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Minimal MoMA


Donald Judd: Untitled, 1961-78, Deutsche Bank Collection, ©Art Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

American minimalist artists rebelled in the sixties with geometric forms and industrial material against the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism. At the same time, they began turning away from the European tradition. Critics who saw an excess of theatrics in the works of Donald Judd or Robert Morris rebuked the Minimalists for doing this. Harald Fricke writes about an art form known for its “less is more” approach and that the Museum of Modern Art began collected in its beginning stages.


Sol LeWitt: Serial Project, I (ABCD), 1966. Photo: Maria Morais, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

The exhibition has about another two months to go. Then, with Das MoMA in Berlin, one of the most successful presentations of Modern Art comes to an end. The lines of visitors still wind their way around the Neue Nationalgalerie, and friendly helpers are there to supply small complimentary folding chairs for the three-hour wait. All the while before you finally reach the entrance from the outer perimeter, there is a wonderful view of the glass building of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. If you are on the south side you can marvel at the complex axles and angles used by Tony Smith for his geometric sculpture Free Ride; and Walter de Maria’s Cage II (1965) made of chromium plated steel rods can be seen at its best from the back of the building. It almost seems as if Mies van der Rohe intended a direct encounter with art from the early sixties when he was planning the end phase of the building in the summer of 1968. In fact you could hardly imagine a better compliment to the reduced architecture of glass, grey granite and steel pillars then the Minimal Art of the same period. “ Less is more” was the credo of the former Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe; and most of the sculptures selected by MoMA were conceived exactly according to that principle. They can be seen in the upper hall of the Neue Nationalgalerie until September 19th.

Walter de Maria: Cage II, 1965; Stainless Steel.
Photo: Maria Morais

Nevertheless this art movement, which along with Pop Art was the most influential of the sixties, does not owe its name at all to the relationship with architecture. In January 1965, the New York art historian Richard Wollheim first used the term in the art publication Arts Magazine. Wollheim wrote that 20th century art since the time of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades had been working toward a radical cutback and packaging of their aesthetic methods — which he felt could be seen in Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, as well as in the work of Robert Rauschenberg. In his thesis he even refers to Stephane Mallarmé, who once expressed his desperation at a blank piece of white paper. In Wollheim’s opinion, the French poet could just have easily left the piece of paper in its naked state — as a symbol of the inner struggle. That would have been, according to the art historian, “an extreme example for what I call Minimal Art”. The minimum becomes here the maximum of artistic self-experience, becomes the consolidation of something that cannot be communicated by anything other than emptiness — because pure intellect is revealed in the absence of images.


Carl Andre: 144 Lead Square, 1969. Photo: Maria Morais, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004


Of course this example describes a borderline situation. Yet Wollheim is not merely interested in the meanderings of absolute artistic freedom, in other words, to show that there is nothing to see — as Socrates had already suspected of himself: “I know that I know nothing”. What has been a canon among philosophical mediations for over 2,500 years has triggered much more dispute in art. Minimal Art was criticized for its rejection of the figure and its colorful play of abstraction not only by the masses, but also by the critics.



Donald Judd: Untitled, 1968. Photo: Maria Morais, ©Art Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

Donald Judd and Robert Morris stopped producing their own boxes of steel, aluminium, copper and mirrors and allowed professional firms to take over the entire production. Carl Andre laid out square panels of lead on the floor which he understood as both plinth and object at once and used bricks to construct plank-like rows that blocked off the gallery space. Sol Lewitt used white enamelled aluminium for his series Serial Projects (ABCD) that was arranged into cuboids. Rectangles and simple geometrical shapes now triumphed everywhere now, after the excesses of Abstract Expressionism, and the art world asked itself, baffled as they were at the time of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Urinal, is this really art? The technical everyday and the mass products of American industrial culture completely took over the museum. Where Pop Art took over the image world of advertising, television and Hollywood glamour with eye-winking irony, and reproduced each tiny banality as “larger than life”, the art itself in Minimal Art was now just one object among many. Instead of icons, now there were plain and simple things on a search for “the thing itself”.

Some artists were no longer sure about how to define their own work. When Dan Flavin débuted with his neon tube installations in 1964 at the New York Green Gallery, he was not even certain what kind of art it was — he definitely did not see the arrangements very related to sculpture in the traditional sense of the term. “My own plan was above all a room routine, to install fluorescent lighting.

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