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Minimalist art — a misunderstood art movement?

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Submitted Art Joseph Albers, "Homage to the Square," 1964. Serigraph on paper— acquisitions fund.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections

and Exhibitions

Minimalist art is one of the least understood movements in the whole of art history. These simple works — which might be as basic as a black square on a white canvas — often evoke a range of feelings in the viewer, including confusion, defensiveness, anxiety and rejection. They trigger such strong emotions because for centuries, if not millennia, artistic production and excellence have been judged by skill. We are all impressed by something that takes a long time to make, that is difficult to produce, or requires a great deal of manual dexterity, experience and knowledge. So, when an all-white painting like Robert Ryman’s “Bridge” (1980) sold for over $20 million in 2015, people were furious because it doesn’t necessarily show immediate evidence of skill. “I could do that!” was a frequent refrain, which implies that if a non-artist could make something, it is not a legitimate work of art. However, that is the whole point. Minimalist painting is not about skill; it’s about the concept behind the painting, or rather concepts, as these works can mean many different things.

The history of art has always been about newer movements rejecting the traditions of older movements. Medieval Christian art looks awkward to us, not because those artists didn’t know how to draw or carve, but because they were intentionally distancing themselves from pagan Romans by rejecting their naturalistic art. The same held true 1,500 years later, when the French Impressionists rejected the dirt and grime of Realism, which was itself a reaction to Romanticism. Art history is a pendulum that swings back and forth, and three of the many art movements of the 20th century can give us clues about the meaning of Minimalism.

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The first artworks that might be called Minimalistic were produced by a Russian artist named Kazimir Malevich in the 1910s. After dabbling in Cubism and Futurism, Malevich founded an artistic movement called Suprematism, which was about “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling.” Malevich and his followers felt they could find a kind of purity in art by painting simple geometric forms in a limited number of colors, like “Black Square,” “Black Circle,” and “White on White.” Suprematism itself was a reaction against another art movement called Constructivism, which was largely about making things to serve a specific function. While the artworks produced by both movements look somewhat similar on the surface, Constructivism was about trying to make paintings more concrete, with a solid physical presence, and Suprematism was about trying to make paintings that moved beyond their physical presence into pure feelings.

The other movement that played a large role in Minimalism was Abstract Expressionism, which began in the 1940s. In Abstract Expressionism, paintings were created by an active process of big gestures, and the brush and canvas are seen as extensions of the artist’s body and personality. You might think of Jackson Pollock as the best example of this. So, just as Suprematism was a reaction against Constructivism, Minimalism was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. Rather than a gestural, expressive product that is about the artist, Minimalist painters were more interested in order, control and harmony for their own sake. These works are not about anything other than themselves: paint on canvas.

Yet even within the Minimalist movement, artists disagreed about why they made Minimalist work (or argued that their work wasn’t Minimalist at all). Joseph Albers spent decades making colored squares in his “Homage to a Square” series. He was fascinated by the relationships of color and the technical effects that could be produced by putting colors next to one another. Would a yellow square appear to fall into or float out of the picture plane if it was placed inside an orange square? On the other hand, you have an artist like Mark Rothko, whose works also feature blocks of color next to one another. However, he rejects the idea that his paintings are about the same things.

“I am not an abstractionist … I am not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

Aside from the artists’ views, the reactions of the viewers are equally important in Minimalism. A pure white canvas might inspire rage in many people, but perhaps they are angry because the painting doesn’t make it easy to understand what they are seeing; it may take a lot of time and patience and work that a viewer may not be willing to do. Yet, consider the way that light and shadows play across a blank canvas over the course of a day, changing it in subtly beautiful ways. Its texture or slight gradations of color could provide a meditative or even religious experience. So if you find yourself standing in front of a Minimalist canvas, dismissing the work, making fun of it, or getting angry, consider why that might be the case. You might learn more about yourself than about the painting, but that’s often the point.

RMAC’s new exhibit on Minimalism, “Coloring Inside the Lines,” opens on June 22.