For many people, the very word Minimalism produces a shudder of anticipated boredom. For the general public, and a large portion of the art community, this reductive strain of object making remains the benchmark of stultifying, didactic anti-art: works that still manage to take up space in the world (unlike subsequent forays into pure Conceptualism), possessing forms that at least resemble the traditional media of painting and sculpture, but offering the least possible gratification to the senses and imagination possible. Which was, of course, the point.
Minimalists contended that anything in an artwork that referred to something outside it only interfered with a direct engagement with that artwork. By clearing away such distractions as imagery, emotional expression, illusionistic depth and compositional complexity, a minimal object could stand on its own inherent qualities, and turn much of the viewer’s attention back on itself. This attempt at phenomenological distillation has something in common with both the scientific method and Zen Buddhism; it eliminates faith in the unobservable, while placing the emphasis on honing the powers of observation — as Frank Stella famously said, “What you see is what you see.” How such an empirical, humanist practice came to represent the oppressive authoritarianism of institutional sameness is a puzzle.
Much of the problem lies in the kinds of social structures that embraced Minimalism — corporate America, for example, which found a kindred spirit in the faceless monumentality of welded steel geometry and proceeded to stick examples everywhere it could. More poisonous to the movement’s legacy, though, was the proliferation of graduate programs in studio art, resulting in the institutionalization of Minimalism’s tenets and tropes as the unassailable bedrock of contemporary art practice. The result? Julian Schnabel, and related backlash phenomena, which have in effect rendered Minimalism a historical blip.
Then there’s all the writing. (Culture abhors a vacuum.) Several key figures in the movement, most notably Donald Judd, were critical theorists as much as visual artists, and for every notch down in chatter set by Minimalist studio practice, it was compensated twofold in the theoretical sphere — a ratio for elucidation-to-artifact from which the art world has yet to recover. In attempting to write about a thing that had supposedly been emptied of referents, writers were freed up to explore all manner of arcane thought-stylings. And this surfeit of argument has fueled more than a few subsequent academic careers, as historians have sought to match Minimalism’s prodigious material legacy with a monumental theoretical consensus.
But in its heyday, Minimalism as a movement was everything but monumental — with visual strategies and theoretical mechanisms tussling for territory in a vital, amorphous scene. One of the best things about MOCA’s ambitious landmark exhibition “A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958–1968” is that it doesn’t resort to hindsight revisionism or historical purges to make the moment seem more homogenized than it actually was. In fact, it lays off the pedagogy almost entirely, allowing the remarkably inclusive collection of 150-plus objects to speak for themselves. And they speak in a surprisingly wide range of volumes, pitches and timbres — ranging from the chiming of Craig Kauffmann’s transcendentally tooth-decaying lozenges to the rickety clicks and whirs of Mel Bochner’s combinatorial diddlings to the mutant loungecore of Claes Oldenburg’s Leopard Chair to the cerebral serialism of Robert Smithson’s Mirage No. 1.
That these artists are best known as proponents of movements other than Minimalism — Finish Fetish, Conceptualism, Pop and Land Art, respectively — demonstrates the show’s emphasis on Minimalism as a cross-disciplinary Zeitgeist, as opposed to the cranky and exclusive backwater it is sometimes painted as. Certainly, most of the big Minimalists are represented — Judd’s strings of metal boxes, Stella’s early, restrained stripe paintings, Carl Andre’s floored grids of steel tiles. But for every textbook case, there’s a surprise like total art evaporator Michael Asher’s impossibly pink Untitled TV screen or feminist art pioneer Judy Chicago’s re-created (and kick-ass) Rainbow Pickett.
It is gratifying, though hardly unexpected, that “A Minimal Future?” disregards coastal chauvinism in its fair and balanced attention to West Coast practitioners like Asher, Kauffmann, Chicago, Bob Irwin and John McCracken. More remarkable is how prominent the women artists appear in a field often mistaken for a bastion of masculine abstract reasoning and pumped-up foundry-floor fabrication. Although seven women out of 40 artists doesn’t sound that impressive, the ladies’ auxiliary packs a wallop. In addition to Chicago (then called Gerowitz) and the always-reliable Agnes Martin, there are seminal works by Eva Hesse, a powerful roomful of paintings by Jo Baer — and if you’ve never seen Dorothea Rockburne’s wrinkle finish–on–metal paintings British Brown and Fire Engine Red in the flesh (as I hadn’t), you’re in for a revelation.
The only comparable individual revelation belongs to Hans Haacke, an artist best known for his scathing narrativist critiques of political and institutional hypocrisy in the ’80s. Haacke had an earlier incarnation as a process artist demonstrating physics lessons with elegant sculptures like the lyrical, billowing Blue Sail, the phallically frostbitten Ice Stick (one of those pieces that could make an entire career for a less restless artist) and the slightly better known Condensation Cube. It was hard for many at the time to reconcile Haacke’s stripped-down laboratory distillations with works like the installation squaring off an imperious portrait of President Reagan against a massive crowd of NYC no-nuke protesters. In retrospect, though, one begins to tweak on a subtler, more experiential political agenda at work, one that rubs off on the works around it.
The final, and somehow most profound, revelation encompasses this experiential political dimension. Unbelievably, “A Minimal Future?” is the first major American museum retrospective of the movement, and the opportunity to attend to such a large grouping of Minimalist works — away from more entertaining objets and sans a lot of theoretical programming — can be a mind-expanding experience. And given the period itself — the ’60s — it’s hard not to consider the impact of various self-medications on the artists at hand. It might not be counterproductive for MOCA to flood their galleries with pot smoke, but even if you’ve never been experienced, these works can trigger a “contact high.” Time slows down, your senses seem sharper, and space opens up. If you can resist the urge to allow your own ego to expand and fill the theatrical void of that space, you may find yourself in an entirely new and unfamiliar relationship to art.
John Cage once said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” With persistence, you may find in Minimalism an art that, in spite of its contextualization as Important Art presented to you by an Important Institution in a Historically Important Exhibit, isn’t trying to instruct you about anything that isn’t right there, available to your senses, unallied to extraneous rationalizations and devoid of redeeming social importance. It’s the least we can expect.
A MINIMAL FUTURE? Art as Object, 1958–1968 | Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. | Through August 2