PRINT October 2001



TO SPEAK OF “ART SINCE 1960” is familiar enough, but the period thus delineated is certainly no seamless continuum. Hal Foster, who calls it the “neo-avant-garde,” uses the Freudian notion of deferred action to relate it to the radical provocations of the early-century European avant-garde. But it may be more accurate to say—twisting Foster’s model a bit—that the ’60s themselves mark the trauma to which artists of the past few decades have mostly responded, alternately returning to its theories and practices and recoiling from them. Perhaps the ’60s appear all the more strange today since, sans the heavy filters of the now-moribund polemics of modernism versus postmodernism, they face us more squarely. And yet despite (or because of) this fact, our view has dollied back significantly—although still the subject of a massive amount of writing, the ’60s tend now to be probed by young art historians rather than critics. Conceptual art, Pop, Minimalism, Color Field, Earthworks, performance—no longer are they and their internecine battles portrayed as belonging to our current situation; rather, they have receded to a spot just beyond the threshold that divides what’s contemporary from what’s past.

James Meyer’s Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties sits uneasily on the edge of that divide. Compared to the only other book-length art-historical survey of Minimalism, Frances Colpitt’s mere-decade old Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective, which is organized entirely around issues and keywords, Meyer’s book is set up as a chronology, each chapter devoted to one of the years between 1963 and 1968. Careful attention is paid to getting this historical record straight; Meyer fills in details about exactly when key players first met, which important exhibitions they did or didn’t see, how such exhibits were organized and installed, and what critical response they attracted. And yet, while Meyer states his desire to “come to terms with minimal discourse as an historical object,” he aims to distribute emphasis evenly between discourse and history. His book “views minimalism neither as a clearly defined style nor as a coherent movement. Rather, it presents minimalism as a debate, an argument . . . a field of contiguity and conflict, of proximity and difference.” And so each chapter gets segmented according to the shows and magazine articles that provided the disparate staging grounds for the contest over the meanings of the minimal, making the book both a narrative sequence and a structuralist grid, a map of mobile oppositions and allegiances, moves and countermoves.

The result is a sufficiently complex and densely informative account of Minimalism’s original eruption as a discursive terrain before its appropriation and elaboration by the theorists of postmodernism in the late ’70s, a kind of prehistory of the Minimalism we’ve inherited. Still, the tension between history and discourse is felt on every page. While the discursive matrix woven around Minimalism was decidedly theoretical—occasioned by questions about art’s valid modes of existence and reception, about objecthood and pictorialism, opticality and materialism, the specific versus the general—Meyer’s own discourse champions empirical fact over theory. History writing takes precedence: And so polemics emerge, as well as all sorts of suggestive relations among them, but none can be reflected on for very long lest the narrative momentum of the whole fall apart. Thus the more thoroughly Meyer describes the construction of this terrain, the more extensive seems the untapped potential it harbors.

At the same time, because Meyer writes a history of Minimalism as discourse, his focus remains on the same names and texts later canonized in the postmodern literature. Initial discursive formulations of the minimal in the ’60s drew on an extremely polyglot assortment of practices; just look at the droves of artists whose work illustrates Donald Judd's “Specific Objects” (Phillip King, Yayoi Kusama, George Ortman, H.C. Westermann . . .) or read the roster of names Michael Fried aligns with “literalist sensibility” in “Art and Objecthood” (“the list could go on indefinitely,” he writes). These now forgotten Minimalists-by-association, Meyer responds, “who wrote far less, could not compete.” A good example is Lee Bontecou, whose work elicited rare fawning from Judd, and who not only showed with him and Frank Stella at Castelli but also seems to have set a decisive precedent when in 1959 she started cutting holes into her stretched canvas. But she hardly appears in Meyer’s account, apparently because she was never argued over as an example of the minimal, her impact being on practice, not theory. (Anne Truitt’s work, by contrast, receives generous attention, its claim to relevance based on its being squabbled over bitterly by Judd and Greenberg.)

