Minimalism, born in the 1960s, is the most influential art movement of the late 20th century. Its name is a universal buzz word. Its vocabulary of pristine geometric forms is everywhere: in design, in lifestyles, in art too. Rachel Whiteread's space-casts, Damien Hirst's glass boxes of cadavers: the typical artwork of recent years is minimalism-plus-content, something block-shaped and streamlined, charged up with meanings. Such works purposely buck the original minimalist aesthetic, which was resolutely anti-meaning. At the same time, they depend on it. Like classicism once was, minimalism is for us the look that says art.
So it's good to get a look beyond the current vogue at the art that started it off. Minimalism's arch-priest was the American sculptor Donald Judd (1928-94). A retrospective of his work has opened at Tate Modern, curated by the Tate's director, Nicholas Serota.
Judd himself firmly rejected the M word as prejudicing the experience of his work. He rejected the word sculpture, too. He "never had a word," he said, for his pieces. (It's a bracing remark, now that anyone who makes anything vaguely 3D happily calls it sculpture.) And whatever name you give to Judd's work - objects, structures, interventions - you may be sure he would rather you didn't. All 40 exhibits in the show are strictly called Untitled.
Judd's art pursued total self-sufficiency and self-containment. All resources of meaningfulness were to be shed. There would be no representation, no composition, no expression, no trace of handiwork, no hint of depth or soul: instead, an ideal world of pure blank objects, using only flat surfaces, straight lines and right angles (and occasionally regular curves). It is a world mainly of boxes in various shapes and sizes, constructed and finished with industrial precision, in metal, wood or Perspex. The box may be whole, or open at the side or top. Sometimes it's subdivided inside. Often it's multiplied and repeated in rows or stacks, along the floor or up the wall.
This reduced art in fact leaves Judd plenty to play with, to concentrate on. …