PRINT May 1977

Minimalism and Critical Response

SINCE RATHER EARLY ON, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and others—together with Robert Morris—were singled out by critics and curators as the chief practitioners of a new mode of three-dimensional art. But as Robert Rosenblum pointed out in Partisan Review last winter, “Time creates sanctity and gravity. . . . Already, many sixties artists have taken on, for me, this classical stature—Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Don Judd, Robert Morris, Kenneth Noland, among others—which feels more like past than present . . .” Nevertheless, many of the assumptions which were first propounded about the style—or what was commonly claimed, the non-style—of Minimalism (née Cool Art, The Third Stream, Post Geometric Structures, ABC Art, Object Sculpture, Specific Objects, Primary Structures, or Art of the Real) have remained unchallenged for over a decade. The April 1966 opening of the Jewish Museum’s landmark exhibition of 42 “Younger American and British Sculptors” put Minimalism on the map, but recent viewings of works from that time and even earlier have provided a welcome opportunity to review some of the initial premises which were propagated and which seem still to hold countenance.

Most new art movements are either greeted by partisans who are often championing their friends or else are attacked by hostile reviewers who feel the status quo is being threatened by upstarts. Minimalism was no exception. There were both advocates and detractors. However, the tone of published criticism—whether paean or diatribe—was more matter-of-fact than might be expected, along the lines of “Something new is being shown and I would like to explain it to you because the history of the avant-garde suggests that whether we like it or not, it is here to stay.” However, something even more startling was occurring. For long expository articles appeared quickly in well-circulated art journals (Art in America, Arts, Artforum, Art Voices, and Arts Yearbook) throughout 1965, even though no major exhibition had yet been held. Only a few group shows in New York art galleries and one, or at the most two, one-person installations per artist had actually taken place, so lengthy discourse really preceded prolonged observation.

Was the art audience told what to think (it was never asked to “feel”) even before it was given the opportunity to experience the new work first-hand? Were the attributes of painting mistakenly applied to the meaning and methods of sculpture? Was the work interpreted or were artists’ intentions recited? Was biography overlooked when it would have informed? Were relevant cultural phenomena ignored? How do the sculptures relate to what was discussed in these early articles?

In the opening paragraph of “The New Cool Art” by Irving Sandler in the January 1965 Art in America, the then-art critic of the New York Post observed, “During the last five or six years, a growing number of young artists have rejected the premises of Abstract Expressionism.” “The most extreme,” he noted, “are Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Poons, and Don Judd. Because the group they are a part of is the most vociferous and perhaps the most populous in the New York art world today, I have come to believe that its point of view may turn out to mark the 1960s as Abstract Expressionism did the 1940s and 1950s,” he correctly surmised 12 years ago, although now it seems that he might have included the ’70s in his prediction as well. While listing Judd in his initial comments, and illustrating one of his 1963 painted wood objects, Sandler did not mention him again. He focused instead on the new painting, with its deadpan lack of emotion and its reversal of the “anxious ‘I don’t know’ of the action painters to a calculated ‘I know.’” “Many,” he wrote, “have embraced a different method—the execution of simple, pre-determined ideas—and other values—calculation, impersonality, impassiveness and boredom.”

Max Kozloff, in “The Further Adventures of American Sculpture,” published in Arts one month later mentioned over 55 sculptors’ names. The Whitney Museum’s 1964 Sculpture Annual was currently on view. The harshest critic at that time, he set up a category “Aesthetics of Sterility,” singling out “a perceptibly tightening group of sculptors in New York [which] consists of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Dan Flavin. . . .” Illustrating work by each of these three artists, Kozloff pointed out that it was “inert, concrete, extremely large-scaled (if lightweight), monochromed, geometrically based construction.” “If painters such as Frank Stella or Kenneth Noland had not existed,” The Nation’s then current curt reviewer exclaimed, “one could perhaps look upon the present works more sympathetically; but without these painters, the sculptors very likely could not have conceived of their work at all.”

