Minimalism, Theatricality and Architecture: The Expanded Field of Sculpture

David Smith: Cubi I, 1963 Smith: Cubi VII, 1963-5

Sculpture inherently creates certain forms of interaction with the viewer: an intellectual mode, in which the viewer acquires an understanding of space and volume as the prerequisite for analytically or metaphorically possessing the sculpture; and a sensuous mode of acquisition and possession.  Smith denied these modes of possession by creating work which is discontinuous–the view from one side cannot be reconciled with the view from another.  The work still evokes, although not strongly, the sense of the figure, but the parts of the work do not cohere in the unified manner which is typical of a body.  The discontinuous or disjunctive relationships in Smith’s sculpture prefigure the concerns of sculptors of the 60s; artists such as di Suvero and Chamberlain began to create works which do not reveal a rational understanding of volume, which do not propose stable points from which the work appears to unfold according to some constructive rationale which can be surmised and understood by the viewer.  The work of Calder, who was certainly influenced by these developments, does maintain a more anthropomorphic and unified sense of composition and space, in contrast to the work by di Suvero.

Mark di Suvero: Beppe, 1970 Alexander Calder: La Grande Vitesse, 1969

Anthony Caro goes further, by making the relationship between pictorial space and sculptural space the issue in his work.  He does, in large part, by uniting flat, planar forms which demand a vertical reading with horizontal forms which deny the vertical.  The break with the verticality of sculpture is a major reorientation of sculptural space.

Anthony Caro: Early One Morning, 1962 Caro: Red Splash, 1966 (painted steel)

Primary Structures and Specific Objects: Against the Relational and Against Illusion

Installation view of the exhibition "Primary Structures" at the Jewish Museum in NYC, 1966: works by Donald Judd (left side) and Robert Morris (right side)
Frank Stella: Nunca, Para Nada, 1967 (metallic powder in polymer emulsion on canvas, 9'2 x 18'4)

Donald Judd and Robert Morris mounted similar arguments against sculpture and painting at the same time.  They both described the faults of painting as the relational aspect of a painting and the illusional.  Relational: the painting begins with the rectangle of the canvas, and everything on the canvas then exists as parts or pieces of this larger rectangular whole which they have to relate to.  The problem of illusion has less to do with the imitation of reality than with the creation of a false sense of space on the canvas.  For Judd, this is the failure of Frank Stella, an artist generally thought of as a minimalist painter.  But actual space, says Judd, is more powerful than the literal space created in a painting.
Their argument is also made against sculpture which, like painting, shares an additive, part-to-whole character, and which is anthropomorphic, even when it does not look like a living being.  So what they want to put in the place of painting and sculpture is something which exists as a unitary shape, something which possesses a wholeness that comes from the repetition of parts and the shape of the object.  Finally, they want to eliminate the possibility of symbolic meaning, and with symbolic meaning, they want to eliminate signs of the artist.  Taken together, they are calling for:

Judd: untitled, 1969 (stainless steel and blue plexiglass, ten units, total 172 x 40 x 31") Judd: untitled, 1969 (brass and colored flourescent plexiglass on steel brackets) Judd, untitled, 1969 (anodized aluminum and plexiglass)
Morris: L-beams from the Primary Structures show Morris: untitled L-beams, 1965 (stainless steel, each 96 x 96 x 24") with work by Sol LeWitt on the walls

Morris and Judd both, although not in the same way or for the same reasons, produce work which is far less rational than it seems and which   denies so many of their goals that we have to ask if their goals are really the ones they state.  Morris’ L-pieces, for example: we know that the elements in his work are identical, prefabricated pieces.  But placed in different positions in relation to space and the room, we cannot experience them as identical and we cannot experience them as complete or finished.  The L is an unstable piece, inherently suggesting movement as it becomes, in your mind, a closed square or a structural component of a building.  This sense of incompletion to the el-form was one of the driving design decisions in some early work by the New York architect Peter Eisenman.  With Eisenman, it is not just the el which can suggest movement and the presence or absence of closure; there is a quality of incompleteness to the entire plans of his proposed houses in the 1970s – incompleteness which comes from the duplication of structural elements while denying function to one set of these elements.  As a spectator, however, you don’t know which elements are the true structural members and which are the symbolic members hinting at the remains of an earlier design.  Eisenman’s roots are in minimalism but he makes some of the dynamics of implied change and contradiction in the sculpture of Judd and Morris more explicit than they appear to be in the sculpture.

Peter Eisenman: House III, Lakeville, CT, 1969-71 Eisenman: model for House X, scheme F, 1975-8

There are a lot of questions which can be asked about minimalism, not the least of which is whether minimalism is as neutral and uninflected art as its creators claimed.
• What are minimalist objects made of?
• What shapes are used and what associations are made to those shapes?
• What interactions do these works have with the spaces in which they were exhibited?
• What processes are inherent to the works themselves?
In an attempt to answer those questions, critics have begun to formulate an understanding of minimalism which, rather than denying the presence of meaning, makes meaning an essential and inherent part of the work.

