“What you see is what you see.” – Frank Stella
This simple statement by Frank Stella seems at first glance like it best captures the spirit of the Minimalism art movement in the 60s – a sense of tautological and self-referential objectivity, referring to the direct ontological presence of the object. However, as James Meyer points out in his book Minimalism Art and Polemics in the Sixties, the term minimalism cannot be simply defined. The term minimalism can be better understood as a phenomenon that emerged from the interactions between a few crucial artists and critics in the canon such as Clement Greenberg, Michael Freid, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Sol Lewit and can also be seen as a rebellion against the legend of Abstract Expressionism. The underlying desire for minimalism could be seen as an attempt to preserve the value of modernist art by negating it and leading art history to the next stage. The actual value of minimalism is therefore in part derived from its function as a propeller of art history, in part from the rebellion against the individual’s subjectivity suggested by abstract expressionism: “the hands of the artist as the means to express himself.” In other words, by removing the arbitrariness and bias caused by the individual artist, and sublimating the elements that are absolutely neutral and necessary, minimalism art has completed its self-enclosed manifestation in the history of western art.
The complication of defining the term Minimalism is derived from the fact that it does not define by shared properties between different artworks. Therefore, my aim is to dissect the term minimalism through the lenses of five different perspectives. First, I will examine how “Newtonian space” influences the way people talk about minimalist art. The second is to consider minimalism as an analogy to how Kant uses reason to challenge reason in his Critique of Pure Reason. This analogy refers to minimalist objects such as Donald Judd’s sculpture, which uses its own material existence to emphasize its existence. The third one is to see minimalism art as a rebellion against modernism as I mentioned earlier– an attempt to overturn the logic of an artist’s bodily action or subjectivity as a means to the works. The fourth aspect is a discussion of the relationship between minimalism and phenomenology, specifically referring to the difference between Robert Morris and Donald Judd. Finally, I will discuss the paradoxical nature of minimalist art in claiming its neutral status.
Although modern developments in physics from Einstein's general relativity to quantum mechanics or string theory may offer a different view of space and time than Newtonian classical mechanics, I believe the latter’s older and simpler framework is profoundly embedded in the thinking of minimalist art. Classical mechanics offers a notion of absolute space and absolute time, in which space is distinct from the body and time passes uniformly. This idea of space and time, as opposed to the views, for example, that space and time only exist as an emergent phenomenon, or that space and time can only be described within the system in relative terms, presupposes that there are real entities called “space” and “time”, indispensable for material bodies to exist. Especially the idea of seeing “space” as a box that is divisible and consists of “inside” and “outside” was very prominent at the time, whereas the notions of “space”, or a “box universe” are used in both actual and metaphorical ways throughout minimalist literature.
For instance, unlike previous paintings that involve illusionary “space” with depth, Michael Fried points out that post-painterly artists such as Frank Stella eliminated visual depth and brought the canvas, shapes, and colors into a unitary whole, reducing the “space” that is depicted or created in pre-minimalist paintings into a literal flatness. This “flatness” is what is considered the unique condition of painting that is separated from any other art form. For paintings such as the Composition (1917) by Mondrian, although it is made out of abstract geometric shapes, in effect it creates a visual illusion of spatial relationships, like in representational paintings. Post-painterly paintings, on the other hand, aim to remove this illusional space by emphasizing the literal flatness of the canvas itself. Therefore, art itself has completed its metamorphosis, from the space behind the canvas into the surface of the canvas as literal flatness.
Similarly, for Donald Judd, art should no longer be about personal emotion, nor should it be representational. Instead, art should simply exist in three-dimensional space as pure form. He defines his works as the “specific object”, that is neither painting nor sculpture, but actual items. Donald Judd uses simple materials, colors, shapes, and asymmetrical repetitions to suggest a sense of unity, universality, and objectivity, claiming the ontological presence of his “specific objects'' as purely objective. This specific object can draw a parallel to how Kant uses reason to challenge reason in his Critique of Pure Reason. In Judd's case, he uses the material to emphasize and reflect its own presence, without any further attachments or interpretations-- a distinct post-modernism approach. Another way to understand his “specific object” is to compare it with the idea of what Kant considers as “the thing in itself”. “The thing in itself” refers to the objects or events as they are, independent of human observations, perceptions, or representations, in contrast to the appearance of things. Donald Judd on the other hand, uses simple materials, colors, shapes, and asymmetrical repetitions to suggest a sense of unity, universality, and objectivity, claiming the ontological presence of his “specific objects'' as purely objective. This means, he is in some way bring out the property of things that should not be entertainable to us, as "pure neutral" in a metaphysical sense. Eventually, Judd took Stella’s approach one step further: art evolves from the literal flatness into the actual gallery space.