The Whitney Sculpture Annual was also treated in February 1965 for Artforum by Barbara Rose. After describing the work of some 46 artists, she concluded: “Though the Whitney show was representative of most of what is being done today, one important kind of sculpture was hardly represented . . . that is ‘object’ sculpture, three-dimensional forms that are such simple uninflected volumes or structures that they appear to be functionless objects rather than sculpture as we know it. . . . This work may be our most radical sculpture, though not, perhaps, our fullest.” Again, “Two of the best artists making object-sculpture,” the young writer suggested, “are Donald Judd and Robert Morris,” also mentioning Carl Andre. Rose pointed to certain characteristics evidenced by their work which still seem fundamental. One was that they could make a plan which someone else could execute for them: “All evidence of personal facture is carefully eliminated as is any reference to psychological states or forms in nature.” Color was also important, while “geometry provides a point of departure.” If their work seemed “distant and noncommittal,” “unyielding and unmodifiable,” it did have “a stillborn lyricism” and “it was big and bright.” Correctly assessing that “much effort went just into rejecting all but the very barest, irreducible minimum,” Rose added that Clement Greenberg had, after all, already predicated that “one of the main directions in modern sculpture . . . has been towards reduction.”

Relying on the old adage that there is strength in numbers, Lucy Lippard associated over 55 artists with “The Third Stream: Constructed Paintings and Painted Structures” in the Spring 1965 issue of Art Voices. Polemically, she began—“When is a painting not a painting, a sculpture not a sculpture? The boundaries between traditionally understood media are becoming increasingly difficult to define with the advent of a group of young non-objective artists who are strongly denying the existence of any such boundaries.” Lippard was intent on establishing the invincibility of this new group. Value judgments were not to be made; individual works were not to be analyzed. Instead, it appeared to be more propitious to define the topographies shared by these men and women: “A single or reduced image (or no image at all), a limited or monochrome palette—often in brillant hues, . . . a paint quality that foregoes gesture, stroke and impasto, and a strong emphasis on structural rather than pictorial qualities.” Since “they”—the artists themselves—“still do not consider their work as sculpture,” Lippard agreed with them, interjecting—“It is, in fact, anti-sculptural and I think that the term ‘post geometric structure,’ or simply ‘structure,’ is most accurate for the work of Robert Morris, Don Judd, Sol LeWitt, et al. . . .” Certainly Judd, Morris and LeWitt were “opposing the predominantly open sculptural tradition of the last two decades in favor of radical self-containment.” Nevertheless, in attributing newness to the decisions they were making—such as “eschewing the play of part against part and aiming at a new spatial complexity activated by the single form—the space around, above, below or within that form,” or placing “the spectator in one pre-ordained location” or “taking up more solid space”—Lippard short-changed their ambitions by ignoring the history of sculpture since antiquity. Sure, these artists were structuring their works differently from those of the preceding generation; but hadn’t what was being claimed they were doing also been addressed by Rodin, Bernini, Michelangelo, Donatello, or even the legendary Greeks? Ironically, by concluding that “there is less room for misinterpretation,” Lippard also closed the door on “interpretation.”

A few months later, in the October–November 1965 Art in America, “ABC Art” appeared, by Barbara Rose—at that time Frank Stella’s wife and for several years a friend of both Carl Andre (whom she met the day he arrived in New York in 1957) and Donald Judd (a Columbia classmate during the late ’50s). In her lengthy exegesis, Rose talked about new painting, new sculpture, new music, new dance, and new film, relating them to one another as well as to earlier 20th-century innovations. Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Dan Flavin, she noted, “occupy to my eye some kind of intermediate position” among all the artists she was then considering. She felt that they were “more related in terms of a common sensibility than in terms of a common style.” And if style became the dreaded enemy, the artists’ own explanations became the wherewithal. Besides liberally quoting artists in her text, 11 illustrations were accompanied by lengthy declarations of intent. Years before “What you see is what you get” became a national slogan, these men were expounding the same principle. While this article concluded that this was “an art not so simple as it looks,” interpretation could not transpire so long as acceptance was all that was sought.

If Barbara Rose and Lucy Lippard were to the early years of Minimalism what Apollinaire had been to Cubism, Donald Judd and Mel Bochner were its Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger. Judd’s infamous “Specific Objects” was published in Arts Yearbook 8 in 1965 as well. Like Lippard, Judd began, “Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture. Usually it has been related, closely or distantly, to one or the other.” “The new three-dimensional work,” he stated in a tone which initially cloaked its argumentative character, “doesn’t constitute a movement, school or style.” “The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall,” he stated, simply wiping out much of the history of pictures. By focusing on sculptures having been “made part by part, by addition, composed,” he also wrote off the tradition of three-dimensional imagery. Judd suggested how art could be less generalized. “In the new work,” he pointed out, “the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered.” “The use of three dimensions,” he added, “makes it possible to use all sorts of material and colors.” The virtues he praised—read “shape, unit, projection, order, and color”—would communicate by being “specific, aggressive and powerful.”

