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The art of reduction

Minimalism is now most often spoken of as a visual and design technique, and even as a fashionable lifestyle, which helps people to get by with the most necessary things. You can even watch a documentary on Netflix about this ascetic movement and its apologists. But in the 1960s, the term was first used by American art critics to denote the new art trends of young artists and sculptors.
The artists did not call themselves minimalists and generally avoided any definitions, as they were not bound either by a common manifesto or by a long joint search for a new artistic truth. The only thing that physically united them was a joint exhibition that opened on 27 April 1966 at the Jewish Museum in New York. It was called "Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors" and, according to contemporary art historians, that was the first art event to blur the line between the work of an artist and a designer. Art critics immediately began to try on terms for the artists who took part in the exhibition (there were 42 of them): ABC art, minimal art, minimalism. The latter quickly caught on in the press and among art critics. However this did not prevent some of the "Primary Constructions" participants from violently denying the term for several more years, as well as from their own involvement in this spontaneously created movement.
An installation at the "Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors" exhibition, 1966
An installation at the "Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors" exhibition, 1966. Source:

Nothing personal

Minimalism, like most of the postmodernist pioneering styles, arose as a reaction to modernism. Abstract expressionism became its main opponent and the main force to declare war against. The first postmodernists were not satisfied with everything in this movement: extreme emotions, recognizable manners of each artist, artistic charisma and drama, the cult of colour and technology as the quintessence of meanings and deep feelings. Too much spontaneity in the creation process, too much of the artist’s personality in the finished work, too many keys are required for the viewer to understand the subject matter. Instead, minimalists present the viewer with the objective beauty of the object, exclude from the picture context. The viewer may not know and not try to remember the artist’s name, as it doesn’t matter.
Once speaking about his own works, the minimalist sculptor Frank Stella proposed a formulation that became the motto of the entire movement: "What you see is what you see".
Minimalists deny representationalism in art. An object of art is important in itself and has an intrinsic value without reference to the phenomena of the surrounding world and the author’s personality. Pure beauty, pure geometry, the interaction of an object with the surrounding space, often direct integration into the space of the exhibition hall. Neither biography, nor experiences, nor the artist’s worldview have anything to do with the finished object.
The "Primary Structures" exhibition raised the issue of the artist’s role: in the press, in the exhi

The "Primary Structures" exhibition raised the issue of the artist’s role: in the press, in the exhibition halls, at the conference held with all participants, they talked about it. Sculptures by minimalists were often made in industrial workshops, and the artist only participated in this process as the author of the sketch, abandoning the technical part, the embodiment.

For example, American sculptor Donald Judd designed structures that were difficult to attribute to sculpture or painting in a traditional European artistic context. Judd did not make the rhythmically built right into the showroom wall aluminum and plexiglass bars, but simply gave precise instructions to his contractors. Does the idea of this design make Judd its author, the artist? Even fellow sculptors were not always ready to admit this creative method acceptable.

Sol LeWitt, Wall drawing at the San Francisco Art Museum, 1975
Sol LeWitt, Wall drawing at the San Francisco Art Museum, 1975

Nothing extra

The minimalist sculptor and the minimalist artist do not need special professional materials or tools. The special primer of the canvas, the witchcraft of the special oil paint consistency, the frame
It has always been important for artists and art collectors how to frame their works of art. We can paraphrase Shakespeare and say,

“What’s in a frame? That which we call a picture
In an improper frame will look less nice.”

Or, perhaps, the picture’s message will be obscured by too ornate or too plain framing. Here, we present a retrospective journey into the history of framing and its evolution, with illustrations and an expert’s commentary. Read more
selection, the choice of varnish, heating the pastels — all these experiments with the techniques that modernists were so fond of became unnecessary and insignificant; moreover, they were declared a hindrance in the search for objective simple beauty. After graduating from university, young Frank Stella worked as a painter, and he created his first famous The Black Paintings series using ordinary interior paint and brushes from a nearby hardware store. Dan Flavin has worked with a single material for 30 years — fluorescent lamps, which were also easy to buy in any home improvement store. Sol LeWitt created 1,350 decorative paintings, all painted with acrylics on walls, being inscribed not only in the particular wall rectangle, but in the architecture of the entire room. At the same time, a whole team of workers often helped him to paint the walls.
An installation at the "Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors" exhibition, 1966
An installation at the "Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors" exhibition, 1966. Source:
Judy Chicago. Rainbow and Trinity installations. Source:
Judy Chicago. Rainbow and Trinity installations. Source:
Using wood blocks or bricks from a hardware store, minimalist sculptors tried to avoid any manipulation of the original material. They didn’t paint or decorate it, nor did they try to transform it into something else. On the contrary, the material that fell into the author’s hands dictated the future artwork. And, of course, the minimalists had predecessors in this respect to the material as a creative stimulus, whose ideas they continued. Sometimes they inherited and developed these ideas, sometimes they started polemics with them and excluded unnecessary meanings and insignificant details. They reduced shape, reduced expressiveness, reduced colours. Minimalism did not pretend to have additional meanings — only orderliness, beauty and simplicity of the object itself made sense.

