Minimalist Artists: Pioneers of the Movement

The minimalist art movement from the mid-20th century is a style of art that has endured for generations. The pioneering artists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Tony Smith, Agnes Martin and others were driven by a desire to change the perception of art. They emphasized the essential elements of their work such as form, line, shape and color. In this article, we will explore the lives and works of these iconic minimalist artists and how their contributions shaped the movement.

If you want to deep dive into the history and background of the minimalist art movement, I recommend this article: Exploring Minimalist Art – All You Need To Know.

Table of Contents

    Frank Stella, considered as the first minimalist artist

    The first minimalist artist was Frank Stella. In 1959, he began painting his signature black stripe paintings. While he certainly wasn’t the first artist to use a highly reduced and minimalist aesthetic in his work, he was the first artist in the movement to be labeled a minimalist artist.1

    Stella reacted against the expressive use of paint by most painters of the abstract expressionist movement. He was looking for a “calmer” and meditative-looking pictorial language, and he found it in the color surfaces of Barnett Newman. Particularly impressed by Mark Rothko, this led him to lean more and more toward a geometrization of form and a reduction of color. It was important to him that his paintings were just a flat surface with paint on it, nothing more.2

    Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch! Enamel paint on canvas, 308.6 cm × 185.4 cm
    Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, 1959, Enamel paint on canvas, 308.6 cm × 185.4 cm. By titling the painting “Die Fahne Hoch!” – meaning “Raise the Flag!” in German, which is taken from the anthem of the Nazi Party, the “Horst Wessel Song”, one of the three paintings in Frank Stella’s series that make direct reference to Nazism – the artist was attempting to destabilize the notion of meaning itself, creating an ironic statement.
    Minimalist Art Guide | Frank Stella The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II 1959
    Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II 1959. Stella created an overall structure which acknowledged the canvas as both a flat surface and a three-dimensional object by painting the black bands in parallel, and close to the edges of the canvas. Instead of using expressive brushstrokes, the thin white lines were left unpainted, enabling the raw canvas to be visible between the bands.

    Donald Judd (1928 – 1994)

    But it was not only Frank Stella who developed a taste for reduced art at this time. Donald Judd, who strictly rejected the term minimalism, was attracted to the idea of creating works that focused solely on their material components and felt that this approach allowed the viewer to connect more deeply with the artwork without being distracted by excessive or unnecessary detail.

    Judd is certainly best known for his sculptures, but he actually began his journey with paintings in the early 1960s. In this works, Judd first experimented with color, line, and form in regard to the limitation of a flat plane. He once said: “I think the origin of my work does lie in painting. My work doesn’t arise from sculpture; it comes out of the paintings of Pollock, Newman, Rothko.”3

    His sculptures, which he described as “specific objects,” are characterized by industrial materials such as steel, aluminum, and Plexiglas, which are strategically arranged and painted in simple forms and colors, such as the signature boxes and stacks.

    Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.

    Donald Judd
    Donald Judd, untitled, 1991, Clear anodized aluminum with transparent amber over black acrylic sheets, 25 × 100 × 25 cm, © 2021 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1991, Clear anodized aluminum with transparent amber over black acrylic sheets, 25 × 100 × 25 cm, © 2021 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use
    Donald Judd Untitled, 1961 Oil on composition board mounted on wood, with inset tinned steel baking pan 48 1/8 × 36 1/8 × 4 inches (122.2 × 91.8 × 10.2 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Donald Judd began his artistic career by creating traditional art – from drawings and paintings of landscapes and people. Around 1959/1960, Judd started making lines on fields, which marked the start of his personal work. © Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961, Oil on composition board mounted on wood, with inset tinned steel baking pan, 122.2 × 91.8 × 10.2 cm, Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use
    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1994 © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy Judd Foundation and David Zwirner
    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1994 © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy Judd Foundation and David Zwirner under Fair Use

    Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967)

    Ad Reinhardt was an American painter, sculptor and art theorist. He was a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement and is widely regarded as an important precursor of the movement.

    Reinhardt had a very idiosyncratic style and focused, throughout his career, on pure abstractions of line, color and form as can be seen clearly in the painting below left. In this monochrome painting, Reinhardt explores the use of a vertical format. The contrast between the crisp white paint and the natural hue of the canvas creates a range of tonal variations. The jagged, horizontal brushstrokes of varying intensity and paint application give the composition an organized yet artful brick-like texture.

