Minimalist Artists: Pioneers of the Movement

The Minimal Art movement from the mid-20th century is a style of art that has endured for generations. 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 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

    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 flat surfaces with paint on them, nothing more.2

    His later work, however, is characterized by dynamic, colorful, and often monumental works that achieve an intense expansive effect despite their abstraction.

    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 that acknowledged the canvas as both a flat surface and a three-dimensional object. He did this 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. He 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 work, 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, and Rothko.”3

    His sculptures, which he called “specific objects”, are characterized by industrial materials such as steel, aluminum, and Plexiglas. They are strategically arranged and painted in simple shapes and colors, like the characteristic boxes and stacks. Read more about him here.

    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 (1913 – 1967) is known as one of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century and served as an important bridge in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. He is best known for his monochrome “Black Paintings.” These almost entirely black paintings are characterized by a minimalist aesthetic and are the culmination of his efforts to emphasize the pure, fundamental elements of art.

    Reinhardt studied in New York and was influenced by Zen Buddhism and the work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko. Over time, he developed his own style, which was characterized by rigorous reduction and experimental use of narrow color spectrums. He wanted to reduce his art to its purest, most original form by eliminating all outside influences and unnecessary elements.

    Read more about him here.

    Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Oil on canvas, in artist's frame, 62.9 × 31.8 cm © Image Courtesy Sotheby's
    Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Oil on canvas, in artist’s frame, 62.9 × 31.8 cm © Image Courtesy Sotheby’s
    Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1956, oil on canvas, 203.2 cm × 177.8 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery
    Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1956, oil on canvas, 203.2 cm × 177.8 cm © Image Courtesy Pace Gallery

    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 whose work is characterized by its simplicity and clean lines, often emphasizing the natural forms and colors of his surroundings. After serving two years in World War II, Kelly pursued his passion for art by attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. He then went to 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 also a leading figure in the development of Minimal 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 Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and other artists with a reduced and minimalist aesthetic. His use of repetition and simple shapes helped him to create works of art that had a sense of timelessness and simplicity. Read more about him here.

    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 was an American painter known for his conceptual and minimalist works. He was born on May 30, 1930, in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, and died on February 8, 2019. Ryman originally studied music and worked as a jazz musician before beginning his career in the visual arts. After working for a while at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he began painting and quickly developed his own unique style. Ryman’s works are monochromatic, white mixed-media paintings on square canvases. He played with different textures and variations of white to create depth and light in his pieces.

    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, Untitled, 2011, Oil on stretched cotton canvas, 61 × 61 cm © Image Courtesy David Zwirner
    Robert Ryman, Untitled, 2011, Oil on stretched cotton canvas, 61 × 61 cm © Image Courtesy David Zwirner

    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 later became 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 spanned several decades and he is considered one of the pioneers in the development of Minimalist Art. He was active in the American art scene from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. His large-scale sculptures, installations, and site-specific works have been shown in major exhibitions around the world.

    Morris was heavily influenced by the theories of Minimalism developed by artists such as Judd, Flavin, and LeWitt. His minimalist 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 emphasized 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 that consisted of vastly simplified geometric shapes. He often placed these sculptures in certain settings. This made the viewer 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 stroll 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. They were 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 an influential American Minimalist Artist, active in the 1960s and 1970s. His sculptures, which were characterized by their smooth surfaces and geometric shapes, are widely recognized and celebrated. He often used planks of wood or fiberglass as his medium, painting them in vivid colors such as blue, yellow, or green. His works have been exhibited in galleries around the world, and he is credited with helping to define Minimalism as an art movement. McCracken passed away in 2011 at the age of 76.

    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 of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery

    Visions of Simplicity to Create a Unique Experience

    For 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/

    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.