What Is Minimalism? A Review Of The Visual Art Style

Blurring the boundaries between sculpture and painting, Minimalism erupted in New York City during the 1960s before eventually reaching international precedence. Learn more about its brilliant backstory here.

Aug 29, 2020By Christina Elia
the 2000 sculpture
The 2000 Sculpture by Walter De Maria, 1992, via LACMA


Minimalism transformed modern art as we now recognize it. Largely focused on music and aesthetics since the 1960s, its sculptural forebears Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt set the ball rolling for a decades-long quest after creative liberation. This historical overview details its metamorphosis across the ages


Who Inspired Minimalism? 

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No. VI / Composition No. II by Piet Mondrian, 1920, via Tate, London


Modernism’s reductionist tendencies laid a Minimalist foundation long before the term materialized. Though New York City ultimately incubated the genre’s popularity in the mid-20th-century, its origins date as early as 1915, when avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich painted his wayward Black Square. Together with Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian leaders took a specific interest in fusing emerging technology with everyday life, compiling common objects to shave art down to its truest form. Paintings no longer served as objective mirrors of a three-dimensional society, but rather self-referential objects, exploring the ways in which a surface could overcome its own physical limitations. Other trailblazers like Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian, whose simple yet powerful paintings illuminated canvassed flatness, continued this practice throughout the 1920s. Early abstract compositions like his No. VI (1920) reveal this generational desire to eliminate figurative techniques, reducing reality to a series of geometric forms. 


homage to the square
Homage To The Square by Josef Albers, 1959, via The Guggenheim Museum, New York


These forerunners catalyzed an objective reassessment of what it meant to be an artist. This could largely be attributed to the 1920s acclaim of Marcel Duchamp, who crusaded against the idea that art should be only emotionally motivated. He believed all revolutionary art should force viewers to further interrogate systems of power, thereby uncovering a deeper meaning. In 1937, proto-Minimalist sculptor Constantin Brancusi tested this notion by traveling to Romania and erecting his 98-foot-high Endless Column, a rhombic tower paying tribute to fallen local soldiers. Painter Josef Albers then cemented Minimalist ideas in modern art education by emphasizing illusionary pictorial depth throughout his Black Mountain College incumbency. His Homage To The Square (1950) exemplifies these key tenets through contrasting colors, shapes, and shadows, entrenched in empirical design studies. Following suit, Color Field painters Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko soon spearheaded another new visual style, stressing aesthetic simplicity and pigmented palettes. 

When Did Minimalism Begin?

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Installation View Of 16 Americans by Soichi Sunami, 1959, via MoMA, New York


Original Minimalists intended to produce even more literal depictions of the world around them. Believing art should only refer to itself, many moved from pictorial painting toward sculpture or printing in order to better their techniques. Frank Stella, generally considered the first American Minimalist, broke out onto the New York scene with a thunderous clang in 1959 thanks to his famous Black Paintings. Showcased at MoMA’s seminal 16 Americans exhibition, this series of striped canvases stretched over jagged wooden frames, juxtaposing precedents from Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline. Absent of any human mark, Stella’s abstraction also assumed the characteristics of its given space while remaining entirely flat, deadpan, and daring, devoid of subjective decision-making. He secured these basic black paintings sloppily yet with conviction, professing their objecthood proudly. His iconic 1964 quote later evolved into a theoretical mantra for Minimalists worldwide: “what you see is what you see.”

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The 1964 Green Gallery Exhibition 

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Untitled by Donald Judd, 1963, via The Judd Foundation, New York


Within the year, a visionary creative lineup blossomed at New York’s Green Gallery. Curator Richard Bellamy coordinated a pivotal exhibition series New Work to parade up-and-coming voices across a variety of media. Constructed from commercial plywood, Robert Morris brandished his Untitled (Corner Piece) (1964), framing the space from a new vantage point. Meanwhile, Dan Flavin unveiled his legendary fluorescent “situations,” the reaction to which proved everyday materials could eloquently infiltrate high society. Flavin’s gold, pink, and red, red (1964), the Minimalist’s first-ever floor piece, stood among other electric artworks on display. Rabble-rouser Donald Judd also made his debut as a serious sculptor here less than a year earlier with his striking Untitled (1963), featuring in a total of five shows throughout its brief occupancy. Despite intermingling at Green, however, none of these pioneers actually labeled themselves “Minimalists.” Leading scholars committed to devising a new vocabulary for describing this monumental movement. 


