An Intro to Minimalism (Transcript)

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My name is Zolani Stewart, and today we’re going to do something really fun, we’re going to talk about one of the most confusing, frustrating, theory-plagued phenomenons in modern art. It’s everyone’s favourite art form they don’t understand, and that’s Minimalism!

Now because we’re thinking about minimalism, we need to do everything we can to make sure this is not obnoxious as hell. So that means we have to ask good questions. We don’t want to ask bad questions. If we want to think about art in a way that’s useful and interesting and cool, then we have to start off with good questions.

So, what is “minimalism”? Isn’t a very good question. We don’t really get much from that. But something like:

What does Minimalism contain?

What ideas are assosiated with Minimalism?

Who is assosiated with Minimalism? Which is an important Q for a couple reasons.

What is the context of Minimalism? What are the historical events and conditions and expectations that Minimalism emerged on?

And also: what is Minimalist art supposed to do? Why does Minimalist art exist? What is the point of Minimalist art? That’s probably the most important question, but we’re going to answer all of these, in a short amount of time but hopefully enough that it’ll be sufficient.

So the first question. Minimalism is a thing that contains objects, so art objects; ideas; rhetorics, so written statements by artists and pieces of criticism, and a context. Minimalism as an idea, contains a historical context that these art objects emerge from. This is basically how any art movement or period is composed. It’s easier to think of Art Movements as just collections of various stuff collected over a period of time.

The time that Minimalism emerged was the late 50s and early 60s. So in the 1950s, after the end of the second world war we see the US become a large economic hub. And of course, the New York art scene starts to blow up, and we see the emergence of Abtract Expressionism, a form of abstract painting which was loud, messy, flamboyant, not colorful but had a strong sense of colour. But more importantly, it was a reflection of this sense of pride and confidence in the American economic condition… at least for rich white people.

But Minimalism was a rejection of all that. It was a rejection of excess, but not just excess in general, but a kind excess particular to the art world, and the pretension under how it holds up certain objects. Which seems kind of ironic that minimalism, of all things would be trying to break down the pretension of art objects, but it was. It was acting in response to an American culture that was increasingly bent towards the glorification of individual wealth.

And I think that’s one of the most apparent things in the art objects themselves. In fact it might be the only thing that’s really apparent in the objects. That a lot of minimalist art wasn’t necessarily about being reductive as it was about questioning what is supposed to count as art, right?

So if we look at what kind of objects these are… we think of minimalist art as being sort of vacant, very blank, lacking perhaps. Objects which, eschew “content,” that you look at some of these and it feels like there’s nothing there. That Minimalist art doesn’t seem to contain anything in it. So there’s a sort of aggresive, banal simplicty to it.

Minimalist sculpture is probably a better example of this, than minimalist painting. If we look at some examples (Note: Some examples have no published online photo, listen to 4:30 in the audio to know all of them):

Robert Bladen, Three Elements
Carl Andre, Equivlent VIII
Robert Morris, Untitled
Joseph Beuys. Rubberized Box

So it’s pretty clear to us looking at some of these that they’re kind of bullshit, right? Some of these are kind of satirical. Like, Grevsnor’s piece is funny, it’s funny to see a piece of wood in a place that’s circulates so much wealth. And I think this is what a lot of these pieces were trying to do, especially Andre who was noted as intention, which is that they were flipping the valuation system of art out of whack. And I think some of these artists were hoping to ingrain some kind of institutional critiques in these works

Whether Minimalist Art was successful in these critiques is an important question to ask because it helps us articulate what the problem of minimalism is. And it helps us go even further, and talk about the relationship between Aesthetics and Politics.

Does Minimalist Art do what it says it does? The idea is that it’s not necessarily about the works, but more the stuff around the work. So the classic White Painting, for example, is menat to act as a deflector. Because there’s “nothing there” it doesn’t call attention to itself but rather the space around it, that being the gallery space. The piece of wood isn’t really artful in any notable way, rather it’s supposed to compell us ask what qualitifes as an art object in general. Carl Andre using everyday materials like regular-ass concrete for his tile brick pieces, puts a challenge to the valuation of material in art.

So these pieces kind of remove the floor from under them. It can be a really crass and ugly way to make a critique. The wood piece, in particular is very cynical and bitter, and funny but not for the reasons I think it wants us to laugh at it. I think I’m more laughing at the whole endeavor of trying to use a wood piece to make a critique. It’s like a really passive aggressive note by your roomate about doing the dishes.

In fact, the irony of the wood piece is that it’s still in an art gallery. It’s not pushing against art, it is art. And I don’t think we’d be off in guessing that this piece of wood is probably worth a lot of money. And this kind of helps us articulate what the failure of minimalism is, which is the failure to endenger a substantial instutional critique. It didn’t take very long for this sort-of-radical minimalist art to become the prestige art market

So I’m sitting here asking myself, how anyone could have believed that can you make a substantial political critique with art that does nothing, or attempts to do as little as possible. I guess it’s kind of like, idlesness as resistance. It comes off to me as very smug, and priveleged, and self-serving to believe that you could affect a substantial challenge with art objects that are so disembodied from the rhetoric that surrounds them.

