Minimalism in visual art, generally referred to as “minimal art”, “literalist art” and “ABC Art” emerged in New York in the early 1960s as new and older artists moved toward geometric abstraction; exploring via painting in the cases of Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman and others; and sculpture in the works of various artists including David Smith, Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and others. Judd’s sculpture was showcased in 1964 at the Green Gallery in Manhattan as were Flavin’s first fluorescent light works, while other leading Manhattan galleries like the Leo Castelli Gallery and the Pace Gallery also began to showcase artists focused on geometric abstraction. In addition there were two seminal and influential museum exhibitions: Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculpture’ shown from April 27 – June 12, 1966 at the Jewish Museum in New York, organized by the museum’s Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Kynaston McShine and Systemic Painting, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curated by Lawrence Alloway also in 1966 that showcased Geometric abstraction in the American art world via Shaped canvas, Color Field, and Hard-edge painting. In the wake of those exhibitions and a few others the art movement called minimal art emerged.
Term used in the 20th century, in particular from the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials. It was first used by David Burlyuk in the catalogue introduction for an exhibition of John Graham’s paintings at the Dudensing Gallery in New York in 1929. Burlyuk wrote: ‘Minimalism derives its name from the minimum of operating means. Minimalist painting is purely realistic—the subject being the painting itself.’ The term gained currency in the 1960s. Accounts and explanations of Minimalism varied considerably, as did the range of work to which it was related. This included the monochrome paintings of Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella and Brice Marden, and even aspects of Pop art and Post-painterly Abstraction. Typically the precedents cited were Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, the Suprematist compositions of Kazimir Malevich and Barnett Newman’s Abstract Expressionist paintings. The rational grid paintings of Agnes Martin were also mentioned in connection with such Minimalist artists as Sol LeWitt.
After the work of such critics as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, analyses of Minimalism tended to focus exclusively on the three-dimensional work of such American artists as Carl André, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, LeWitt, Robert Morris and Tony Smith, although Smith himself never fully subscribed to Minimalism. These artists never worked or exhibited together as a self-defined group, yet their art shared certain features: geometric forms and use of industrial materials or such modern technology as the fluorescent electric lights that appeared in Flavin’s works. Minimalists also often created simple modular and serial arrangements of forms that are examples of Systems art. LeWitt’s serial works included wall drawings as well as sculptures.
Judd and Morris were the principal artists to write about Minimalism. Judd’s most significant contribution to this field was the article ‘Specific Objects’ (1965). Judd’s article began by announcing the birth of a new type of three-dimensional work that could not be classified in terms of either painting or sculpture and, in effect, superseded both traditions. Judd’s concept became retrospectively identified with his own boxes and stark geometric reliefs of the period . Originally, however, he explained his idea with reference to the work of a heterogeneous selection of artists, including Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, Klein, Yayoi Kusama (b 1929), Claes Oldenburg, Richard Smith, Frank Stella and H. C. Westermann (1922–81). The article was also copiously illustrated with works by such artists as Richard Artschwager, Flavin, Jasper Johns, Phillip King, Morris, Rauschenberg, Stella, and with one of Judd’s own pieces. Judd distinguished the new work by means of its compositional ‘wholeness’, which, unlike previous art, was not ‘made part by part, by addition’. He was later to focus the critical implications of this distinction with a dismissive reference (1969) to the ‘Cubist fragmentation’ of Anthony Caro’s work. For Judd, his own work achieved its formal integrity principally by adapting into a third dimension the ‘singleness’ that he observed in the compositions of such painters as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.