Essays Published On Minimalism 

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One And Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, 1965, via MoMA, New York


Critical essays published throughout the mid-1960s eventually established a prevalent Minimalist paradigm. In 1965, Donald Judd released his treatise Specific Objects, throughout which he actually rejected the denomination Minimalism. Instead, he argued the genre should be recognized as “specific objects,” ergo an artistic category not easily classified as solely painting or sculpture. Usually, Minimalists fused these two mediums obliquely, overturning traditional European conventions in favor of phenomenology. (This philosophical study weighed subjective experience over objective truth, underscoring how responses to an artwork vary between contexts.) Most also focused on replicating three-dimensional objects as closely as possible, eradicating authorship through industrial tools and bulky, nonconformist configurations. Due to this increased concern with conception as opposed to the procedure, Minimalism also emerged in concurrence with Conceptual Art. Milestones like Joseph Kosuth’s One And Three Chairs (1965) proclaimed the question of the decade: is it art, an object, or neither? 


Primary Structures At The Jewish Museum

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Installation View Of Primary Structures: Younger American And British Sculptors, 1966, via The Jewish Museum, New York


Minimalism hit its heyday in 1966. That year, The Jewish Museum hosted Primary Structures, a blockbuster showcase of over 40 prominent artists. Organized into ten gallery spaces separated by an underpass, the exhibition also received positive media success from early in its tenure. Carefully curated walls presented recent outputs by the relatively eminent Tony Smith alongside Sol LeWitt, who unveiled his Untitled (1966), a wooden floor sculpture prophesying his later work. Primary Structures also launched budding creatives like Anne Truitt into the spotlight with Sea Garden (1964), later known for her large-scale installations. Paintings at the cusp of Minimalism and Color-Field, like Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Disc (1963), also made an appearance. By doing so, Primary Structures forever permuted the idea of a gallery space, foregrounding a cohesive concept rather than examining its individual parts. No longer did the ideal artist simply create. Now, these dreamers set off to design. 


Systemic Painting At The Guggenheim

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Lawrence Alloway Installing Systemic Painting, 1966, via The Guggenheim Museum, New York


Other institutions rapidly emulated this tradition. In September 1966, The Guggenheim celebrated Systemic Painting, a coalescence of American art forms like Hard-Edge and shaped canvases. Geometric abstraction took preference at this presentation of New York’s finest talent, though a description of Minimalism lacked throughout its catalog. However purposeful this decision came to be, the artists on view seemed unquestionably Minimalist. Neil Williams’s Sartorial Habits of Billy Bo (1966) hung perpendicular to Frank Stella’s Wolfeboro IV (1966) in the High Gallery, two gems among an interdependent lineup. Western exhibition spaces were generally shifting around this time, as well, with classic museums expanding duties. Kunsthalles, a German take on a contemporary gallery space, began to pop up all over Europe, regimented based on rotation. Co-ops like New York’s Artists Space continually provided platforms for innovators to express unique hypotheses. Resulting reviews raved, advancing public perception of what Minimalism could truly turn into. 


A Shift Toward Post-Minimalism

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Untitled (L-Beams) by Robert Morris, 1965, via The Whitney Museum, New York


By the late 1960s, Minimalism diverged into disparate theories. Robert Morris led the way with Notes On Sculpture 1-3, his 1966 essays denoting a formal framework for peers to pursue. Particularly, he evaluated Gestalt psychology, which posits an ordered whole is greater than the sum of its components. Morris fully articulated this implication by stressing “parts bound together [to] create a maximum resistance to perceptual separation,” requiring “no regularized units or symmetrical intervals.” Testing this premise earlier, he had actualized his most notable sculpture to-date, (Untitled) (L-Beams). Three identical L-shaped polyhedrons balanced in distinct positions, dependent on one another while deceiving viewers to perceive varying sizes. (It had a different assembly each time.) Later, he’d also postulate how an “arrangement of parts is a literal aspect of the physical existence of the thing.” This heightened attraction to uncompromised materials set the stage for what would later be called Post-Minimalism. 


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Buried Cube Containing An Object Of Importance But Little Value by Sol LeWitt, 1968, via The No Show Museum, Zürich


While Minimalism flowered into another phase, its disciples revealed its roots. Sol LeWitt took Morris’s model further in 1967 when he circulated his essay Paragraphs On Conceptual Art. Considered by most to be the movement’s official manifesto, he affirmed that “what the work of art looks like isn’t too important.” Rather, LeWitt believed “no matter what form it may finally have, it must begin with an idea,” hereby proclaiming “it is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned.” These principles followed him throughout his momentous forty-year career, however, he claimed to abandon Minimalism altogether in 1968. To mark his goodbye, he then composed Buried Cube Containing An Object Of Importance But Little Value, literally burying a cube in a local garden. Today, only photographs remain from this ephemeral event, heralding the demise of a bygone epoch. LeWitt christened it the “death of the author stance.” 