Among the main predecessors of minimalism are the artists, sculptors and architects of the German Bauhaus school, the Architectons of Kazimir Malevich, the Vladimir Tatlin's towers. However, all of them were occupied with practicality, utilitarianism, social significance (even speculative, unreal, futuristic) of the created things, whereas the minimalists denied the social and political meanings. Dan Flavin continued to refer to Tatlin in his work for 30 years and created 39 homages to his Monument of the Third International: sculptures made of white fluorescent lamps, resembling outlined architectural structures.

Significant works

Frank Stella. The Black Paintings. 1959

Frank Stella was 22 when he started his The Black Paintings series. He had just moved to New York and was, of course, greatly impressed by the work of the Abstract Expressionists. But he took up his own work when he saw Jasper Jones' work. The Black Paintings are huge canvases covered with a single paint, the black one. The geometric pattern of white stripes is just an unpainted canvas. At 23, Stella became famous. Three of his works were on display at the Allen Memorial Museum of Art, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the same year. Around the same time, Stella said: "A painting is a flat surface covered with paint, and nothing else".
Dan Flavin. Untitled (for Barnett Newman). 1971

In fact, any of Dan Flavin’s works claims to be significant, as each of them uses the light and space of the exhibition hall as materials. Flavin created constructions of fluorescent lamps and aluminum building bars. But it could only be considered finished when it was placed on a wall, in a corner, in a niche. It could be a grid of multi-coloured lamps or just one luminous strip placed almost above the floor level. In any case, the sculptural and pictorial meaning of the work became clear in a darkened room, when the light fell on the walls or enveloped the space allotted to it.
Sol LeWitt. Two Open Modular Cubes. 1972

Sol LeWitt not only painted walls in museums and public spaces, but also worked extensively with sculpture. His favourite original figure was cube. He explained this passion himself as follows: "The most interesting property of the cube is its relative lack of interest. It is best used as a base unit for any more complex shape." And LeWitt used it: he created many cubic constructions, which were internally divided into many small cubes, he made up several identical initial modules, shifting them relative to their common face.
Carl Andre. Equivalent VIII. 1966

In 1966, Carl Andre created 8 sculptures for an exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, and placed them on the floor. Each sculpture consisted of 120 silicate bricks and had a set of similar parameters: the same weight, the same volume, the same height. Only the width and height of the rectangles varied. For Carl Andre, it was important that the sculpture shape the space, and not just take its place in it.
Robert Morris. Untitled, 1965. Source:
Robert Morris. Untitled, 1965. Source:

Nothing eternal

Many artists were scolded for the lack of efforts they made to create the artwork. It began about a century before the 1960s, from the Impressionists. And each new avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
movement (Cubists, Dadaists, Malevich with his Suprematism, Abstract Expressionists) was accused of the fact that anyone else could paint such a thing. At the same time, the achievements of each trend were recognized sooner or later and engraved into the history of art.

Minimalists were the first to question the very importance of such recognition. Their work has become a curator’s nightmare, a challenge to the traditional exhibition organization, a challenge to the traditional system of commercial art evaluation. Often their work was only relevant for a certain room, in a certain lighting, in one curatorial idea. If we take other bricks for Carl Andre’s Equivalents than those used for the first exhibition, would the sculpture lose its value? If you buy a dozen fluorescent lamps in a nearby store and assemble a composition similar to Dan Flavin’s sculptures in your own living room, would this lighting fixture claim to be a work of art? And after all, what about the fact that outside a particular exhibition, a one-time statement, it’s all just lamps and 120 bricks?
Rasheed Araeen. Lovers. 1968
Rasheed Araeen. Lovers. 1968
Minimalists most often did not care about the durability of their work, and those that can now be found in American or British museums are more likely a fluke. And the question about other bricks, for example, was answered by Carl Andre himself: in 1979, he repeated his Equivalents, which were pretty much chipped and worn out, but he took refractory bricks. Because they ceased to produce silicate bricks. For minimalists, only the moment of creation is important, the element of organizing the form in space, the interaction of the resulting object with space and the viewer. And what you see is what you see.
Painters and sculptors whose works are classified as minimalism: Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Eva Hesse, Judy Chicago, Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, Ellsworth Kelly and others.