    Ad Reinhardt
Number 107
1950
    Ad Reinhardt, Number 107, 1950, Oil on canvas, 203.2 x 91.4 cm. © 2023 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York via MoMa under Fair Use
    Ad Reinhardt, Untitled, c. 1966
    Ad Reinhardt, Untitled, c. 1966, Gouache on photographic paper, 24.8 x 16.8 cm © 2023 Estate of Ad Reinhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York via MoMa under Fair Use

    Agnes Martin (1912-2004)

    Agnes Martin was a key figure in the development of Minimalism. Her consistent, simple style emphasized line, grid, and subtle color. Martin’s work was often connected to themes of nature and spirituality. She believed that art had the potential to awaken the viewer to a transcendent experience, and explored the spiritual core of the human experience through her work.

    Martin’s use of minimalism was not just an aesthetic choice, but an expression of her personal journey. Her works reflect her search for inner peace, her pursuit of self-expression, and her exploration of the human experience. If you want to learn more about her and her works, I recommend the following article about her: Agnes Martin

    My paintings are certainly nonobjective. They’re just horizontal lines.

    Agnes Martin about her work
    Agnes Martin © Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Agnes Martin © Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use
    Agnes-Martin,-The-Islands,-1961,-oil-and-graphite-on-canvas,-72″-x-72″-(182.9-cm-x-182.9-cm)-©-2019-Estate-of-Agnes-Martin---Artists-Rights-Society-(ARS),-New-York
    Agnes-Martin, The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas, 182.9 cm x 182.9 cm © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use

    Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

    Ellsworth Kelly was an American painter, sculptor and printmaker who’s work is characterized by its simplicity and clean lines, often emphasizing the natural forms and colors of his surroundings. After two years of service in World War II, Kelly pursued his passion for art by attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA, followed by the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, France.

    Away from the American art scene, Kelly created his own signature style which included painting canvases in a single color, either alone or grouped together with canvases of different colors.4 Kelly’s most famous works include his minimalist abstract paintings and large-scale sculptures.

    Ellsworth Kelly, 
Yellow over Yellow, 1964 - 1965, 89,5 x 59,7 cm
    Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow over Yellow, 1964 – 1965, 89,5 x 59,7 cm © F.L. Braswell Fine Art under Fair Use
    Ellsworth Kelly, 
Black, from the 9 Portfolio, 1972, 
42,8 x 55,5 cm
    Ellsworth Kelly, Black, from the 9 Portfolio, 1972, 42,8 x 55,5 cm, © Composition Gallery under Fair Use

    Tony Smith (1912-1980)

    Tony Smith was a leading figure in the development of minimalist art. His work was diverse, spanning painting, sculptures, and architecture. Smith was most well-known for his geometric abstract sculptures, which combine simple geometric forms – such as cubes, pyramids, and cylinders – with a strong sense of proportion and balance.

    His work was highly influenced by his study of architecture and the work of Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and other minimalists. His use of repetition and simple shapes helped him to create works of art that had a sense of timelessness and simplicity.

    Installation view, Tony Smith, Pace Gallery, Los Angeles © Tony Smith/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York under Fair Use

    Robert Ryman (1930 – 2019)

    Robert Ryman is an American artist best known for his monochromatic and abstract works in the minimalist movement. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and was an early adherent to the minimalist philosophy. Ryman’s work is characterized by its reductive and restrained approach, often in a white palette. Ryman has said about it: “The white is just a means of exposing other elements. White enables other things to become visible.” His works reference the phenomenology of the viewer, leaving space for individual experience and exploration.

    Robert Ryman, Winsor 34, 1966, Winsor White oil on stretched sized linen canvas, 160 × 160 cm
    Robert Ryman, Winsor 34, 1966, Winsor White oil on stretched sized linen canvas, 160 × 160 cm © David Zwirner under Fair Use
    Robert Ryman
Stretched Drawing [5 × 5 grid], 1963, Charcoal on stretched sized cotton canvas, 36.8 × 36.5 cm
    Robert Ryman, Stretched Drawing [5 × 5 grid], 1963, Charcoal on stretched sized cotton canvas, 36.8 × 36.5 cm © David Zwirner under Fair Use

    Carl Andre (1935)

    Carl Andre is an American minimalist artist best known for his sculptures and installations. His work is noted for its emphasis on form and its use of simple materials such as steel and concrete. He is also known for his collaborations with other artists, such as Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. Andre’s sculptures often feature arrangements of basic geometric shapes, such as cubes and bars, and are often arranged in linear patterns.