In the 12 years since Specific Objects initially appeared, it has aged into as historic a document as something like Alberti’s 1430s treatise De Statua (that perhaps equally youthful consideration of the properties of sculpture). How and why new art should be made seems communicated by both. Judd’s call-to-arms actually echoed similar sentiments expressed by Ibram Lassaw 27 years earlier when he too maintained (in the American Abstract Artists’ Yearbook) that “the crystallized concepts of the terms ‘sculpture’ and ‘painting’ are dissolving.” And like Judd, the then 25-year-old Lassaw found “colors and forms alone have a greater power to move man emotionally and psychologically.” He knew “certain artists” who, as early as 1938, had already “abandoned traditional pigment painting and solid, static sculpture.” “The new attitude that is being formed as a result of these searches is concerned with the invention of objects. . . . The artist no longer feels that he is ‘representing reality,’ he is actually making reality.” Well, the more things change, the more they remain the same, for Lassaw also maintained, “We must make originals.” “A work of art must work,” he concluded.

Lassaw was 52 years old when“Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors” was on view. He, his immediate predecessors, and his contemporaries had just represented “Etats-Unis: Sculptures du XXe Siècle” at the Musée Rodin in Paris during 1965. Artists like Ferber, Flannagan, Hague, Lachaise, Lipton, Nadelman, Nakian, Rickey, de Rivera, Zogbaum and others, however, were elderstatesmen without a home base. The art world, mirroring the world in general, was communing exclusively with its junior generation. The Beatles, Hair, Carnaby Street, Twiggy, Easy Rider, Wild in the Streets, college smoke-ins, college teach-ins; demonstrations against R.O.T.C., Dow Chemical, white oppressors, slumlords, and the Vietnam war: the middle and the late ’60s were filled with elation and rage. Change was sought and celebrated. But Minimalism—not Pop art—could effect the most significant turnover in the art world since Abstract Expressionism because it had more than a “look:” it had a “style,” one which had been festering for quite some time and which, when finally displayed full force, was peaking. Perhaps the most significant word in the title of the Jewish Museum exhibition has been heretofore overlooked: “Younger.” In April of 1966 Judd and LeWitt were both 38; Flavin was 33; Andre, 30.

It has become standard practice for museums to print significant dates in artists’ lives in exhibition catalogues. The Judd entry in Kynaston McShine’s souvenir book noted that the sculptor was born in Excelsior Springs, Missouri in 1928; served in the United States Army in Korea, 1945–47; attended the College of William and Mary, 1948–49, Columbia University, 1949–53 (B.S. in Philosophy) and 1958–60 (“fine arts,” now art history) and the Art Students League, 1947–53. It was also mentioned that he had been writing reviews and articles for art publications since 1959. Robert Morris’ paragraph in the same publication included—“Born in Kansas City, Missouri, 1931. Attended University of Kansas City; Kansas City Art Institute; California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco; Reed College, Portland, Oregon. Graduate work at Hunter College, New York City. Has participated in several dance events here and in Europe. Has also created several dance pieces and written on the dance.” This undigested material at least informed interested parties that both artists grew up in the same area of the country at roughly the same time; both studied at universities and at art schools, pursued graduate education, and published professional criticism. Still, what relevance does this have to their art? Actually, details from their biographies that are now publicly accessible suggest that it is more important than might be suspected.

Although Judd’s family moved several times during his youth—to Omaha, Kansas City, and Des Moines—he spent the greater part of his childhood, as Morris did, in the hotbed of Regional Art during its heyday. If both Judd and Morris were later to rebel against Abstract Expressionism, their first schoolroom instructors were versed in the art of Curry, Benton, and Wood. In 1938 Judd took his first private art lessons in Omaha; that same year, Morris attended sessions at the Nelson Art Gallery. Judd remembers designing a war bonds poster as a class assignment in 1939, when Morris was painting a school mural. In the early ’40s, the Judd family moved East; during the mid-’40s. Morris briefly travelled West (he did not stay, but he would when he was older). In 1946, Judd was stationed in Korea in an engineers unit just before the outbreak of the next war. Morris also served time in Korea in an engineers unit, toward the end of that war. Both, in other words, were exposed first-hand to Oriental culture. Judd’s paintings had simple forms and few colors; Morris’ did, too. Judd, after studying philosophy, attended graduate classes in art history at Columbia University; Morris, after studying philosophy, moved to New York and studied for his master’s degree at Hunter College. Both men married dancers. Each held his first one-person show during 1957 and exhibited for the first time at the Green Gallery in 1963. They both soon became critics who were widely read. When told last summer how closely certain episodes in his life paralleled Morris’, Judd was surprised; he had not known any of this. Still, their parallel experiences during the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s probably were as significant for 20th-century art as the actual exchanges of Picasso and Braque or Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Without knowing one another, they could simultaneously arrive at strikingly similar stances, perhaps because they had so much in common.

