What Makes Minimalist Sculptures Aesthetic?

I have always been fascinated by minimalist sculptures. Because unlike a painting or photograph, a sculpture can be viewed from all angles. The way light, shadow and perspective play with it can change the whole appearance and perception of it.

But what makes a minimalist sculpture aesthetic? Is it defined by rules? And how do artists manage to say so much with so little? 

As usual, I do not want to focus only on the minimalist art movement, but on all those that have a minimalist aesthetic, that is, those that express as much as possible with as little as possible.

Minimalist sculpture | Sergio de Camargo via Aesence Directory for minimalist aesthetics
Sergio de Camargo, Sem título 1979, Carrara marble, 17,5 x 10 x 13 cm
©Wikimedia Commons under Fair Use
Minimalist sculpture by Jorge Oteiza
Jorge Oteiza – Unidad mínima, 1959, Steel sheet, 44 x 50 x 36 cm via Museo Reina Sofía under Fair Use

A brief historical exploration

Sculptures played an important role in human life for thousands of years. In the beginning, they were mainly female figures and animal motifs, but over time they were used as representations and objects of worship for gods, people and ideals of perfection.

However, this changed in the 20th century. It was a time of new ideas and styles, and Auguste Rodin was a key figure in this movement. His sculptures with their many broken surfaces ushered in a new era of sculpture. He broke away from the traditional ways of sculpting and explored new methods of representation.

Even artists like Pablo Picasso, who was not necessarily known for his sculptures, created hundreds of sculptures between 1909 and 1930 – and became a great inspiration for Futurists, Dadaists and Constructivists with his abstract and reduced works.

Constantin Brâncuși strove for absolute simplicity in form. He is known above all for his ability to reduce the meaning of a work to its essence. He and his work was a great influence and inspiration for a lot of artists like Sérgio de Camargo and Hans Steinbrenner.

Minimalist sculpture | Sergio de Camargo via Aesence Directory for minimalist aesthetics
Sergio de Camargo, 1973, Carrara marble, 31 x 12 x 12 cm
©Lisson Gallery under Fair Use
Alberto Giacometti, Femme, 1928-29 Courtesy Ordovas, London
Alberto Giacometti, Femme, 1928-29
© Ordovas, London under Fair Use
Bird in Space by Constantin Brâncuși - Minimalist sculpture
Constantin Brâncuși, Bird in Space, 1928. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York via Artsy under Fair Use

They were experimenting with new ways to represent the world around them, and they began to simplify their work. This trend continued with artists like Hans Arp, Jacques Lipchitz, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, who were interested in exploring the relationship between form and color. 

In the 1950s, more and more artists started to experiment with minimalist and reduced forms. Artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre wanted their art to look like everyday objects instead of traditional sculptures.

They used shapes and materials that would usually be found in factories. By putting their art on the floor instead of on a pedestal, they were trying to show that their art was different from other kinds of art. The meaning of their art comes from how the viewer interacts with it, not from the art itself. So the space where the art was located was also important.

Dan Grahem
Dan Grahem, Untitled, Stainless Steel and Mirror, Size: 125 x 125 x 91cm. © Lisson Gallery 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, Judd Foundation and David Zwirner under Fair Use
Minimalist Art | 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, Tate Collection, London © 2020 The Estate of Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ Adagp, Paris, Photo: A. Mole/MAMC  Fair Use

The aesthetics of their minimalist sculptures reached its height in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1966, the Jewish Museum in New York City hosted an exhibition called “Primary Structures.” The exhibition was one of the first to really showcase the power and potential of minimalism in the art world

The exhibition featured a number of young, up-and-coming artists. Their work were simple, often made of industrial materials, to create art that was both visually arresting and deeply conceptual. For many viewers, the exhibition was a revelation, and it helped to shape the way that we think about art today.

In the 1970s, there was a surge in public art that garnered national attention for minimalist sculptors like Isamu Noguchi. Government agencies at the state and local level created public sculpture parks that were particularly supportive of minimalist sculpture.

Richard Serra for example wanted to continue developing the work of the “old fathers of minimalism” in his own way; his goal was to expand minimalism so that the preferred material could develop a new formal language. Many of his minimalist sculptures can still be seen today in public spaces.

But the movement emerged not only in America and Europe, but also in Asia. In Japan and Korea, Mono-ha (literally meaning “School of things”) emerged. Artists like Nobuo Sekine and Lee Ufan, explored the encounter between natural and industrial materials, arranging them in mostly unaltered, ephemeral states¹ and placed, as Melussa Chiu (director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) so beautifully put it, “great emphasis on authenticity of materials, a response to space, minimalist but not minimalist.“²

Phase of Nothingness-Water, 1969
steel, water
cylinder form: 48 x 47 ¼ x 47 ¼ inches
square form: 11.875 x 86.625 x 63 inches
© Nobuo Sekine, Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Photo: Joshua White
Image: Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Nobuo Sekine, Phase of Nothingness-Water, 1969, steel, water
© Nobuo Sekine, Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Joshua White, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo under Fair Use
Mono Ha - Lee Ufan
Lee Ufan, Relatum – Gravitation, 2007-2008, iron panel and stone, iron panel 299.5 x 150 x 1.5 cm, stone 74 x 76 x 62 cm via Mutualart under Fair Use
Minimalist Art | Pidgeon by Isamu Noguchi, 1985 via Aesence
Isamu Noguchi, Pidgeon, 1989, Bronze Plate
©INFGM under Fair Use

Final thoughts

What made minimalist sculptures so fascinating but also controversial at the time was that they required a new definition. They were to be defined not by what they were, but by what they were not. They were merely an aesthetic object, existing in a three-dimensional space.

Nowadays more and more artists, as well as designers, are merging definitions and rules to create works that are both functional and sculptural. Moving away from the time when artists were interested in presenting a pure “idea” without any expressive content. Today, it is important to aesthetically enhance the space with sculpture.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with images and stimuli, it can be refreshing to view a piece of art that is minimal in both form and content. By stripping away the unnecessary, minimalist sculptures force us to focus on the essentials, leading to a more profound appreciation of the beauty of simplicity.

If you’re as fascinated by the topic as I am, feel free to check out all articles on Aesence with the tag -> sculpture. And if you like my column on minimalist art and design and haven’t signed up for my monthly newsletter yet, now is the perfect time to do. You’ll receive all editorials and inspiration straight to your inbox!

Stele III by Elisabeth Lux | Minimalist Art
© Stele III by Elisabeth Lux, 2011, Aluminium painted, Size: 188 x 15 x 15cm
Minimalist sculpture by Hans Steinbrenner
Hans Steinmeier, Untitled, wood, painted black (probably tar). On stainless steel plate, corroded, Dimensions: 134 x 32 x 15.5cm,
© Photo by Van Ham, used under Fair Use.
Darren Harvey Regan | Minimalist sculptures
The Erratics by Darren Harvey Regan

Further reading / sources

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono-ha
² https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-minimalist-sculpture-good


About Exploring Aesthetics:

Sarah loves asking questions and exploring the things she interacts with on a daily basis. Exploring aesthetics is her column which discusses art, design and aesthetics to explore, inspire and to question the status quo.

Aesence is a creative studio and digital design magazine with a high curatorial approach. Founded by Sarah Dorweiler, a creative mind and entrepreneur from Berlin, her goal is to capture the feeling of harmony, balance and inner peace in her curatorial work and photography.