And actually, let me explain what I mean by that. So let’s go back to Robert Morris for a second, and I want to read a bit how Baker describes the intentions in Morris’ work. So I’m going to read a couple of passages here from his descriptions (8:00).

It was Morris’ notion in the mid 1960's that sculptural objects aught to have the character of gestalts. In psychological nomenclature, a gestalt is any aspect of a thing that presents itself as a perpetual whole, and can thus serve as a kind of reference point in the process of seeing and thinking.
In the mid 1960s, Morris sought to highlight the nature of perception by making sculpture whos aspects of wholeness appeared to be both objective and changeable. Easy distinctions between subject and object, mind and body, inwardness and external reality, lose some of their credibility for anyone who is seeing things through gestalt terms.
The sensation many people had upon seeing the simple, painted plywood sculptures Morris showed in 1964, was frustration with the objects to disclose some meaning. Some people caught on the idea that this sensation of conclusions definitely postponed what might be the meaning. The range of responses confirmed Morris’ inkling that, “the simplicity of the shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.”

So, there are two things to talk about there, right? And one of them is that a lot of Morris’ work wasn’t really about the art object itself as it was about the act of engaging with objects, the very idea of what it means to engage with a thing, as a whole thing, or as part of a thing. And, by reading about Morris’ reactions, I think his understanding was that, if you create objects that are very simple, and minimal, then the reactions and interprestations of that object will be more varied and complex.

What he doesn’t say, is that even if you get more varied interpretations, and perhaps a more complex experience? Those interpretations will probably be a lot more vague and less fruitful, and with an experience that may be wider, a lot more shallow. It’s like a lot of weak low level feelings. It’s like a walk into a room and I feel the space of the room, and the feeling of the room, and I can’t really describe what those feelings are but they’re very powerful and meaningful. It’s a lot of that.

And the thing about that kind of approach to aesthetics is that… there’s nothing about Morris’ work, like his actual art objects that articulate any of this. There’s nothing particular about the box itself, that enlightens us on anything regarding “gestalt theory,” or “the act of seeing,” which is a very wide and fruitless concept that isn’t very meaningful in itself.

In fact, it’s probably the opposite, right. Everything you see and touch in your life is a comment on the “act of seeing,” because you’re seeing them. And although Morris’ seemed to believe that he was making us aware of perception as an activity, these objects aren’t making any conclusions about that activity other than the fact that it is a thing that exists.

And this helps us understand the second dilemma of Minimalist Art, which is that there’s a very wide conceptual gap, between the ontology of the object, so the matrial and shape and nature of the object as a thing, and all this vague and cloudy, and vacous rhetoric that surrounds it.

Minimalist Art, or a lot of Minimalist Art, is like a battery. A lot of these objects are not capable of rhetoricizing themselves, they must be rhetoricized by some kind of external force. So a lot of the works we talked about today only carry meaning under a very specific context, that being of the 60s Art World. The piece of wood isn’t doing anything unless you put it in a gallery, then its suddenly onloading all this baggage. When you remove miniamlist art from the 60s context, and from those surrounding rhetorics, the objects themselves sort of stop working. And that’s basically what happened, by the end of the 70s, there was a very strong disdain for the ultra-conceptualism of Painting and Sculpture, and they really started to fall out of favour. And Minimalism really did fall out as movement that was understood as bloated, stuck up, and a symbol of the toxic old guard of contemporary art. And you can argue, or at least I’ll argue, that it really was minimalism that killed painting and sculpture in the late 20th Century, allowing for the rise of installation art, and video art, and performance art, new media art.

So why am I talking about this? Why am I explaining all this to you? I think it’s important to understand why Minimalist Sculpture sucks. Because a lot of it does suck, a lot of these works are pretty bad. And I think we can probably conjecture that a lot of it is bad is because a lot of these artists, seemed to not really care about art itself, as much as they did about validating their wacky theories about the human condition.

And you know, just, a lot of political rtheotic around Minimalism is just really problematic, like its very misguided disdain for pop and entertainment, particularly Television, which by Minimalism was understood as a facade, right? A toxic fantasy that makes us shallow and impatient, and like other “representational media” like photography, and video, makes us incapable of engaging with the true nature objects, and the reality of experience.

That we can only think of things through representations, but art made by the “literalists,” blocks of wood stacked on each other, or cut up pieces of rubber carpet and throw them on the floor, that these would jolt us into conciousness. So there’s a pretty creepy aesthetic rationalism going on, and it’s no wonder minimalist sculture was so miserable.

So yeah. Minimalist painting on the other hand, is dope. Let’s talk a bit about that. So I’m going to say that minimalist painting is less political, but it’s pretty cool probably for the opposite reasons, which is that it’s a lot more interested in its own aesthetic? A lot of these works feel like they’re actually interested in the paint, and the canvas, over some bloated concept (12:40).

Richard Tuttle, Tan Octogon
Agnes Martin, Night Sea

I think that’s it? I think that’s everything I wanted to go over! Thank you for listening.