Blog #025 Aug 2020
The Politics of Non-Politics: A Look at Minimal Art
Not too long ago I spent several weeks researching about the 20th century minimalist art movement as part of a research project for my art history class. I took on that topic as both a bit of a joke and a bit of a challenge. I wanted to see if I could bullshit my way through the essay and write 3000 words on Donald Judd’s Untitled (1965)—an artwork consisting of seven grey boxes on a wall. If you think there’s more to the work—there’s not (not physically anyway—ooOO, spooky!)—it’s called minimalism for a reason.
So here I am, sitting on a couch with my cup of coffee, spending hours reading a stack of heavy, hard-covered books (the kind without a cover page, and maybe if you’re lucky it’ll have its title embossed in tiny gold print) about boxes. I had my neon pink post-it notes ready to mark a few pages printed with pictures of boxes that I liked more than the others.
Learning about the minimalist art movement opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on art and politics. The simplicity of the artworks was what made it perplex because minimalists strived to create works that lacked meaning. The movement was a protest against the almost formulaic perception that art had to be a representation of the other. Minimal art occupied an enclosed niche or sphere that was distant from politics and societal climate, so that the artwork was not viewed in relation to its social context and broader culture, but more so in relation to its immediate, physical space. It endeavoured to be direct, straightforward, with no room, or even need, for interpretation.
‘What you see is what you see’- Frank Stella, Minimalist Painter
But if what you see is what you see, then it would mean that my previous paragraph was a waste. It would have been: boxes on a wall—here—end of discussion.
Minimal art was fundamentally contradictory in its nature; as it endeavoured to exist autonomous of politics and culture, this in itself became a politicized concept. Its simplicity in form essentially disapproved two core ideas in art history—that art must be distinguished from reality and that art and beauty, as a unified concept, is closely tied with skill. Judd’s series of rectangular structures (or planes, as Judd refers to them as, because he disapproved of the restricting connotations that were attached to the term sculpture) proved that one, art was reality because his work existed in the same space as the viewer; and two, that art had the plain power of being recognised as its own independent identity, without necessarily, an appreciation for skill. The mechanical production of the work eliminated any trace of artistic individuality.
Judd’s three-dimensional work maintained an ambiguity surrounding the purpose of the work; the stack of eight iron boxes essentially had no symbolic denotation. The title of the piece—or rather, the lack thereof— accentuated the notion that any meaningful interpretation of the work was not to be derived from the artist himself, but projected on the work of art by the individual viewer. Sensations imparted from the sculpture was directly based on its visual aesthetic rather that its associations with outside emotions and ideas.
Visual decisions were paramount to the work as well. While ‘what you see is what you see’, what you see was not only a stack of grey boxes. Imagine viewing the work in a white cube space—what you see would have been the grey boxes, maybe your own shadow, the shadow of each box, the tones and shapes of those shadows depending on your spatial relationship to the work, the wall…much more. As central to Minimal art, Judd’s work explored the triangular network of literal relationships that existed to connect physical object, space and man.
This new art sought to stand conspicuously uninvolved from politics and cultural contexts of its time, redirecting the focus back to the tangible characteristics of the work, instead of any implicit, underlying ideologies or abstract philosophies. It rejected the conventions of traditional art.
The movement—or better put—the field or practice of minimal art, to stay true to its depoliticised stance—reconfigured the relationship between physical object and discourse as well as that between object and man. The necessity to connect art and politics simply cannot be eliminated because of the inherent prominence that the cultural form occupies.
The topic of minimal art really stuck with me because of how much understanding the background and the manifesto behind it changed the entire way I looked at minimal artworks. The irony within its vision was especially interesting to me. It encapsulated the blurriness in interpretation that sometimes art can invite, and proved that debate and discussion are embedded within cultural forms. Not only has this widened my perspectives on art and culture, it has also challenged me to rethink my approaches to my own art practices. It has inspired me to incorporate that element of open-endedness to my work as well as to my creative processes as a whole.
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