A Short History of Minimalism

A Short History of Minimalism

Donald Judd, Richard Wollheim, and the origins of what we now describe as minimalist.


Today we might describe modernist architecture like Philip Johnson’s or Mies van der Rohe’s as minimalist. But the word has been retrofitted to include such architects just in the past few decades. In the context of art history, the two terms were almost completely separate. The label “minimalist” took hold only in the 1960s. Over that decade a group of artists emerged who made objects using a similar vocabulary to modernist architecture—industrial materials that were geometric and cold—but with a totally different goal in mind. The artists made work that was opposed to being decorative or functional in the first place. Its extreme simplicity made viewers uncomfortable. And they didn’t like the word “minimalism.”

“I have a lot of complaints,” the caustic New York artist Donald Judd began an essay in 1969. (The essay was titled “Complaints: Part 1,” hinting at how many others there were.) Judd was annoyed that art critics kept labeling him a minimalist. He felt the term was totally irrelevant to his work. To Judd, “minimalism” was just a lazy shortcut, a useless word writers used to oppress artists. Minimalism was just a marketing scheme that made difficult, complex artwork more palatable, dumbing it down. “Very few artists receive attention without publicity as a new group,” Judd wrote. “Most ideas of history are simplistic, archaic, and destructive.”

Yet Judd is still seen as a minimalist today and likely the best known, if art history books are any indication. The glossy metal-box sculptures he began making in the ’60s stand in for everything the word now suggests in its combination of intellectual and aesthetic austerity. He never stopped hating the label. A dozen years after the first essay, he was still complaining, as in a 1981 letter to The Village Voice: “The first error is that there isn’t any such thing as minimalism; the second that traits are given to something that doesn’t exist.”

A starting point for the dominant strain of minimalism might be Judd’s first solo show in 1963 at the Green Gallery, when he was 35 years old. Green Gallery was opened on 57th Street in 1960 by Richard Bellamy, an iconoclastic, improvisational dealer who supported many of the artists who would later be called minimalist, like Robert Morris and Dan Flavin. Bellamy aspired to show a different kind of art from the most recognizable style of the decade, a crew of mostly wan second-generation painters following in the footsteps of the New York School abstract expressionists who first made Manhattan an international artistic hub in the ’40s and ’50s. The ab-ex wave had already crashed, as Judd pronounced in 1964: “[Jackson] Pollock was dead. [Franz] Kline and [James] Brooks had painted their last good paintings in 1956 and 1957. [Philip] Guston’s paintings had become soft and gray.”

Judd was better known at the time as a critic than an artist. He made his living contributing polemic reviews and surveys to magazines, often getting himself into fights. An outsider to the New York scene, he felt a constant need to prove himself. Born on a farm in Missouri, he landed in New Jersey for high school. After a stint in Korea in the Army Corps of Engineers, he used the GI Bill to enroll in classes at the Art Students League in New York and the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The education wasn’t rigorous enough for Judd, so he began studying philosophy at Columbia University in 1948, eventually pursuing a master’s in art history under the pioneering scholar Meyer Schapiro. His academic training undergirded his criticism, imbuing it with a certain unshakable confidence that his statements were always correct—at least in the moment that he wrote them.

Though he was not yet fully confident in his personal artistic practice, Judd led Bellamy up to his studio to see the work he was making, which had evolved over the ’50s from abstract geometric prints and paintings into three-dimensional objects made to hang on the wall or rest on the floor. The visit led to Judd’s 1963 solo show, which populated the Green Gallery’s white walls and narrow wood floor with geometric boxes made of plywood coated in light cadmium red paint. The sculptures were abstract forms, like machines for accomplishing incomprehensible tasks. They were inorganic and yet not quite industrial. Judd had made them by hand with his father, Roy, an executive for Western Union and a skilled woodworker.

The show included forms like ramps, shelves, and racks, but there was no way to interact with the pieces and no clear meaning to be interpreted. The intentional lack of content in the show was an affront to established art-world tastes. In Art in America, the critic Hilton Kramer described Judd’s debut as “indifferent to formal analysis and metaphor.” Other critics called the weirdly mundane pieces useless objects, nonart, and aesthetic furniture.

Judd’s work looked like it was supposed to be art but wasn’t. Didn’t art need to have more intention, more symbolism, some kind of emotional impact instead of all that cool distance? The pieces didn’t sell well, but neither did much of the work Bellamy curated, and by 1965 Green Gallery was failing. “I had to close the gallery; couldn’t get no bank behind me,” he lamented in a characteristically casual letter. Too ahead of the times—though he did manage to sell one of Judd’s sculptures, four metal cubes connected by a square pipe, to Philip Johnson for $300. The artist figured any act of good taste originated with Bellamy rather than the architect, whom Judd dismissed during a gossipy interview with the art critic Lucy Lippard in 1968. (The interview is the surest sign of Judd’s identity as a workaday art critic: full of complaints about magazine deadlines, freelance rates, and capricious editors.)

A critical essay Judd began writing in 1964 gave him the opportunity to present his side of the story. “Specific Objects” was published in 1965 in Arts Yearbook 8. Contrary to his dislike of movements and easy narratives, Judd used the essay to gather a group of his contemporaries and observe certain themes shared in their work. Many of the approving pronouncements Judd made could just as easily have applied to his own untitled objects.

“Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture,” he began. (Judd loved deeming things best or worst.) Painting is bad because it’s boring and overdone, he argued—abstract expressionism had hit a wall—and sculpture is bad because it resembles things that already exist—human figures, animals, landscapes—so it’s unoriginal. The most important quality for Judd is a kind of enlightened simplicity, a unity in which all the parts of a work of art form a single coherent whole that depends on nothing but itself rather than referring to a preexisting object. He calls this quality “specific” and “three-dimensional” in the essay.

