Minimalism: Art History as Detective Novel

By Mehring, Christine | Art Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Minimalism: Art History as Detective Novel


Mehring, Christine, Art Journal


James Meyer. Minimalism:Art and Polemics in the Sixties. New Haven: Yale University Press. 344 PP., 30 color ills., 130 b/w. $50.

Many skeptics deem the 1960s too close for comfort and hence not suitable for an art history in the grand tradition. James Meyer proves them wrong. Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties establishes a historical precision and seriousness that many have thought lacking in the recent wave of writing about postwar American art. We may all think we have a handle on Minimalism -its "objecthood" and dismissal of "European art as over with"-but we do not. At least we will not until we have read this book. Meyer's history of Minimalism is conceived both empirically and hermeneutically-a history of dates and works and places, but also a history of voices and positions and of discourse in the making. The book slows down time. The catchphrase of "the sixties" gives way to an experience of the decade that feels more like lived time: We are on a month-to-month and yearby-year basis. Quite literally, the book leads its reader from year to year, from a fast-forward opening chapter titled "spring 1966," to "1959-1962," and, from then on, one chapter for each year, all the way through "1968."Yet Meyer's is not the frozen time of a dusty archive that senselessly records it all. Rather, his is the slowed-down time of the detective novel, building complexity and suspense on every page, making us wonder how it could possibly all work out, encouraging us to assemble the puzzle carefully along with the author.

For the aficionado of Minimalism, there are many new things to be seen and learned in this book. Anne Truitt, for example, is given her due place, as Meyer works out the crucial reference point (simultaneously negative and positive) that her work provided for the discourse surrounding Minimalist sculpture. His genealogies of terms are equally eye-opening. The use of the word 11 minimal" in relation to the sculpture of Donald Judd and others preceded by almost a year the previously accepted date for the coinage of the term in Richard Wollheim's 1965 essay "Minimal Art" (142). And Judd's notorious use of the term "interesting"a work "needs only to be interesting"was not merely provocative, we learn, but derived from the pragmatist philosophy of Ralph Barton Perry. Hence the term did not mean "merely interesting" but "worth looking at" (140-41).

The illustrations are another treat and bear many surprises. Take, for example, the tour of Primary Structures that opens the book. The 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, curated by Kynaston McShine, has long been regarded as a landmark in the history of 1960s art and as formative in the canonization of Minimalist sculpture. One of the most frequently reproduced images of the exhibition features Robert Morris's 1966 L-Beams and an untitled Judd sculpture of the same year, yet Meyer gives us no less than thirteen additional installation views and walks us through every room. Very quickly we realize that this was not at all a showcase for Minimalism as we know it-Judd, Morris, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, maybe Sol LeWitt-but a grouping that evidences the tensions and different positions within 1960s sculpture, for example, those of the Green Gallery artists and those affiliated with the Park Place Gallery, and one that accounts for some common historical misunderstandings of Minimalist art, for example, the belief in the formative role played by Tony Smith and Anthony Caro.

Meyer mined archives to uncover differences and complexities lost, and he labors to rectify common misunderstandings and mistakes. He unravels fundamental disagreements between the most vocal and articulate among the Minimalist artists, Morris and Judd, and, throughout the whole book, builds them up in dramatic ways. Morris addresses the body, Judd the eye (51-52). Morris is concerned with making as a theme, Judd with the quality of making (51-54, 85-86). Morris values the quality of wholeness based on Gestalt theory, Judd does so in epistemological terms and as an attack on anthropomorphism (158).

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