Minimalism emerged at a time when abstract expressionism dominated the art scene, and in the emerging tradition of modern art, a small group of artists developed styles that reacted to it. Simplicity ruled; basic geometric shapes, single colours, and basic industrial materials created a deeply anonymous aesthetic, devoid of symbolism or emotion, and focused on the materiality of the artwork and the elimination of all non-essential features or concepts.
Simplicity had always existed in art and culture, but this wave grew from the widespread interest in abstract art, and movements such as Bauhaus, constructivism, and De Stijl, which included Mondrian’s simple grids and primary colours. There was also the colour field painter section of abstract expressionism, artists like Rothko and Newman focused on colour, feel and atmosphere and very simple square and rectangular forms, with Ad Reinhardt taking these to their logical extreme of plain colour.
After much debate about a name for this new movement, a series of art gallery exhibitions in 1966 unified thought; minimalism was an art that tried to avoid the personal perspectives and self-expression of abstract expressionism, it was free of unnecessary adornment or features attempting to refer only to itself objectively. In pursuit of this many of the artists turned away from painting entirely to something that could also barely be called sculpture, often it just consisted of a cube made from a simple industrial material or mirror, devoid of any mark or brushwork to define the artist or their intention, it just was.
Exploring minimalism as the movement matured
The earliest minimalist pieces explored stripes and hard edges, with a very limited colour palette, in stark contrast to the work of abstract expressionists. Some artists worked only in monochrome, or covered entire canvasses in a single colour following a maxim of less is more, and an idea that art could only begin once you removed nature.
Both of these ideas echoed into sculpture, which many minimalist painters also explored with simple cubes and boxes, often defining the work as specific objects rather than true sculptures. These were intended to be interpreted according to the context and conditions they were perceived in, removing the idea of an artist providing meaning for the work at all, it was left to the viewer to decide.
Not everyone was a fan of the movement, besides the usual modern art objections as to whether any of it was art, and a logistical critique that the artists were really just designers of pieces created by craftsmen, there were stronger critical arguments against the movement. Some claimed that it turned viewing into a spectacle, minimalism took away a viewer’s engagement with and within a typical artwork, and forced it into something external to the work itself; perhaps making the work itself wholly irrelevant.
Finding a home in the new exhibition space art galleries
Minimalism evolved as some other important things were happening in art; conceptualism had much in common with it and had many of the same supporters and audiences, and art galleries and museums were looking at new ways of showing art. Expanding on permanent collections, the idea of temporary exhibition spaces quickly caught on, and were duplicated in universities and artist-run co-operatives, which encouraged as much experimentation with the space as possible. This open ended approach was ideal for minimal and conceptual artists to try out a range of ideas, and gradually even public spaces were incorporating minimalist sculpture and sculpture parks.
Minimalism broke down distinctions between painting and sculpture, and worked to remove the artist from the equation entirely to find a more democratic art, that sat in the hands of the viewer. Perhaps it is this which gave it such success in the sphere of public spaces; an art with no hidden meaning to discern, and no need for detailed knowledge of modern art to enjoy and participate in, even if it wasn’t always seen as art!