In 1966, the Jewish Museum held an exhibition titled Primary Structures. It was intended to be an international survey of contemporary sculpture. To the chagrin of many critics, it became the occasion of a new form of modernist art in which abstraction was taken to an almost absurd level whereby an artwork could barely be distinguished from a mere object.
These “Minimal works,” the art critic Clement Greenberg famously lamented, “are readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.”
Minimalism was predominantly associated with a group of artists in New York City, but would eventually include a West Coast variant as well as a number of British and European artists, many of whom were in Primary Structures. As an identifying label it was one of many—others included ABC Art and Literalist Art—before the term minimalism was eventually settled upon to signal what was clearly a shift in an ongoing evolution of modern art. What was this shift? What does a minimalist artwork look like?
If one were to make a list to define its key features, it would read surprisingly like a list of everything art is not supposed to be:
- Industrially manufactured instead of handmade.
- Mathematically arranged instead of composed or balanced
- No pedestal (in the case of sculpture)
- Monochromatic color or the absence of color
- No representational imagery or symbolism
- Nothing to indicate the hand of the artist
The artist Carl Andre’s contribution to Primary Structures was a work called Lever (1966). Consisting of 137 firebricks laid out abutting one another in a simple line on the floor that extends outward from the gallery wall, it exemplified Minimalism not only because of its extremely reductive approach to sculpture, but also because of the outrage Andre’s work would elicit. Minimalism—its seeming lack of aesthetics, its theoretical elitism, its embrace of industrial modes of production—angered people. It even defied the term sculpture itself. Andre simply arranged (rather than composed) a group of prefabricated or readymade bricks.
While Lever might be devoid of illusion, it was rife with associations. One could start with the title which conjures up a language of machinery; a lever is a handle or switch or treadle. By laying an artwork on the floor, as Andre did with most of his work thus inviting viewers to experience it by walking on it, he violated one of the most sacred precepts of art: that it be revered, untouched, and taken in from a distance. And then there is of course the very placement of the work itself, extending outward from the wall as if it had fallen to the floor. Andre likened Lever to a toppled column.
Andre often emphasized that his concern as an artist was for the material he used—wood, copper, aluminum, lead, or brick—in and of itself. In other words, he wanted the viewer to contemplate an object shorn of the interference of fussy aesthetics, illusionism, or even the personality of the artist. As he famously stated, “my ambition as an artist is to be the Turner of matter,” a reference to the 19th-century British Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner who had “severed color from depiction.” “So I attempt,” Andre continued, “to sever matter from depiction.” He may have succeeded in stripping any kind of representational imagery from his work, however it still made allusion to various theories of perception (phenomenology), histories of art (Constantin Brancusi is often cited as his progenitor), and even his own biography as the art historian Anna Chave argued in an important essay on the movement’s origins. Routinely describing bricks as pertinent to his own identity—his grandfather was in fact a bricklayer—Andre’s work could also be regarded in terms that are phallic and hyper-masculine. So much for impersonality!
Some associations were intentionally cultivated by the artist; as a founding member of the Art Workers Coalition, part of a new leftist movement aligning artists with the struggles of workers, Andre saw his work in class terms, redolent of manual labor.
When the Tate Museum of London bought Equivalent VIII (1966) in 1972 controversy ensued over the fact that the museum had in essence purchased 120 firebricks for $12,000. Made in the same year and as part of the same series as Lever, this work was arranged in similar fashion to be laid upon the floor. A cartoon in the Daily Mirror showing a group of bricklayers on a scaffold transposed the words of Andre to a worker who, holding up a brick, exclaimed “The repose and calm of this work reflects the simplicity and restraint of my earlier period, the symbolism remains personal and eludes exact interpretation.” While undeniably funny, it also held up to ridicule the artist’s purported alignment with workers.
Minimalism did have a visible connection to the counter-cultural politics of the 1960s. After all, it too rejected traditional structures of authority. Andre’s Art Workers Coalition was the cultural wing of a post-war youth movement that drew its strength from numbers (the baby boomers swelled its ranks), in wanting to ally with the struggles of the working classes. The campuses of colleges and universities were not only major sites of anti-Vietnam War protest, they also swarmed with middle-class students in the traditionally working-class attire of blue jeans to advertise their allegiance to class politics.
Minimalist art, despite any elitist perceptions it may have cultivated, became associated in the popular imagination with this decade of the 1960s and its politics. When Maya Lin’s minimalist-inspired memorial in 1981 became the winning entry in a public design competition to create a Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the National Mall in Washington D.C., this association reared into view. Lin’s proposal envisioned a black granite wall upon which the names of dead soldiers were inscribed. The wall was in the shape of a V cut into the ground actively encouraging the close engagement of visitors. Its orientation to ground level and lack of overt symbolism was typical of the work of Andre and many others in the minimalist canon. Because of this (and its obvious lack of aggrandizing or heroic war imagery) the memorial precipitated an enormous backlash. Not only did it insufficiently commemorate the war, Lin’s proposed project was seen by its detractors to be nothing more than a Minimalist expression of 60s anti-war radicalism.
In the end, Lever and Minimalism more broadly, were not so much about the making of art—most anyone can arrange a row of firebricks—but about the discourse or philosophical reflections generated by the work. And it was never that cohesive as an art movement. Andre may have insisted upon the sheer physicality of the object and the viewer’s engagement with it, but for other minimalist artists, it soon became apparent that the work might not even need to be made; it could exist as a set of instructions and diagrams. But despite the many internal differences, the true legacy of Minimalism lies in its privileging of a creative thought process, on the part of both viewer and artist, over the making of objects.
Notes: Clement Greenberg, “Recentness of Sculpture,” (1967), in Gregory Battcock, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 183.  Paul Sutinen, “Twenty Questions For Carl Andre—June 1980,” https://paulsutinen.com/2013/11/19/20-questions-for-carl-andre-june-1980/.
Accessed November 10, 2020.
Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and Biography.” The Art Bulletin 82, no. 1 (2000): 149-63
Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism.” The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, October, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1996
James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the 1960s, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001