minimalist

A Brief History of Minimalism

Imagine you are in New York City during the 1960s. You bike along the newly paved Brooklyn Bridge bike path listening to the Beatles, on your way to catch a show at a gallery. Over the past twenty years, abstract expressionism has become the dominant artistic style. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko are the avant garde and New York has replaced Paris as the capital of the art world. Andy Warhol just unveiled his Marilyn Monroe paintings to the world and designed a Velvet Underground album cover. The 60s art world is all about loud color, splattered paint, and over-the-top imagery.

But across the city, three artists–Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt–sit in their studios developing a new artistic movement that would go on to influence everything from architecture and design to fashion and music: minimalism. “Minimalist artists rejected the notion of the artwork as a unique creation reflecting the personal expression of a gifted individual,” writes the Tate Museum in London, “seeing this as a distraction from the art object itself. Instead they created objects that were as impersonal and neutral as possible.”

What was so different and new about minimalism? A look at three famous minimalist artworks can explain. 

Robert Morris, Untitled (Mirrored Cubes)

Robert Morris completed this piece in 1965 to be exhibited at the Green Gallery in New York. Morris eventually destroyed the original piece, believing that the material was not of the highest quality. A new version of the sculpture was placed at the Tate Modern in London beginning in 1971. Four mirrored cubes sit in a symmetrical placement, encouraging the viewer to walk around the piece. As the viewer looks at the art, however, they are forced to reflect on themselves rather than just reflecting on the art. The viewer battles the beauty of art with the imperfection of reality. Minimalism is often overlaps with conceptualism, or art that draws its meaning from thought-provoking concepts.

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Donald Judd, UNTITLED (1969)

An apostle of minimalism, Donald Judd, once said, “actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.” Minimalist pieces often take up literal space, rather than depicting something through painting. Donald Judd’s desire to exhibit art in an unconventional way is evident with this piece. Judd sought to revive the gallery space, to make art that reacts to the space it is in.

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Sol LeWitt, White Cubes

Sol LeWitt was mesmerized by the shape of a cube. He once called the cube "relatively uninteresting,” and used the shape in his art because the cube “lacked the expressive force of more interesting forms and shapes." To LeWitt, the cube was the ultimate “meaningless” shape. He wanted to make art objects that had no deeper or symbolic meaning—a cube is simply a geometric figure. These white cubes fall perfectly into the minimalist ideology: they are geometric, colorless and interchangeable.

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Minimalism Today

Minimalism continues to impact contemporary artists today. Chicago artists like Theaster Gates and John Pittman—tackle aesthetic issues through form and shape. As corporate art consultants, we have built a local and international network of artists working in a range of styles, including contemporary minimalism. Because a simple, impactful geometric artwork often pairs well with modern office furnishings, minimalism can be an excellent addition to the aesthetic of a corporate space.

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