A New Generation Of Post-Minimalists

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Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, 1970, via The Holt Smithson Foundation, Santa Fe


By the early 1970s, Minimalism progressed into several separate artist offshoots. Forefathers Judd and Morris inspired Process artist Richard Serra, whose site-specific sculpture Shift (1972) demonstrates a Post-Minimalist curiosity with blending outdoor and indoor conventions. Though his first-ever foray into the wilderness, he didn’t entirely invent the wheel. Compatriot Robert Smithson compiled Spiral Jetty two years earlier, a swirl-like structure made from six thousand tons of black rocks. Other land artists, like Walter De Maria, jumped on this bandwagon too. Meanwhile, the nascent Bruce Nauman paid tribute to Flavin by parlaying into outside light installations with his neon La Brea (1972). Not all critics rejoiced at this creative fad, though. Historian Michael Fried penned a scathing analysis for Art Forum during the late 1960s, accusing Minimalists of pushing ideology rather than art. While he acknowledged its significance, Fried also shunned Minimalism’s inherent theatricality. A necessary reckoning dawned on the horizon. 


A Feminist Revolution In Art

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Alone We Are Powerless Together We Are Strong by See Red Women’s Workshop, 1976, via The Victoria and Albert Museum, London


A rebellion soon arose during 1974. Promoting an exhibition at The Leo Castelli Gallery, a naked Robert Morris puffed his chest covered in gold chains, photographed donning a Nazi-era helmet. Protesters who previously participated in the Civil Rights Movement took rightful umbrage at this prejudiced portrait, calling for the image’s recall. Notably, many objectors were women who then pivoted to focus on the wider issue of gender and racial equality. What subsequently ensued can only be described as a phenomenal domino effect, upending every corner of the contemporary industry. Female artists who aligned with feminism’s second U.S. wave took to the streets to picket galleries or museums believed to promote unjust practices. Soon, all-women mastheads founded magazines such as Heresies, and dissertations like Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists circulated the globe. Feminist fliers declaring “together we are strong” painted a future rich with diversity. 


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The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974, via The Brooklyn Museum


Before long, this feminist fortitude manifested within the arts. Vanguards campaigned against the male-dominated Post-Minimalist field by aiming to dethrone power imbalances and brutality. Judy Chicago captained this chase with The Dinner Party (1974), a ceramic sculpture depicting a ceremonial banquet. Here, gold chalices and china-painted porcelain rest beside placemats representing prominent women from history, repurposing the stereotypical domestic sphere. (Chicago set up the Feminist Studio Workshop and The Women’s Building too.) Handmade, craft-based, and symbolic compositions also grew from a desire to subvert the status quo. Lynda Benglis concurrently experimented with pouring resin to fabricate Eat Meat (1975), while Eva Hesse achieved a similar pay-off through latex, fiberglass, and plastic. Nancy Graves wielded scraps of animal skin and bones in her esteemed series Camels (1968) and Out Of Fossils (1977), sculptures so life-like they’re almost uncanny. Increased efforts to deconstruct the Minimalist monolith took hold during the upcoming decades. 


Minimalism During Later Years

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Untitled by Donald Judd, 1991, via MoMA, New York


Still, maiden Minimalists didn’t completely fall off the radar. Judd labored until his death in 1994, magnifying his use of nonconventional tools to both aluminum and enamel. In Untitled (1980), he regenerated a prior stack motif through steel, aluminum, and perspex, carefully attending to every detail. Then, Judd arranged five colorful columns in his enamel floor sculpture Untitled (1991), obliterating traces of a compositional focal point. Walter De Maria installed The 2000 Sculpture a year later in Zurich, positioning two thousand polygonal plaster rods across the Kunsthaus. LeWitt then turned to scribble drawings like Wall Drawing #1268 (2005), rendered directly on a gallery wall to resemble a sculpture. Though Morris switched figurative work in the 1970s, he inevitably returned to sculpture with Bronze Gate (2005), a cor-ten steel arch dividing a garden pavilion in Italy. He commemorated one last show at The Leo Castelli Gallery before passing away in 2018. 


Minimalism In Visual Art Today

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Wall Drawing #1268 by Sol LeWitt, 2005, via The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

Today, Minimalism is most often employed as a colloquial word to denote simplicity. Stripped down to its essentials, the genre’s aftereffects extend from home decor to automobiles, filmmaking, and even writing. Within the arts sphere, though, Minimalism undeniably conjures memories of a radical time in human history, a forward fight for freedom many still battle today. However unintentional this may have been, it ushered in a more democratic artistic era, one where women, people of color, and other marginalized groups could actually afford a seat at the table. Minimalism also broke down barriers between typical media while simultaneously revolutionizing both the artist and viewer experience. By doing so, its successors effectively dismantled post-war America’s prevailing artistic hierarchy, once commanded by influential critic Clement Greenberg. These ramifications can never be reversed. But for those renegade Minimalists who sought an initial insurgence during the 1960s, perhaps this is exactly the point.

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By Christina EliaChristina Elia is a contributing writer whose work focuses on the intersection between visual culture and language. She was born and raised in New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from creative nonfiction to street art, culture, and travel. Christina’s work has been published in online publications such as The Odyssey, Select City, CURA, and has appeared in print in The Tishman Review and UP.