Richard Serra: Inverted House of Cards, 1969 (steel) Serra: Tilted Arc  (1981, installed; removed by the Federal government, 1989) (cor-ten steel at the Federal Plaze in NYC)

Richard Serra is probably the minimalist whose work probably comes closest to embodying ideas of power, aggression and danger.  These qualities are undeniably visible in the works, and the dangers are present and actual, if not intentional.  The confrontation has been intentional, and certainly was the intention of Serra’s public work, Tilted Arc, in NY.  His more recent work (Torqued Ellipses) is not intended as a confrontation with people in public spaces but as a radical questioning of architectural space and the experience of movement, both implied and actual.

Serra: Double Torqued Ellipse, installed at the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, 1997 Serra: Double Torqued Ellipse

Among the "ambiguities" of minimalism are the ways in which it calls attention to properties of the environment either through its interactive and reflective properties or through a more direct attack on space and place.  Even without attacking space, these reductive forms, made in technological materials, become sensuous and even "illusionistic" in terms of the multiple visual fields created by most minimal art.  Another ambiguity is the way minimalism changes the relationship between the spectator and the art work, a change which leads to one of the ultimate ironies of art history and art criticism.  The irony is that Clement Greenberg, because of his theory about the increasing self-purification of each medium, should have been satisfied with the purity of minimalism.  He rejected minimalist sculpture and called it non-art. Likewise, one of Greenberg's followers, a critic named Michael Fried, also called it non-art.  For Fried, it was not art because it was "theatrical."  Theatricality, for Fried, is a negative condition because it detracts from the autonomy of the work of art and it elides the boundaries between different forms of art.  (Theatricality is a condition which can apply to certain music as well as to certain forms of painting; hence, they are becoming more similar than dissimilar, and the modernist project of increasing purity of the medium is denied.)  The other quality of theatricality which Fried opposed had to do with the fact that if the spectator's response is important, then the work exists in and over time.  It loses the quality of “presentness” which to Fried is a central quality of the work of art but not of theater.  Fried may have been right although in a way which he did not anticipate: the next step for Morris was performance.

Carl Andre: 144  Zinc Square, 1967 (144 x 144") with partial view of Morris: untitled felt, 1970, on the wall Larry Bell: untitled (mineral-coated glass and rhodium-plated brass on plexiglass base, 57 x 24 x 24"), 1967
Fred Sandback: Blue Corner Piece, 1970 (blue elastic cord, 72 x 72")

The model of the expanded field of sculpture (developed by Rosalind Krauss):

marked sites axiomatic structures

Part 2: Is minimalism an American phenomenom?  Minimalism, Internationalism, and the Limits of Form

One of the art critical and art historical assumptions about minimalism has long been the American precedence and domination of this development, along with the interpretive assumption that minimalist works have no meaning.  Three recent exhibitions (in 2003-4) have challenged these premises, beginning with first – that this was a national movement without parallel developments in other countries.  Yet that belief alone would have to be challenged by the increased global communication, not just in art but in all aspects of life, after the second world war.  The point here is not that an artist working in France or Japan would have seen the work of an artist in the U.S. and followed in his or her footsteps, although that may well be the case.  But the real point is that existential philosophy, the high modern paradigm which emphasized systems and process over metaphor and subject, and the artistic interventions of Marcel Duchamp were experienced on a global level, such that artists in South America, east Asia or the United States may have all been participating in a social/psychological and philosophical context that was more similar than different.  Another premise which these exhibitions have challenged is the association of late 1960s with the beginning of this interest in art which is literal and which is reductive, finding the roots of minimalism in earlier twentieth century movements such as Russian constructivism and concrete abstraction.  In addition to expanding the field of sculpture (although not in precisely the same fashion that Krauss does with her model), these exhibitions have raised the point that once the belief in relational and hierarchical composition is abrogated, the art work begins to push the boundaries of form to a point where it can no longer be recognized.  This search for the limits of form is the link to what many people have called post-minimalism and eccentric minimalism (associated with artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois).  The examples below raise other questions about form: the focus on the concept or idea, the potential for movement, the role of the spectator, and the limits of space.
Sol Lewitt: Cube Structure based on Nine Modules (Floor/wall piece #9), 1976-7 Francois Morellet: 4 Self-distorting Grids, 1965 (aluminum, iron and motors)
Helio Oiticica: Nucleus 6, 1960-3 (installation with 10 painted panels and celiing structure) Heinz Mack: Mirror between Sky, Earth, and Sea, 1963 (3 lifochrome photos; project no longer extant)
Lygia Pape: Divider, 1968/2004 (videodocument of performance using cloth of 65' x 65' and human beings) Stanislaw Drozd: Miedzy (Between), 1977 (black paint on gallery walls)