Minimalism is an easy "ism" to understand and reference in casual conversation, with the term often used humorously. For instance, if someone asks for your opinion on the portions of an exclusive restaurant, you might reply saying, "It was too minimalist for my liking," implying that the servings were too small. Similarly, a student who can’t afford furniture could refer to their home as minimalist, while a colleague who does the bare minimum at work might have a minimalist approach.
But what does minimalism entail, particularly when it comes to art? Many individuals associate it with avant-garde modern art: the infamous stack of bricks that the Tate bought for a significant sum three decades ago, or the solitary fluorescent bulb at a 45-degree angle. In short, people think that minimalism is a pretentious philosophy that labels almost nothing as something, a doctrine that sells new clothes to emperors.
To investigate this preconception, I decided to immerse myself in an instant tutorial. Philip Glass and Steve Reich (regarded as the Blair and Brown of minimalism by renowned music critic Norman Lebrecht) blasted out of the car stereo as I made my way to Tate Modern’s Perceiving Body suite, where several pivotal minimalist art pieces are on exhibit.
Perhaps if I had attended on my own, I would have looked upon bricks piled high or a square of mirrored cubes with little more than a passing glance. Fortunately, I was fortunate to have Simon Wilson as my guidebook author. He had a different perspective on the bricks, one for which he had spent thirty years defending.
Wilson explained that, like all art movements, minimalism should be contextualized historically. It was a reaction to and advancement on what came before. In the aftermath of World War II, abstract expressionism was all the rage, and artists like Jackson Pollock viewed painting as an existential, emotional act. Minimalists, on the other hand, were a group of 1960s downtown New Yorkers, eager to replace the subjective, human quality of abstract expressionism with logic and order. Grids, repetition, and mathematical precision replaced impulsive spontaneity and emotional content in art.
The art pieces in front of me began to make sense as Wilson continued to elaborate on this. The ten blue steel-and-Perspex boxes (Untitled, by Donald Judd) lined against the wall looked like a deliberate, cool design statement, a counterpoint to the raw emotions of out-of-date painters.
Minimalism frequently took abstract art revolutionary creeds to a further reach. Abstract artists became disgruntled with art as fraud, tricking the audience into thinking they see something else. They wanted to strip the artwork of these illusions and reduce it to its barebones, so that the viewer perceives the artwork for what it is instead of as a painting or sculpture of something else.
Minimalism took that concept and turned it up, providing objects that were nothing other than what they intended to be. Frank Stella’s pin-striped paintings, with nothing but lines parallel to the edges of the canvas, expressed minimalist theory with the soundbite, "what you see is what you see," and there was nothing more than the paint on the canvas.
Detractors might argue that minimalism is a shortcut, allowing artists to do the least amount of work possible. Wilson admits that minimalism is an art form that attempts to create art using as little effort as possible while still being capable of being recognized as such.
Surprisingly, I did not feel deceived after examining pieces of minimalist art under the guidance of Simon Wilson. Instead, I was genuinely amazed at how effectively minimalists had accomplished their goals. Wilson took me to the ultimate minimalist piece of art, Carl Andre’s Equivalent 8, also known as "the pile of bricks" in 1970s journalism. The artwork was made up of 120 bricks neatly arranged in two layers, six down one side and ten along the other. Contrary to the derision it received, the bricks now sit peacefully at the Tate, presenting a pleasing sight of pale sand-lime in neat rows.
As we observe the bricks, I inquire of Wilson what he appreciates about the work, having defended it for so long. He values its orderliness, purity, and truth. Truth, above all, because it makes no effort to be anything other than what it is. It is, as Shelley once said, the embodiment of beauty.
I must confess, I do not perceive this as pretentious drivel. Instead, Wilson’s words resonate with me on a deeper level. I begin to take a firmer stance on minimalist art, only desiring the genuine article.
Adjacent to the bricks lies Andre’s Venus Forge, a piece from 1980 that looks like a lengthy garden path composed of bronze tiles in two different hues. Despite its placement, it appears out of place due to its twee domesticity and dual tones, violating the minimalist ideal against artificiality.
In this newly found passion, I even reject Donald Judd’s bronze wall piece, which is too polished and overworked to suit my tastes. I have this suspicion that Judd put in far more effort than necessary and is not allowing the metal to speak for itself.
Flavin’s fluorescent tube is pleasing when by itself. However, his Monument for V Tatlin, which uses seven bulbs of varying lengths to construct a shape that could resemble either a rocket or the Empire State Building, angers me. It seems to be striving to be something it is not.
Still, I cannot help but remain somewhat skeptical because there is a coldness to minimalism. It is an art form that is thought of rather than felt. I find it surprising that a movement centered around order and tidiness originated from the chaotic environment of 1960s Manhattan. Additionally, I am not convinced that minimalism’s rejection of all things tangible and real-world elements makes it spiritual. In fact, I believe it adds an industrial and materialistic edge to it, forcing us to view the physical world with fresh eyes. However, standing in front of Richard Serra’s Trip Hammer and his work in London’s Liverpool Street station, both made of rusty metal, there’s no denying that there’s little spiritual draw for me personally.
As I muse on the disdain some minimalists possess for the craftsmanship of art, I chuckle. I learn that when you purchase a Sol LeWitt drawing, all you receive is a set of instructions on a sheet of A4 paper and a certificate of authenticity. Then, you hire an approved draftsman to come and "execute" the drawing for you. My first thoughts on this practice are that it’s a complete rip-off. Nonetheless, conceptual artists and critics alike share this way of thought on minimalism. Even so, I find the shimmering beauty of Fifteen Part Drawing Using Four Colours and All Variations at Tate Gallery difficult to deflect.
I leave Bankside feeling empowered to experience musical minimalism with a fresh perspective. Popular critic Lebrecht claims that the genre’s hallmark characteristic is the continued repetition of a tiny phrase, often to the point of nausea. But does he consider it terrible? "Not terrible at all," he replies. "It’s like a warm bath. It neither hurts nor harms."
And so, I start immersing myself in it all, from Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments to Philip Glass’s audio for Dracula. And here’s the shocking part: I really enjoy it. The repetition, to me, is not only soothing but also surprisingly meditative. I can imagine the thought of repeating something over and over again could be numbing for the performer. Glass even admits that some musicians have walked out on him mid-performance due to it. But that monotony eventually becomes something mesmerizing and ultimately transcendent. A small amount of musical information, repeated and rearranged in multiple ways, should not feel so moving, yet it does. To begin with, it might seem tedious, but the US composer John Cage was right: "In Zen they say, if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32 and so on. Eventually one discovers it’s not boring but very interesting." Indeed, there is something to that.
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