An art movement of the 1960s onwards, primarily in sculpture. It was in part a reaction against the flamboyance of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. It is characterised by a lack of expressiveness and the use of simple forms, often in repetition.

Agnes Martin Happy Holiday 1999 © Estate of Agnes Martin

Origins of Minimalism: The Influence of Modernist Painting

The minimalist style grew out of a gradual increasing interest in simplicity and purity, particularly in the work of painters in the United States. Artists including Mark Rothko Barnett Newman Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella were moving away from Abstract Expressionism towards Colour Field paintings, with designs that resembled geometric patterns and shapes, flattening the picture surface and gradually removing illusionistic depth. Their paintings became closer to objects, or even sculptures, particularly in Stella’s Black Paintings, 1958-60.

Influences on Minimalism also came from the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists, as well as the De Stijl movement and the German Bauhaus, whose styles were being exhibited in New York City’s museums and galleries in the 1950s. Piet Mondrian’s geometric canvases and Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, were particularly powerful precursors to a non-utilitarian, non-representational art.

Minimalist Sculptors

Minimalist sculpture was defined by its rejection of overt sentimentality, or emotional context, the use of industrialised materials from manufacture and the exploration of intellectual qualities, in line with Conceptual Art. American artist Donald Judd became an important figure, often producing commentaries on the art that he and other Minimalist artists were making. In 1965 he wrote the article, Specific Objects 1965, arguing the case for an art that existed somewhere between painting and sculpture.

Judd had begun his career as an Abstract Expressionist painter but worked in three dimensions from 1961 onwards, making geometric objects out modern materials including iron, plexiglass, and stainless steel in arrangements that often jutted out of the wall, encouraging viewers to consider the space around his sculptures as much as the objects themselves. In 1971 Judd moved to Marfa, Texas, converting a series of buildings into permanent art installations.

Robert Morris was also a key player in the development of Minimalism, particularly with his cube boxes of 1965, large mirrored shapes that react to the space around them, while instilling a sense of order. Dan Flavin explored space and light, creating geometric patterns using fluorescent light tubes to create an almost ethereal state in the whole gallery space. Initially trained as an art historian, Flavin often paid homage to artists who had influenced his ideas, such as Monument for V. Tatlin, 1964, referencing the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. Carl Andre produced complex grid arrangements with a range of materials including his famous Equivalent VIII, 1966, a grid of bricks laid horizontally across the floor like a mosaic. American artist Sol LeWitt made contributions to Minimalist sculpture with his gridded ‘structures’ that relied on strict mathematical arrangements, such as Five Modular Structures (Sequential Permutations on the Number Five), 1972.

Initial reactions to Minimalist sculpture were mixed, with some regarding the style as cold, detached and anonymous, but over time many critics warmed to the sculptures’ sensuous surfaces, ethereal atmospheres and delicate, subtle patterns. A survey exhibition Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, was held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966.

Minimalist Painters

Minimalism was more prominently explored in sculpture and three dimensions, but a number of painters produced work in parallel with the sculptors, including Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella and Elsworth Kelly. Such paintings shared a spare geometry with the sculptural style, often with sparse painterly or drawn marks and the use of repetition and pattern. Many paintings hovered close to sculpture, drawing attention to the idea of a painting as an object rather than an illusionistic scene.

Contemporary Ideas

Minimalist ideas spread into interiors, furniture design and graphics, and also influenced the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who similarly relied on an ordered, unifying grid. While the simplicity of the Minimalist style was less popular by the 1980s, its influence can still be felt in art practice today, through the increased awareness of the ‘object’ nature of painting, the use of geometry and grids, and an awareness of the artwork’s relationship to its surrounding space.

Artists

Sol LeWitt
1928 - 2007
Donald Judd
1928 - 1994
Dan Flavin
1933 - 1996
Agnes Martin
1912 - 2004

Glossary terms

  • An influential German school of art and design founded in Dessau in 1919 under the architect Walter Gropius. It was based on workshop training rather than academic studios, and is celebrated for its functional design.

  • The name of a Dutch art and design journal edited by Theo van Doesburg from 1917 to 1932 and the movement associated with it, which included Piet Mondrian. They were concerned with finding a harmonious balance in life and art, and the associated visual style is simple abstraction, characterised by strong horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours.

  • Art in which the idea takes precedence over its manifestation in visual form. It emerged in the 1960s and was often concerned with the nature of art and the use of language.