Meyer himself points to many of the larger questions that for the most part go begging in his account. Perhaps the most intriguing is the heavy traffic conducted between art and the fashion industry during the ’60s. What were called “ladies’ journals” at the time—Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, et al.—regularly ran features not only about but also by leading artists. Minimalist works were avidly discussed in connection to fashion trends. But again, Meyer's project can accommodate only a stating of these facts, not the space needed for their full analysis. Abrupt generalizations often cap off these passages prematurely: For example, Meyer writes that “once Judd began to make furniture he unwittingly closed the chasm he believed existed between art and design.... Marfa, Texas, became a favored setting of fashion shoots.” Here, as elsewhere, much gets collapsed into the word “design,” and without any acknowledgment of the long and complicated role played by the notion of “visual design” (from Cezanne to De Stijl and the Bauhaus to Albers and Black Mountain) in the modernizing of modern art. Interior, architectural, industrial—such distinctions fall away, as design per se gets equated with fashion, and through it with glamour, status, and commercialism.

What Minimalism as a whole makes conspicuous is the need for further discussion about the emergence of the very tension between history and discourse that Meyer shows was typified in the ’60s debate over the minimal. If the various projects umbrellaed under the term shared anything, it was a skepticism toward metaphor—toward allusion, expression, any sort of referentiality or generalization in art. This made painting a prime target, since it’s so insistently thought of as a general category, as if all paintings possess a shared identity, the character and vitality of which is borne out in painting’s history. Meyer’s two main protagonists, Judd and Robert Morris, each emphasized a different approach in attacking this history: Judd by insisting on the mute sovereignty and opacity of artworks, each isolated within its specific material makeup and conditions of display (“things that exist exist. . . . Everything is equal . . . the values and interests they have are only adventitious,” Meyer quotes Judd); and Morris by capitalizing in his varied textual and artistic productions on the discursive space such inert and mute objects need in order to be made legible. Medium and tradition, the two interdependent notions crucial to the modernist construction of painting’s identity, are here squeezed out; Judd’s empirically thickened object displaces the former while Morris’s nimble bob-and-weave discourse preempts the latter. Meyer characterizes Minimalism as the intersecting of modernism’s two most powerful forces, the drive toward formal reduction and the emergence of the readymade. At their extremes both surrender to the same situation, an art that no longer can be thought to generate, transform, and traject its meanings from within itself, and instead gains meaning from just outside and along its frame, in the form of a supporting discursive network. (Could it be that this very challenge was posed at the outset of modernism by photography, with its readymade picture overly dense with empirical, literal detail, which, as Roland Barthes and others have argued, gains legibility after the fact and from without, in the form of a framing language or caption? In the November 1971 Artforum, Rosalind Krauss, while showing signs of an emerging interest in photography, wrote that during the mid-’60s the clarity of modernism’s self-ordering, self-possessed paintings had “silted up,” and that now “access to them can only be achieved by a long chain of explanation.”)

Today’s dispersed, centrifugal field of artmaking is a consequence of this breakdown, and one that the modernist insistence on medium and tradition, the ability to maintain material specificity while infusing it with meaning, aimed to keep at bay. And herein lies part of the potential Meyer’s book offers us now. Much contemporary art can be seen to revisit the traumatic split between object and discourse, the literal and metaphoric, that opened up in the ’60s. Think of any number of recent installations—Jorge Pardo’s work, for example—in which gallery space is transfigured into a hip hangout, an intimate party scene. Half Duchampian readymade, half personally idiosyncratic or cool subcultural artifact, such work often exposes the literal mechanics of art display and at the same time alludes to a bohemian elsewhere, mixing anonymity and intimacy, the literal and metaphoric. But it often does so only to hedge its bets, with the Duchampian aspect used to disavow any belief in transcending art-world contingencies and the metaphoric aspect a way of distancing the work from any institutional-critical implications. The result is usually a debonair shoulder shrugging.

But this isn’t always the case; work like that of Felix Gonzalez-Torres relies on both modes without using one to disown the other. Both belief and skepticism, a desire for metaphoric investment and a keen awareness of institutional determinations, become mutually reinforcing. Here institutional critique does matter, but only if it involves personal stakes, while the personal is only important as it is produced in and constrained by institutional contexts. Both the impervious literalism—the flatness, as it were—of art’s material conditions and the investments by which we engage and delimit those conditions are kept in productive tension. This could serve as a model for how we might better reconcile ourselves, in our postmedium age, to the troubling polemics of ’60s art. What we need now are more of our own contemporary theories and practices to bring that model into fuller fruition.

Lane Relyea is director of the CORE residency program at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.