At the beginning of the ’60s Andre, Flavin, Judd, and LeWitt were a few years away from realizing their signature styles. And while they were floundering, they earned their livings outside their studios. Judd was reviewing art and also teaching school part-time; LeWitt worked at the Museum of Modern Art; Flavin was a museum guard; Andre labored in New Jersey railroad yards. While the artists were engaged in these jobs, the great “Art of Assemblage” exhibition directed by the late William Seitz opened at MOMA in October 1961. Seitz, who has just recently been lauded at a symposium by his former Princeton University student Frank Stella, characterized the kind of artworks in the show: “1. They are predominantly assembled rather than painted, drawn, modeled, or carved. 2. Entirely or in part, their constituent elements are preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials.”

Although Andre, Flavin, and Judd were obviously not included in this show, their own work, following on it, would never look the same again. For a time they saw what they could do with street debris. Eventually they used manufactured materials “not intended as art materials.” The directions they were exploring were reinforced or restructured by Seitz’s show. Hence the art they made before that exhibition is significantly different from what was made subsequent to it. And, by the time of their “own” “Primary Structures” show they had all mastered their own art.

Take a look at the Jewish Museum’s catalogue. The work exhibited there by Andre, Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, and Morris is different from the other sculptures on view. Compact units, uninterrupted profiles, no fanciful forms, an awareness of the materials from which they were composed, and their responsiveness to human size: all this sets them apart. The path to the realization of these works was not logical or immediate.

Andre, for example, developed some remarkably precocious Minimal structures during the winter of 1960. The surfaces of wood beams were to be left uncarved and unpainted, and the pieces were to rest on or beside one another, unattached and directly on the floor. Unfortunately, the artist could not afford the heavy, 70- to 120-pound timbers he needed, and art dealers who were shown a notebook filled with diagrams for the “Element” series were unwilling to sponsor him. So he went to work instead for four years, as a freight brakeman and conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He would occasionally find small particles, recalled his Andover roommate Hollis Frampton in a 1969 Hague Gemeentemuseum Andre catalogue, and he would bring home these “fabricated scrap bits picked up along the tracks: a hook, a spring, ball bearings. These were assembled loosely, held only by gravity or their own structural limits.” The artist was no longer actively looking at art and had little free time to make his own. When he did, however, he momentarily veered away from using regularized, geometric units. Frampton mentioned seeing “collage ‘paintings’ incorporating whole physical objects (gloves, umbrellas, lettuce), covered entirely in glossy enamel paint in primary colors, poured on, so that viscosity and surface tension were exploited rather than hue or texture.” It was in a work entitled November 1961 that Andre joined together an umbrella, cigarette butts, and enamel; in the following month he stacked some oddly ended and flaked scrap wood bits. During the next few years there were other departures from the style he had initially realized in 1959–60.

Eugene Goossen asked the artist in 1964 to refabricate one of the earlier pyramids for a group exhibition. Then, in January of 1965, he finally got the chance to use some wood beams in the “Shape and Structure” show at Tibor de Nagy’s. These turned out to be too heavy to be supported by the townhouse’s weak floors, so in his first one-person presentation that April three sculptures were executed from styrofoam planks. For his second show, the following spring, and for his contribution to the Primary Structures exhibition, he used bricks to form works. He had hit his stride.

Flavin had already made several small paintings before the MoMA show by attaching crushed cans that he had found on the street to wood supports (Apollinaire Wounded, March 1960; mira mira, 1960; Vincent at Auvers, July–August 1960; and Africa, 1960). Subsequent to the exhibition, Flavin worked on eight “Icons” during the next two years. These were paintings whose perimeters were bounded by electric light bulbs and tubes. During May 1963, he attached his first solitary cool white fluorescent tube diagonally against a wall. Others followed and were exhibited at the Kaymer, Green and John Daniels galleries. The piece he sent to the Jewish Museum in 1966 was the first installation in which he spanned lights across a corner.

