As an artist, and graphic designer by trade I've studied lots of different art movements. I was always drawn to the more modern movements including impressionism, surrealism, and cubism, but enjoyed renaissance art as well. Despite my best efforts though, there was always certain pieces I just couldn't wrap my brain around. Often either a room full of simple geometric shapes, a series of repeated cubes or a simple curving arc. These pieces would be intimidating to me; I simply didn't get it. It was as if these pieces were too "deep" intellectually for me and I was drowning in them, (not literally, I'm just being dramatic).
Minimalism in art often mystified me as I'm sure it has mystified other casual art enthusiasts. When I finally had to take a class in modern art for my major, I was both interested in learning more about minimalism, and terrified that I still wouldn't get it. When we finally reached the topic of minimalism, suddenly everything clicked and made sense, not a lot of sense, but enough that I could appreciate this unique art movement.
I hope that by discussing minimal art and how I see it from an artistic viewpoint, I hope to eliminate some of the intimidation of these pieces and help others become interested in this movement. I don't claim to be an art historian or expert, this is just my interpretation and opinion.
So what exactly is minimalism as it applied to art? Basically it is based around the concept of "Less is More." This concept can be applied to anything from paintings to sculpture and allows the artist to use only the most basic elements that are required to create the desired effect. Geometric shapes are the staple of the minimalist artist as even the most complex figure can be reduced down to simple geometric shapes. Minimalism often overlaps with other art movements depending on the artist but some of my favorites include Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin.
The Art Object and Concept of Artwork
When looking at minimalist artwork, it is important to remain open to new ideas about what qualifies as art, and what the "art object" is for a particular piece. When looking at more traditional art, seeing the art object is easy; it is whatever you're viewing aka the painting or the sculpture. For minimalist art the object has become detached from the actual piece. For example, lets think about a work by Richard Serra called "Tilted Arc," which was originally installed across the Federal Plaza in New York NY. This arc was a massive tilted arc of steel at 120 feet long and 12 feet high, slightly tilted. The piece took up most of Federal Plaza and was eventually dismantled due to public controversy (people didn't like walking around it I guess).
Serra said this about the piece:
"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes." Richard Serra - Found in Wikipedia
For this piece, the art object has been removed from the piece itself, and redefined as the interaction between the viewer and the piece. The way that the piece changes uniquely as each viewer passes it actually IS the art. This concept of interaction is found in many minimalist sculptures as it is typically not the simply shapes that are the piece, but the way it makes the viewer feel, or what the viewer sees at they interact with it. Sure, simple cubes, arcs and other geometric shapes are boring if you just view them from one angle, but when you move around them, get up close to them and interact with them, the pieces become quite dynamic and powerful in the way they influence our movements, our eye, our perceptions, and our feelings of space.
Minimalist sculpture has to be experienced in person, because although an image may give you a good representation of what the piece looks like, what it is made of and what it consists of, one really cannot know what the piece IS until you are there experiencing it. In fact this effect can be so extreme that depending on the work, it can almost be forceful and overpowering, as if you could not stand up close to the piece without being affected by its presence.
Not all minimalist art has the same type of effect but generally they all involve some sort of removal of the art, from the object. Lets look at Dan Flavin as another example. His works consist of simple fluorescent tube set up in a particular way and then lit with different colors. With these pieces, the art is not the tubes themselves, but the interaction between the light given off by them when they are lit and how the viewer perceives that light. When combined with other simple shapes and multiple lighted elements, dramatic effects can be created very simply. Those effects and how the viewer perceives them has become the artwork, as opposed to the physical piece itself.
Why Minimalism can be Intimidating
Looking back at how I felt about minimalism before I understood more about it, I find it easy to understand why these pieces can be so intimidating. Its easier to look at a painting or a typical sculpture because I can appreciate the work without doing anything at all. No matter what you interpret from the picture and what the artist was trying to say, you do not have to consider yourself as part of the work. Along with that, even if you do not want to consider the artist's motive and reasoning, you can still appreciate the work for its technical skill. With minimalist art, its just a cube... or a geometric shape... or a splash of paint. It was difficult for me to accept that without having pure technical skill to fall back on, I might not be able to understand the "greatness" of the artwork. I think the reason I shied away from minimalist art is because the shapes tend to be so simple that I don't want to feel stupid because I "simply don't get it." Instead of think about these works and risk being wrong, I would denounce them as "not real art" like it's my decision to decide what is art or not.
After learning more about the methods behind minimalist art, I believe I can overcome this fear as I know more what to look for artistically from these pieces. I can appreciate these works more now that I understand what they are; not deep on the surface, with only the barest essentials, but deep artistically. Often times I still don't understand exactly what is going on artistically, but I'm less likely to say: "but it's just a cube..." or "I could have made that..." I understand that there is more to these pieces than just their form.
Conclusions About Minimalist Art
It took me a long time to overcome my intimidation of minimalist art, but after studying and reading about it more, I feel that these pieces are very good pieces of art and can have more to do with people, than more typical works of art. I hope that by reading this, you'll be inspired to look more into minimal and other kinds of art that are not as "typical." We might not understand these pieces at first, but through more interest and with an open mind, we might be able to appreciate some truly unique, creative and great pieces of work.
If the piece of art is the interaction between this large cube and me, then I guess even my response of "I could have made that..." is validation that that big cube is fulfilling its artistic purpose. Art that fulfills its artistic purpose is successful art.
References Include: Wikipedia for quotes and artist information, as well as my own classes in modern art.
For more information look up the works of Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. Or just do a search on Google for minimalism in art.