and favors stark and cool imagery over traditional aesthetics. Throughout the movement’s evolution, many women rose to prominence as significant contributors. In an art world typically dominated by men, minimalism offered women a chance to express their artistic vision in a way that subverted the norm. Explore the minimalist art movement through these nine iconic artworks by women.
1. Blanco y Verde by Minimalism’s Carmen Herrera (1959)
Carmen Herrera (1915-2022) was a Cuban-American painter and minimalist artist who rose to prominence late in her life. She became famous for her minimal geometric works. Herrera principally studied architecture, and later took lessons at the Arts Students League when she moved to New York. Though Herrera never sold a painting until she was 89 years old, in 2004, she is now recognized as a major contributor to the minimalist movement, and multiple retrospectives of her art from the late 1950s onward have taken place over the years.
Blanco y Verde (1959) is a stunning example of Herrera’s geometric minimalist art. This painting consists of acrylic on canvas and it comes from a series of the same name. From the sharp, green triangle extending to either edge of the canvas, Herrera’s architectural training and modern, abstract perspective are highlighted.
2. Sunset Squares by Judy Chicago (1965)
Judy Chicago’s Sunset Squares (1965) is another example of classic minimalist artwork that was relatively unknown until later in the artist’s life. Judy Chicago (b. 1939) is an American feminist artist who created a large body of minimalist art early in her career, between 1965 and 1973. Chicago’s minimal drawings, paintings, and sculptures have since been celebrated widely as hallmark pieces of the minimalist period. Sunset Squares (1965) was recreated in 2018 for a retrospective of the artist’s early work. It stands out in her catalog. The cubes present in these sculptures are trademarks of the minimalist style, and the soft color palette provides a personal touch to an otherwise stark piece.
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3. With My Back to the World by Agnes Martin (1997)
Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was perhaps one of the most significant women in the minimalist art movement. What’s interesting about Martin is that although the minimalist movement is often thought to be in opposition to the abstract expressionist movement, she personally identified her artworks as abstract expressionist rather than minimalist. Agnes Martin’s art heavily featured grids and abstract patterns, and often employed slight or muted color.
With My Back to the World (1997) is a work from Martin’s later career. The work features a series of wide, pale stripes on a large 5 ft x 5 ft canvas. It was part of a series of six paintings with the same name and it reflects the artist’s sharp mind and unique philosophy.
4. Repetition Nineteen III by Eva Hesse (1968)
Repetition Nineteen III (1968) by Eva Hesse (1936-1970) is a sculpture composed of fiberglass and polyester resin. It features nineteen translucent pieces, each slightly different from the other, that resemble buckets. Minimalist art typically featured identical repetitions and patterns, but Hesse was less rigid in her approach. The handmade, individual quality gave these forms a unique edge, as they were created from materials one would typically expect to be perfect and industrially made. This is one of several works that defined Eva Hess as a pioneering sculptor in the minimalist art movement.
5. White Chess Set by Yoko Ono (1966)
Yoko Ono (b. 1933) is best known to the public for her marriage to John Lennon, but she is also an artist with a wide catalog of multimedia and performance art. Though she was described by Lennon as the most famous unknown artist in the world, her art had wider exposure than some of the other women on this list who were not recognized for their works until very late in life. Nevertheless, much of Ono’s early minimalist and performance art remains lesser known compared to her experimental music and involvement with John Lennon and the Beatles.
One of the most striking pieces of minimalist art created by Ono is White Chess Set (1966). The work features an all-white chessboard with all-white pieces. This makes both chess players get the same pieces, making it harder for them to actually play the game. The work carries an antiwar message since the players must figure out the way to work together by memorizing the movement of their pieces in order to actually finish the game.
6. A Wall for Apricots by Anne Truitt (1968)
Anne Truitt (1921-2004) was an American sculptor known for her large-scale minimalist works. After rising to prominence following a series of art shows in 1963 and 1966, Truitt became one of the first recognized women within the movement. She was inspired by artists like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt to create works with vast expanses of color. Her 1968 piece A Wall for Apricots is one of the most recognizable works from her oeuvre, featuring sections of blue, green, and yellow acrylic paint on wood.
7. Untitled (Twenty-Five Spaces) by Rachel Whiteread, 1995
Although many of the most iconic pieces of minimalist artwork created by women are from the 1960s and 1970s, minimalism as an artistic style and movement didn’t just stop there. In 1995, Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) created Untitled (Twenty-Five Spaces) and it is apparent in its conversation with the feminine canon in minimalist artwork. This sculpture consists of a series of resin cubes that vary in color and shape. This piece calls back to Eva Hesse’s Repetition Nineteen III in its use of repetition and the minimalist style with some irregularity and handmade quality.
8. Infinity Mirror Rooms by Yayoi Kusama, 1965—Present
Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms are yet another iconic example of women’s excellence in minimalist art. Kusama (b. 1939) is a Japanese contemporary artist known for her sculpture, installation work, painting, performance art, and dots motif. She has been creating her infinity mirror room installations since 1965 and they continue to draw attention all over the world.
The mirrored infinity room shown above is titled Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity. It was created in 2009 to mark Kusama’s 80th birthday. The lanterns placed in the mirrored room create the appearance of endless repetition and reference the Buddhist water lantern ceremony Tōrō nagashi which honors ancestors. The lights in this piece cycle through a minute-long pattern that reminds the viewer of the cycle of life and the generations. This is a fascinating interpolation by Yayoi Kusama of the repetition we see in so many other art pieces in the minimalist movement.
9. Untitled (White Multiband, Beveled) by Minimalism’s Mary Corse, 2019
Women today are still creating various forms of minimalist art that leave an incredible impact on the rich history of female artists working within this abstract style. One incredible contemporary minimalist artist is Mary Corse (b. 1945). She has created a wide range of minimalist artworks in her lifetime. Her 2019 work Untitled (White Multiband, Beveled) is largely reminiscent of some of Agnes Martin’s later work, including With My Back to the World (1997). Corse used a series of grey and white acrylic paints mixed with glass microspheres to create this piece that is stark yet bold and luminous.
Mary Corse continues to be a force in the Los Angeles art scene and the minimalist movement, where so many other women have found their artistic home over the years. Her art often includes glass microspheres mixed in with the paint to create a radiant effect, like in the painting shown above. Corse’s work is revolutionary in its examination of the materiality and abstraction present in minimalism.