Artists who accomplished the feat of specificity for Judd included Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, Yayoi Kusama, Anne Truitt, Dan Flavin, and John Chamberlain—some of Judd’s friends and others he admired. (The problem with being both a critic and an artist is that you’ll probably like work that resembles yours.) Kusama covered mundane objects like a sofa in phallic fabric protrusions, turning them hallucinatory, unusable, and unprecedented; Chamberlain made abstract sculptures out of crumpled car bodies still covered in coats of glossy paint; and Flavin, one of Judd’s closest compatriots, attached mass-produced fluorescent light fixtures to wooden boxes and eventually mounted the fixtures directly on gallery walls. The specific objects “aren’t obviously art,” Judd admitted, but that didn’t matter: “A work needs only to be interesting.”

Interesting in this case meant offering a unique, instantaneous aesthetic experience. Frank Stella, a New York painter who became famous for his series “Black Paintings,” with even-sized black stripes running across large canvases in monumental patterns, put it another way: “What you see is what you see.”

No one knew what to call or quite how to understand this new art of the ’60s. Other critics labeled the ambiguous group ABC Art, Cool Art, Literal Art, and even Boring Art, turning its seeming vacuity into a fault. “This art has apparently no memory and no expectations,” the artist and writer Brian O’Doherty argued. In his 1967 Artforum essay “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried wrote that the group’s work “is inexhaustible…because there is nothing there to exhaust.” Clement Greenberg, the champion of the abstract expressionists, complained that their work was “readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.” He almost realized that that was the point.

The critics forgot that the objecthood of art had already been settled by Marcel Duchamp’s earlier “readymade” sculptures, like his bicycle wheel attached to a stool from 1913, called Bicycle Wheel. Picasso had turned a bicycle seat and handlebars into a bull’s head in 1942. The new, boring art might have looked like a radical departure, but it, too, had a certain legacy. A vengeful Judd later called Fried’s article “stupid” and “pseudo-philosophical”; Greenberg was likewise “garbled.” Whatever the group was doing, Judd posed himself as its defender.

The pestering term “minimalism” that ultimately stuck came from Richard Wollheim, a British art theorist who published an essay called “Minimal Art” in 1965. He argued that the major characteristic of this group was that their work had “minimal art content”—that is, a lack of the usual qualities that traditionally define Western art. All the wooden boxes and light bulbs and unadorned metal made viewers nervous because it destabilized the old idea of art as one heroic artist sweating in front of a canvas. Instead, the minimalist artists adopted manufactured materials and incorporated found objects. They planned their pieces on paper, more like architects or designers, and then had the work fabricated entirely outside their studios, as Judd did after 1964, commissioning the Long Island metal shop Bernstein Brothers.

According to Wollheim, this newfound distance between artist and object was what made minimalism so aggravating. If art was meant to be ineffable and transcendental, then how could artists simply order it up from a factory without suffering or getting their hands dirty? That Judd could send out a drawing of an aluminum box, as he began to do in the late ’60s, have the final product delivered, and then install it in a gallery without modification as his own work was off-putting. Maybe it was even insulting to unprepared viewers, provoking a feeling akin to the naive critique you still hear while wandering museums of modern art: “My kid could do that.”

Yet, Wollheim continued, there actually was a form of labor to minimalism. It was just more curatorial than physical. The choices of material, treatment, and scale were artistic acts, as was the decision to call a piece finished. The process of simplification or reduction, choosing which elements to preserve and which elements to leave out, was a form of creative labor for the minimalists. That effort just might not be immediately visible in the final piece, which could be a chunk of metal leaned against a wall, as in the case of Richard Serra. Dan Flavin’s work disguises this labor so well that in 2016 the European Commission decided to tax any Flavin light bulb pieces being imported not as artworks but as industrial goods, which meant three times higher a fee.

Minimalism demanded that “we should look at single objects for and in themselves,” Wollheim wrote. The description isn’t so far off from Judd’s use of “specific.” This focus on the singular is not about abandoning or ignoring art’s visual qualities but intensifying what is there. In some ways it’s about excess more than austerity. “A lot of red is maybe better than three colors,” as Judd put it in 1965. Less can be more, as long as you have more of the less part.

What we describe as minimalist today—the white T-shirts, monochrome apartments, and wire frame furniture—doesn’t have much in common with the artists that Judd, Wollheim, and others gathered together in their criticism. Flavin’s multicolored light installations were garish and aggressive. Kusama’s sculptures were ornate and disturbing. Chamberlain made literal car crashes into art, all jagged edges. It’s not stuff you would immediately want in your house.

The artists were revolutionary not because of a shared homogenized style but because of a particular leap that they made: The art object did not have to represent anything, document reality, or even communicate the artist’s individuality. It was enough to generate a presence, to become part of the world, and the viewer should appreciate the work as such. Sensation replaced interpretation. Maybe that’s why minimalism remains difficult for us to accept as art rather than decor. We think we should be educated or informed by works of art, swept away by powerful feelings, but that wasn’t the point.

Every person who encounters a Judd box in a space sees it slightly differently, depending on the time and context. Even though the object isn’t unique, the experience or perception of it is—therefore a stand mixer in a gallery can be as compelling as the Mona Lisa. The minimalist objects didn’t rely on the “aura,” as Walter Benjamin put it, of the preindustrial, unique work of art. This made minimalism a perfect match for our “age of mechanical reproduction.” The same anonymous form could be produced over and over without losing any of its potency, because the meaning of the work of art resided with its viewer rather than its maker.

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