Don Judd was painting pictures before October 1961; that year, he made several using sand, and, in one instance, wax. During 1962 he began to incorporate pipes he had picked up off the street in various wall reliefs and in two free-standing structures. Other three-dimensional “objects” followed and were included in a one-person show at the Green Gallery in December 1963–January 1964. These rapidly led him to the kind of works he exhibited in April 1966.

Now some new questions must be posed. The progenitors of Minimalism favored clean lines; plain surfaces, either painted monochromatically or left bare to utilize the inherent properties of the chosen materials expressively; simple, often compact forms; and human-size proportions. But what does this really reveal about their accomplishments or contribute to an understanding of their various oeuvres?

Is it sheer coincidence that Sol LeWitt’s 1966 Modular Open Cubes measures a bodily graspable 6 by 6 by 6 feet? Its bottom horizontal layer is knee-level; its middle section, elbow level; and its upper portion, head level. Standing and facing its central column, one can stretch one’s arms outward and encompass the scope of the structure in its entirety. LeWitt’s 1966 Untitled corner piece raises other issues. It is composed of two open square frames of painted white wood fixed to corner walls, and a third resting on the floor. If joined, they would form the base and two sides of a square. These elements look placid, serene, and restful. Yet, the space between them appears charged magnetically; no acetylene torch is needed for the eye to weld them together (or leave them separated).

How do Flavin’s tubes function coloristically? Why does green peek out of a room installation where red, gold, pink, and daylight white hues are emitted? When the space is actually entered, why is the same green then washed out by the gold and pink of the 1964 Untitled (to Mr. and Mrs. Giuseppe Agrati)? Furthermore, it has been taken for granted for too long that Flavin’s electrical components are frequently the same size. In past art, an expanse of yellow could be equalized by a dab of red. Flavin has managed to balance an 8-foot sliver of gold light with an 8-foot sliver of red light.

Judd, too, is a prestidigitator in his own way. The sides of his 1965 Untitled (Progression) suggest that a red square has had its upper, wall-hugging corner hollowed out; on the front face, however, it looks as if a Harley-Davidson Hi-Fi purple-lacquered rectangular strip supports five red cadmium enameled boxes diminishing in size. What are we to believe? Judd has insisted in the past—just as he reaffirmed to an interviewer last summer—that he does not make sculpture. How should this claim be taken into account? Moreover, Judd has made much of his use of various mathematical systems (Fibonacci’s, for example) to show that he is really not “composing.” In the 1965 Untitled (Progression), for instance, the measurements of left-to-right planes are balanced by the identical dimensions of open spaces moving from right to left. If that feels like classical balance, Judd is simply relying on numerical incidents the way traditional sculptors had the givens of proportional head, body, arms, and legs to proceed from. Moreover, aren’t the five components of metal and space locked together as securely as the five fingers of a right hand are when grasped in those of the left?

Andre embraces spectators’ awareness of their own bodies in figurative terms, too. He uses particles which are easily assembled by one person; factory crews, elaborate hauling and lifting devices, and intricate tools are dispensed with. Such works are easily installed, but also wonderfully graspable when experienced in person. In his 1965/1977 Crib (originally executed from white styrofoam planks which are no longer available: it is now colored a pale, sherbet orange), only one’s eyes can enter the interior space. It was only a matter of time before Andre would realize that he could compress his materials flush with the floor (in a 1970 Artforum interview, Andre mentioned that he felt the metal plate pieces included the column of air above them which reached upward to the ceiling as limit) and that people could indeed enter the space of his work and walk upon his sculptures.

The recent showing of early Minimalist works at Sperone Westwater Fischer made it evident that the time is ripe for another full-scale exhibition of Minimalism. Value judgments can now be made. What has already been seen sporadically has revealed that many of the works have aged well. (Their weathering is another problem: those using easily replaceable, machine units have to be reordered for reconstitution; others with delicate surfaces have been badly scratched; some wood works have been realized in more permanent metals. In other words, the originals no longer exist.) Still, just as various earlier contributions to the art of the 20th century have deserved to be reviewed, re-evaluated, and come to terms with, we should have the chance to see in the most comprehensive way just what the Minimalists wrought.

Phyllis Tuchman is writing her Ph.D dissertation at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, on Minimalism: Andre-Flavin-Judd-LeWitt-Morris.