A Short History of Minimalism

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.

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