Theory Lecture 2: Minimalism

Donald Judd was a prominent and respected artist and critic throughout the 60s-80s. Having started as a painter, his work began to move away from works with ‘illusory’ qualities in the early 60s and in 1964 he was commissioned to write a survey of art which became the foundation theory for the movement that became known as ‘Minimalism’.

His works were neither paintings nor sculpture, Judd fashioned himself more as a maker of ‘objects’ such as ‘Untitled -1966’, where two metal sheets are pulled together by wires, held apart by orange acrylic. With no glue, no nails, the tension in the wires is what keeps the box as a box, the object has no purpose but to show how it exists as an object.

Donald Judd, Untitled – 1966


Judd’s ideas were not to deal with emotion in the piece, but to focus the viewer solely on what is in front of them. As such, Judd was highly critical of artists such as Mark di Suvero, whose abstract expressionist works such as ‘Hankchampion’ alluded to being something which they were not.

Mark di Suvero, Hankchampion – 1960

Yet Judd championed works such as Claes Oldenburg’s ‘Soft Light Switches’ due to the specificity of being a simple copy and being the thing that it is. The viewer is therefore left to focus on what it is, the fact that it is made of fabric rather than the plastic of an actual light switch, the soft rather than rigid nature of the piece rather than what it is or what it may represent.

Claes Oldenburg, Soft light switches - 1963–1969
Claes Oldenburg, Soft light switches – 1963–1969

Theorist and critic Michael Fried was critical of this ‘literalist’ art for the way it makes the viewer very self aware and instead believed that an artist should be creating an aesthetic experience. As such, Fried saw the works of Frank Stella to be taking the idea of showing painting as a literal object to its literal edge. Achieved in Stella’s black paintings in which he uses the canvas to define the lines left within the painting structure itself e.g the gaps between lines being the same as the thickness of the canvas from the wall, and yet the quality of the paint turns it into an optical, aesthetic experience, and therefore: good.

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor -1959
Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor -1959

Works like these form Stella are ‘Motivated images’, the stripes are what determine the shape of the canvas and likewise it is the canvas that determines the shape of the stripes.

Sculptor Carl Andre at the time of these paintings was working in the corner of Stella’s studio and began to adapt his style to reflect that of Stella’s. Andre’s works therefore developed to show less allusion and illusion and simplified his work to the point that it would be simply the form it was and the material it was.

At the same time, British sculptor Antony Caro removed from his work the problem of allusions to anything else, he translated the opticality of works by artists such as Kenneth Noland to sculpture. Caro’s works were welded and painted steel, not placed on a plinth and as such transcended their materials and were loved by the theorist Greenberg.

Kenneth Noland, Bridge - 1964
Kenneth Noland, Bridge – 1964
Sir Anthony Caro, 'Early One Morning' - 1962
Sir Anthony Caro, ‘Early One Morning’ – 1962

In opposition to this, Andre made pieces such as the ‘Equivalent’ series. His material could cut the space, he didn’t try to transcend his materials merely state that they were there. After the shows, the bricks such as in Equivalent VIII would be resold to the brick yard, the piece was solely focused on its own materiality.

Carl Andre, 'Equivalent VIII' - 1966
Carl Andre, ‘Equivalent VIII’ – 1966

Donald Judd was often criticised by the way in which his work was produced: By other hands. Judd would send drawings off to specialist constructors who would create the works and send them back. Artists such as di Suvero claimed that this meant Judd was not in fact an artist in his own right.

Problems later aroused with the work of artists such as Judd and Dan Flavin who did not construct their pieces themselves, when their drawings were purchased as the art itself by collectors such as Giuseppe Panza who would later display the work, but in ways that were dictated by the drawings not as they may have been displayed before, changing the work, opening them to interpretation. This angered both Judd and Flavin and yet it opened up the poignant question about what the work is, something that Andre avoided by always constructing his work himself. The fact that it could be constructed by anyone, that it could be read as an idea that could be reconstituted meant that it was not the physical nature of the box or the lights that mattered, these ‘conceptualists’ saw idea as idea.

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