Exploring Minimal Art – All you need to know

There’s something about Minimal Art that makes it so captivating. Perhaps it’s the clean lines and simple shapes. Whatever the reason, Minimalist Art has a certain appeal that can’t be denied. If you’re interested in learning more about this movement, this guide is for you.

We’ll explore the history of this art movement, as well as how it influenced the art world today. We’ll also take a look at some of the most famous minimalist artworks. So whether you’re an artist yourself or just appreciate the beauty of simplicity, read on to learn all about it.

If you want to know more about the pioneers of this movement, I can recommend this article to you: Minimalist Artists: Pioneers Of The Movement

The development of Minimal Art

The art movement originated in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States of America and is defined as a style that uses simple, clean forms and lines. The goal of Minimalism is to strip down the work to its essentials, to create a work that is free of distractions and superfluous elements.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, The first time someone made a painting that wasn’t of something, Malevich wanted to invent a new world of shapes and forms instead of depicting reality. Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 79.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Image Public Domain
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918. © Image via Hugh Marwood under Fair Use

Minimalism can be applied to many different types of art, including painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and even music. Although Minimalism is often associated with the art scene of the 1960s, its roots go back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Russian avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s, as well as Constructivism and Suprematism, De Stijl and Bauhaus, had a major influence on the development of the Minimal Art movement.

Artists such as Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, began reducing artworks to their essentials as early as the 1915s. In doing so, they created a new artistic language based on the simplest geometric forms that expressed ultimate human cognitive principles.

What you see is what you see

Quote on Minimalist Art by Frank Stella

The art scene in America in the 1950s and 1960s was characterized by a flood of new ideas and movements – One of the most important artistic movements of this period was Abstract Expressionism. Artists in this movement explored new techniques and approaches to painting based on spontaneous, gestural brushstrokes and color gradients. The canvas became a place where the artists could express their deepest emotions and existential anxieties. This emphasis on emotional intensity was further enhanced by large-scale works that envelop and overwhelm the viewer.

Minimalist art by Anne Truitt
Anne Truitt, Sumi Drawing, 1966, Truitt made these drawings while living in Japan. They have precise vertical stripes but are also soft because they are made with Sumi ink, which is traditionally used in East Asian calligraphy © Image via MoMA under Fair Use
Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attesa, 1960. “Concetto spaziale”, literally meaning “spatial concept”. Destruction of the monochrome canvas by using sharp knife cuts. © Image via Ketterer Kunst under Fair Use

Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline created paintings that were characterized by emotion, energy, and movement. Pollock’s famous “Drip Paintings,” for example, were created by dripping, pouring, and splashing paint onto a canvas lying on the ground, allowing him to physically engage with his work and directly transmit his emotions. Within Abstract Expressionism, however, some artists, such as Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, and Ad Reinhardt, developed an astonishingly minimalist language. If you want to learn more about it, I can recommend the following article. There I explore the interesting dichotomy within the movement: Minimalism In Abstract Expressionism – A Contradiction?

The rise of a movement

But it wasn’t until the late 1950s that a group of artists sought to create art that was more grounded, rational, and orderly. Minimalism was meant to be a reaction to Abstract Expressionism’s heavy focus on symbolism and drama. They believed that by simplifying their works, they could create a stronger visual impact. Some of the best-known pioneers of the movement from the 1960s include Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and Agnes Martin. These artists laid the foundation for future generations of Minimalists.

Their aim was for viewers to have an immediate and pure visual reaction to their art, without thinking about what it might represent. They wanted to explore the space their art occupied, how the viewer interacted with it, and how perception changed through light, shadow, and perspective. They wanted to explore the simplicity and essence that their art offered.

Frank Stella for example, an artist once considered part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, is most well-known for his Black Paintings – For some viewers, his monochromatic paintings still define the artist as a Minimalist. He was only 23 when he first displayed four of his Black Paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959 (see picture below right).

Minimalist Art Guide  | Carl Andre
Carl Andre – Magnesium-Steel Couplet, Size: 1 x 30 x 60cm. In the early 1960s Andre’s arrangements created what would later be known as minimalism. © Image via Van Ham under Fair Use
Minimalist Art | Frank Stella
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II
1959
Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II 1959. From the Black Paintings series by Stella. It debuted at The Museum of Modern Art in December 1959. © Image via MoMA under Fair Use
Robert Morris – Mirror and Glas. Originally installed in 1971. Morris’ sculptures are very basic and geometric. He would often arrange these sculptures into groups. As the viewer walks around the four cubes, they see the reflections of the gallery and themselves shift and change. Size per cube: 91,4 x 91,4 x 91,4 cm, Tate Collection, London © 2020 The Estate of Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ Adagp, Paris, photo: A. Mole/MAMC via MAMC under Fair Use

In 1962, a book on the Russian avant-garde, The Great Experiment in Art was published by Camilla Gray. This book brought the concerns of the Russian avant-garde movements to a wider audience and helped inspire more and more artists.¹

Furthermore, the 1966 exhibition „Primary Structures“ at the Jewish Museum in New York inspired the movement. In 1968, works of American Minimal Art were shown in Europe for the first time as part of an exhibition tour of the same name.

At the same time, art critics and art journalists were trying to give a name to this emerging movement. Names such as ABC Art, Idiot Art, and Cool Art were considered to describe the reduced visual language.2 Eventually, art critics adopted the term “Minimal Art” from a 1965 essay by Richard Wollheim on modern American art and popularized it.

Interestingly, however, almost all of the artists who were considered part of this movement at the time vehemently rejected the name. They felt that the term “Minimal Art” was inadequate to describe the complexity of their works and the underlying concepts. They emphasized that their work did not aim to reduce art to a minimum of material and form, but rather to explore new ways of revealing the relationship between object, space, and viewer.

How Minimal Art influenced the art world

Even though there were many controversies about the movement, Minimalism has had a profound impact on the art world, and its influence can still be seen in many contemporary artists

Minimal Art has been influential in both the fine art world and the world of design. In the fine art world, it has led to the popularity of abstract and conceptual art. In design, it has influenced everything from architecture to fashion. The impact can be seen everywhere in our modern world. It is a style that has been embraced by many and has become an integral part of our visual culture.

My favorite books* on Minimal Art

My thoughts

Yes, the Minimal Art movement has had a major impact on the art world. Today, it is still being made, and its simplicity continues to resonate with viewers. If you want to see how artists are creating art with a minimalist aesthetic these days, feel free to check out the art category.

While Minimalism is often associated with cold and impersonal art, the best works of the movement are actually quite engaging and thought-provoking. By stripping away all the distractions, Minimalism allows the viewer to focus on the essentials of the work, and to see it in a new and different light. The viewer defines the work, not the artist. The viewer defines what he or she sees, feels, and interprets. This makes Minimal Art universal. No matter who looks at it, they will see something different in it than you do. And that makes it so special.

If you’re interested in the topic, I recommend my column where I question and explore minimalism in art and design.

Further reading

¹ https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/minimalism
2 https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/287319152.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalism
https://www.moma.org/collection/terms/minimalism

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Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.