Richard Serra, Five Plates, Two Poles, 1971, Cor-ten steel, Walker Art Center.

The ABCs of Minimalist Installation

Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave.
Peggy and Ralph Burnet Gallery

April 17, 2005-April 6, 2008

By the mid-1960s, critics and artists heralded the arrival of Minimalism, an idea-based sensibility that seemed more in keeping with America's embrace of its burgeoning space program and new technologies than the metaphysical and transcendental aims of the Abstract Expressionists and the subjective impulses of the Action painters of the late 1940s and 1950s. From very early antecedents, to the purest examples of Minimalism, this exhibition will provide a genealogy of the movement while showcasing one of the strongest areas of the Walker's collection.

Major works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, and Robert Smithson provide a foundation for the exhibition. Although the works of these artists share many of the same formal devices, each came to a minimalist aesthetic through a different point of view. What may appear to be a clearly defined aesthetic is revealed in this exhibition to be an open discourse about influences, form, and content.

Minimalism in visual art, sometimes referred to as "literalist art" and "ABC Art" emerged in New York in the 1960s. It is regarded as a reaction against the painterly forms of Abstract Expressionism as well as the discourse, institutions and ideologies that supported it. As artist and critic Thomas Lawson noted in his 1977 catalog essay Last Exit: Painting, minimalism did not reject Clement Greenberg's claims about Modernist Painting's reduction to surface and materials so much as take his claims literally. Minimalism was the result, even though the term "minimalism" was not generally embraced by the artists associated with it, and many practitioners of art designated minimalist by critics did not identify it as a movement as-such.

In contrast to the Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists were influenced by composer John Cage, poet William Carlos Williams, and architect Frederick Law Olmstead. They very explicitly stated that their art was not self-expression, in complete opposition to the previous decade's Abstract Expressionists. Very soon they created a minimal style, whose features included: rectangular and cubic forms purged of all metaphor, equality of parts, repetition, neutral surfaces, industrial materials, all of which leads to immediate visual impact.

The first art specifically associated with Minimalism was Frank Stella, whose "stripe" paintings were highlighted in the 1959 show, 16 Americans, organized by Dorothy Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The width of the stripes in Frank Stellas's stripe paintings were determined by the dimensions of the lumber used to construct the supportive chassis upon which the canvas hung. In the show catalog, Carl Andre noted, "Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting." These reductive works were in sharp contrast to the "minimal," energy-filled paintings of Willem De Kooning or Franz Kline and leaned more toward the anonymous field paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Although Stella received immediate attention from the MOMA show, artists like Ralph Humphrey and Robert Ryman had begun to explore monochromatic formats by the late 50's.

Minimalist sculpture is greatly focused on the materials used (see Donald Judd, the early works of Robert Morris, and Dan Flavin).

The origins of Minimalism are in the geometric abstractions of pre-World War II painters in the Bauhaus, Russian Constructivists and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancus (whose work was a major influence on the Minimalism of Robert Morris).The Russian Constructivists proclaiming the distillation was in order to create a universal language of art which the masses were meant to understand. It may have also supported the rapid industrialization planned for the massive country. Brâncu?i's work was much more of a search for the purity of the form and thus paved the way for the abstractions that were to come, such as minimalism.

This movement was heavily criticised by the high modernist formalist art critics and historians. It was called futile, mechanistic, mandarin, elitist, circular, endless, entropic, pedantic and authoritarian. The artists of Minimalism were interested in how the rational categories of painting and sculptures were intriniscally delimiting and this is why many worked in 3-D and payed critical attention away from expression and toward process and materiality (i.e., time and space). Some very anxious critics thought Minimalist work of art was a complete misunderstanding of the modern dialectic of painting and sculpture according to critic Clement Greenberg. The most notable critique of Minimalism was produced by Michael Fried, a Greenbergian critic, who objected to the work on the basis of its "theatricality". In Art and Objecthood (published in Artforum in June 1967) he declared that the Minimalist work of art, most evident in sculpture, was based on an engagement with the physicality of the spectator transforming the act of viewing the work into a type of spectacle in which the artifice of the act observation and participation were unveiled. Fried's opinionated essay was immediately challenged by artist Robert Smithson in a letter to the editor in the October issue of Artforum. Smithson stated the following: "What Fried fears most is the consciousness of what he is doing--namely being himself theatrical." What Smithson meant by this was that Fried had in fact delivered "a long overdue spectacle" himself, and that Fried had brought on a sort of "fictive inquisition", or more precisely, "a ready-made parody of the war between Renaissance classicism (modernity) versus Manneristic anti-classicism (theatre)."

Other Minimalist artists include: Richard Allen, Walter Darby Bannard, Larry Bell, Ronald Bladen, Mel Bochner, Norman Carlberg, Judy Chicago, Erwin Hauer, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Jo Baer, John McCracken, Paul Mogensen, David Novros, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Serra, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, and Anne Truitt

Ad Reinhardt summed up the style in these terms: 'The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature.'

Also notable are the Postminimalist artists, including Eva Hesse, Martin Puryear, Joel Shapiro and Hannah Wilke. The hallmark of Postminimalism is the often distinct references to objects without direct representation.


Donald Judd, Untitled, 1971, anodized aluminum, Walker Art Center.

Dan Vlavin, Untitled, 1963, ultraviolet, blue fluorescent tubes and fixtures, Walker Art Center.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1968, stainless steel, plexiglass, Walker Art Center.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1968, stainless steel, plexiglass, Walker Art Center.

Robert Smithson, Leaning Strata, 1968, Aluminum, paint, Walker Art Center.

Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7, 1977, India ink, graphite, gesso on canvas, Walker Art Center.


Carl Andre, Slope 2004, 1968, Steel, ink on paper, Walker Art Center.