    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
    Carl Andre, Bend Smithson (The old Rattler) , 1997, steel, 10 x 10 x 0,3 cm
    Carl Andre, Bend Smithson (The old Rattler) , 1997, steel, 10 x 10 x 0,3 cm, © Image via Artnet under Fair Use

    Robert Morris (1931 – 2018)

    Robert Morris was an American sculptor, performance artist, and theorist. His career spans several decades and he is considered a pioneering figure in the development of minimalist art. He was active in the American art scene from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, and his large-scale sculptures, installations, and site-specific works have been featured in major exhibitions around the world.

    Morris was heavily influenced by the theories of Minimalism brought forth by artists such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt. His minimalistic approach aimed to reduce the traditional elements of visual art to their simplest, most basic components. He explored the relationship between form, space, and materiality, and his works often highlighted the transformative power of everyday objects.

    Minimalist Art Guide | Robert Morris - Mirror and Glas 91,4 x 91,4 x 91,4 cm, Sammlung Tate, London © 2020 The Estate of Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ Adagp, Paris, foto: A. Mole/MAMC
    Robert Morris – Mirror and Glas 91,4 x 91,4 x 91,4 cm, Collection Tate, London In the mid-1960s, Morris created minimalist sculptures which consisted of vastly simplified geometric shapes. He often placed these sculptures in certain settings, whereby the viewer was both conscious of his own bodily presence in the environment and of the sculpture itself. This artwork is a representation of Morris’s concept. As one strolls between the four reflective cubes, the gallery is alive with ever-evolving relationships between the spectator and the art piece. The cubes were originally displayed in the outside garden of The Tate for Morris’s 1971 exhibition, then re-displayed in the gallery once the exhibition had to be substituted with different works.
    © 2020 The Estate of Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ Adagp, Paris, Photo: A. Mole/MAMC

    John McCracken (1934 – 2011)

    John McCracken was famous for his shiny, highly polished geometric sculptures. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he began creating his signature sculptures, utilizing everyday materials such as wood, fiberglass, and resin. He created monochromatic, rectangular forms that appear to be highly polished and feature futuristic designs. His minimalist works have become an enduring reference point for post-minimalist art, and his influence on contemporary art is still felt today.

    I think ‘minimalist’ work is not always so minimalist, especially when you really see it and think about it—or, say, try to accurately describe it.

    John McCracken about his work5
    John McCracken
    Installation view of the 2006 solo exhibition ​John McCracken: New Works in Bronze and Steel​ at David Zwirner, New York
    John McCracken, 12-IV, 1971, Polyester resin, fiberglass, and plywood, 12 x 12 x 12 inches / 30.5 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm, © John McCracken, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery
    John McCracken, 12-IV, 1971, Polyester resin, fiberglass, and plywood, 12 x 12 x 12 inches / 30.5 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm, © John McCracken, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery

    Visions of Simplicity to Create a Unique Experience

    For the minimalist artists, their work was about more than just reducing the elements of a piece. They sought to create a unique experience – one that encourages the viewer to take a step back and appreciate the beauty of simplicity. And most of them, couldn’t relate to the term minimalism at all. To them, their work was so much more than just “minimal.”

    It must have been an exciting time when all these artists took a new direction. In this article I have focused on what I consider to be the most influential minimalist artists who were pioneers of this movement. However, I would like to mention the works of the following artists: Barnett Newman (who has not actually been called a minimalist artist, but whose work is characterized by a strong minimalist aesthetic), Robert Mangold, Larry Bell, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, and Anne Truitt.

    If you want to get to know contemporary minimalist artists, I recommend this article: Minimalist Artists to Watch in 2023

    For those who want to see the works of Flavin, Judd, McCracken and Sandback in motion, I definitely recommend the following link by David Zwirner. This is an installation video by Pushpin Films of a past exhibition: Flavin, Judd, McCracken, Sandback at David Zwirner

    Further Reading/ Resources

    1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalism_(visual_arts)
    2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Stella
    3 https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2021/donald-judd-paintings-1959-1961/
    4 http://www.artnet.de/k%C3%BCnstler/ellsworth-kelly/
    5 https://www.artforum.com/print/201108/in-search-of-the-art-of-john-mccracken-29049

    https://www.adreinhardtfoundation.org/
    http://www.tonysmithestate.com/

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