Unlike Donald Judd, Robert Morris’s notion of space can not exist without the viewer’s first-person experience. As we know, Morris was highly influenced by phenomenology, which emphasizes the “phenomena'' or the appearance of things. In other words, the conscious experience by individuals became the central subject to be emphasized on. For Morris, his uses of various shapes, sizes, and the uses of polyhedrons, are aimed at eliciting the direct perception of the viewer. His work L-Beams (1965) considers space as an enclosed box where the viewer would encounter a direct sensational experience from their first-person perspective. Whereas in his later work such as Untitled (pink felt) (1970), the form of the sculpture was replaced by the process, randomization, and chances that invoke the organic occurrence, in which the focus is on the ephemeral passing of time. The difference between these two examples is that the L beam is focused on the viewer’s direct encounter with shapes, forms, and materials, and the second focuses on the temporal ephemeral of the process in space, inviting the viewer to enter the solidification of time. In both examples, space is also present and absent. Space is present, simply as where the viewer encounters the objects. Space is absent, because if we take the worldview of phenomenology seriously, what it logically follows is that the question of whether there is an objective reality is in fact a meaningless question. In other words, while the viewer is present in the same space with those objects, what actually matters is inside the viewer’s head.
Sol Lewit, on the other hand, thinks about the idea of space as rather logical. In his Serial Project, I (ABCD) 1966, he presented the permutations of all possible combinations of individual elements from one-dimensional to three-dimensional structures made of aluminum. His approach to modernism's myth about individual subjectivity is to find absolute objectivity through the means of color, line, shape, and the permutation between these “objective elementary units''. The intuition behind this piece is something like that the permutations between these elementary units create a logical structure that is complete in itself like a tautology. These elements are abstracted into notes that do not stand for anything in particular, which means it is not about the quality but rather the quantity, much like the difference between syntax and semantics, where syntax refers to grammar, and semantics refers to meaning. In other words, for Sol Lewit, art is a process in which all meaning drains out, but only the logical form remains. The idea of space, in his framework, would be created by the pure logical structure constructed by the repetition and permutation of these individual elements in abstraction. The difference between Sol Lewitt’s conceptualism and Donald Judd’s “specific object” is therefore the uses of material are changing from the “neutral” elements (Judd), to the permutation of these elements (Lewitt). And that this process of permutation in logical space somehow establishes a sense of logical objectivity associated with mathematics in pure abstraction.
To examine the spatial relationship more broadly, art history itself can be treated as a “literal space” in which all of the literal activity, including debates, justifications, and explanations were being actualized in this “space”. The activity of minimalism is in some way a game of “emphasizing” in the “space” of art history. This process of reducing the “non-important”, and leaving out the” important”, as a process of refinement or purification is a characteristic of what we call “minimal” or “minimalism” on a more general level. However, the whole idea of treating art history as an empty space and emphasizing the aspect that is considered “neutral” or “essential” has in itself an embedded paradox and logical deficiency. One of the obvious ones is that the status of “neutral” is simply a false claim. Instead, the status of minimalist art is in some way acting like a mirror, reflecting the historical and cultural environment they are situated with. For instance, the use of materials in Donald Judd's art such as stainless steel, galvanized iron, cold-rolled steel, anodized aluminum, acrylic sheet, and wood is a clear indication of industrialization and mass production, blurring the boundaries between art and commodified objects. Donald Judd’s sculpture would only be considered to be neutral in the eyes of an agent who is well-educated in western art history in the 20th century and would be seen as strange or even holy in the eyes of a tribe member in the Amazon forest, an ancient Chinese emperor or an extraterrestrial being.
In his famous essay Art and Objecthood, Michael Fried adopts the thinking of spatial relationships to point out the theatrical nature of minimalist artists such as Judd and Morris. He points out that minimalist objects are not simply just there as they claim it is, but rather “demands that the beholder take it into account– that he take it seriously– and when the fulfillment of that demand consists simply in being aware of the work and, so to speak, in act accordingly.” The massive amounts of writings and justifications produced by minimalist artists demand a way of viewing that are by no means neutral. And yet although the aim of minimalist art is to reduce the individual subjectivity and narrative, this whole term minimalism is in fact building on top of an epic narrative that these individuals create. It is, on face level, not about individual subjectivity, but is nonetheless highly individualistic.
Many of my works resemble the minimalist style– the uses of simple material, color, shapes, grids and form. However, my work is neither an adaptation of minimalist aesthetic nor a criticism. Unlike Frank Stella's painting or Donald Judd’s specific objects, which emphasize their own presence, eliminating narrative, representation and meaning, my paintings are often time bound to specific meanings and narratives, as an analogy to language: signified and signifier. For me, minimalist style as a reflection of a sense of Anthropocentrism that is situated in a specific historical context is in a large part what makes it interesting. The arbitrariness or silliness underneath the false conceptions of being “neutral”, “central” or “essential” is in some way a perfect medium for illustrating the idea: “what you see is not what you see.” By subverting the paradox inherent in minimalism, my adaptation of minimalist style would therefore tend to break a crack in our preconceptions that reveals the difference between what we know versus what there actually is.
Meyer, J. (2013). Minimalism: Art and polemics in the sixties. Yale University Press.
Judd, D. (1965). Specific Objects.
Morris, R. (n.d.). Notes on sculpture.