Sculpture & Minimalism
Minimalist sculpture consolidated the idea of the precinct in modern sculpture. Immediately arising from that consolidation was an awareness of place that is accurately described by the now almost archaic word ubiety. Both Brancusi and Newman, in their different ways, provided modern sculpture with paradigms for an awareness of precinctual space that heightened the viewing agent’s sense of ubiety. This is especially the case with Brancusi’s ensemble at Tirgu Jiu, and with Newman’s plans for a synagogue and the associated Zim Zum sculpture. The Tsim Tsum is indicated, in a sketch for his proposed modern interior of a synagogue, as zigzag panels for the opposite sides of the room. Remarkably, a central feature of the Tirgu Jiu complex and the synagogue proposal is some sort of temenos. That some form of holy of holies should feature in two independent modern works linked by and to the ancient idea of a sacred complex is most striking given the shared concern for place and context.
Minimalist sculpture was involved from the outset with materials that were factitious and specific. They were specific in the sense of being found in the street-Don Judd-or specific to industrialization-Richard Serra. Carl Andre used construction material such as cement blocks and bulks of wood, and Dan Flavin relied on electric lights. The factitious nature of the materials selected is reflected in their having been mediated by industry, even if that industry was understood to be industriousness. The work of Richard Long that was completed in the landscape, using whatever materials came to hand, heightened the artificiality of the artwork by imposing geometric form onto the brash that the site yielded. In his later works the mass of fragments that were to be subordinated to a geometric figure took the form of muddy handprints on the wall. In both cases the use of geometry marks the practice as artifice, with the work carrying an existential or indexical trace of the passing human agent. At the broadest possible level, artifice constantly signals an involvement with industry.
The specifics of manufacture in Minimalist sculpture may avoid the overt handicraft reference of Vitalist sculpture, but that aesthetic is replaced by another equally significant referent-the industrial or mechanical. Long’s work is mechanical in two ways, first, by way of the photographic recording, and second, by way of the assembly of the raw material into a geometric shape for the purpose of photography. Minimalist sculpture is fully engaged with that most modern form of mimesis, the industrial. Earlier, classical forms of mimesis can be divided into three groups, the representation of the sensuous appearance (the Platonic), the representation of the essential (the Aristotelian), and the representation of natural action (the Democritean).445 Industry provided a much later alternative to the already established classical troika, and, as a form of mimesis, is capable of being pressed into the service of different philosophical and aesthetic positions. The Gothic Romanticism of William Morris emphasized medieval craft guilds and pressed industry into serving that viewpoint, while the Constructivists took on an economically aware productivist tone. Even within the Orphist group the work of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay-Terk contrasted with Duchamp’s and Picabia’s distaste for the mechanical, with their celebrations of the machine, while both positions retain an overarching anthropomorphic inclination.
Minimalist sculpture assumed the industrialization of practice as a continuum without any of the negative connotations implied by Vitalism. Duchamp’s entanglement with Bergson’s elan vital is avoided in Minimalism by the focus that is placed on the individual unit of the work as a component, a component, furthermore, that is understood to be an integral part of the whole, rather than an active element within an interconnected organic whole. In addition, the Minimalist conception of the whole as an assembly of components carries with it the idea of the prosaic, and the vernacular. Peculiarly wrought parts of the whole, while commonplace in a Vitalist aesthetic, need to fulfill some definite function in a Minimalist aesthetic. Herein lies the confusion around Robert Smithson’s status as a Minimalist sculptor. If the use, by Smithson, of organically derived structures, in the form of crescents and spirals, is seen to be expressive then his work assumes a Vitalist complexion. If, on the other hand, his work is viewed as a cluster of devices comprising something akin to a metalinguistic toolkit it takes on a markedly different set of meanings.