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). Judd uses colors to make his works more "specific," Morris rejects color as distracting from the Gestalt and not suitable to sculpture (159). Morris criticizes Judd on Judd's own terms, pointing out the illusionism of Judd's reliefs and colors, for example. Judd criticizes Morris for pushing too far into the realm of non-art (156, 85). The gap between them widens and widens as the i96os and the book progress. Gaps open up, too, between other artists often conveniently thrown together. Meyer disentangles the many different uses of a serial method, for example: by Frank Stella, Judd, and Flavin; by LeWitt and Mel Bochner; and by Dan Graham. In another move, the author brilliantly sorts out several models of vision that "asserted themselves in the New York avant-garde during the mid-sixties": the optical, transcendent visuality of Greenberg and his followers; the literalist model of Stella, Andre, and Judd; the Gestaltist model proposed, and soon rejected, by Morris; the fluorescent visuality of Flavin; the "perverse" illusionisms of Poons, Bell, Insley, and various op figures including, at times, Stella; and the problematized vision of LeWitt, Bochner, Smithson, and Hesse, a vision that failed to grasp its object. (205)
The goal of this book, then, is much more ambitious than to be merely a history of Minimalism, and its implications sweep far beyond the ten years it traces: Meyer asks us to revisit all of late modernism. All Minimalist artists in one way or another displace or depart from Greenbergian paradigms, but they all do so in different and often contradictory ways. Thus Minimalism breaks with modernism, Meyer argues, but rather than replacing it with another litany of sorts, it perpetuates "difference" (2o6).
The point of difference between modernism and Minimalism is a central premise of this book, and its slow emergence is what makes it such a suspenseful read from beginning to end. Meyer introduces his readers to an early 1960s art world in which "the battle lines had not yet been drawn" (So), when the young Michael Fried still expressed curiosity about Judd's work and when both Fried, on the one hand, and Judd and Andre, on the other, could claim the deductive method in the early paintings by Frank Stella as exemplars of their thinking. In the course of the i96os, this mutual interest unfolds as a "fight for Stella's 'soul'a suitably dramatic, even grave expression Meyer takes from Fried himself. Step by step, the book succinctly works out how the battle lines evolved and how the war was fought. This is one of the most beautifully crafted, enlightening, and relevant themes of the book. In 1963, Stella's black paintings, with their "deduction" of white line configurations from the shape of their support, could function both as sample mediumspecific paintings in the spirit of Greenberg and Fried (by stressing the inherent property of the boundaries of the canvas) and as examples of Judd's literalist sensibility (by stressing the support and thereby transforming the painting into an object) (55). Two years later, this tension came to the fore in an exhibition put together by Stella himself, Shape and Structure at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, which placed optical, illusionist paintings side by side with literalist objects. Yet by this time, Stella's work had taken a decidedly illusionist turn-"more and more, he became the painter of Fried's optical desire" (124)and Fried had come to reject Judd's move from painting to objects. For a while "Stella wanted to have it both ways" ( 124), to ride both waves, but he ultimately sided with Fried against the Minimalists.
Meyer complicates our understanding of the 1960s and of modernism by revealing what appears to be similar as different and vice versa. The complicated Fried-StellaJudd triangle drives a wedge into any simplistic understanding of modernism that fails to distinguish between the GreenbergFried camp and the Minimalist fan club. By contrast, Meyer rethinks the widely accepted opposition between Pop, on the one hand, and Minimalist sculpture and hard-edge painting, on the other, by restoring their common historical and conceptual grounds. In 1963, none of these existed as distinct practices. Writers discussed both as closely linked (Robert Rosenblum compared formal aspects of the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol to those of Stella and Flavin), and both were exhibited together in group shows (at the Green Gallery, for example, where Judd's work appeared with that of George Segal and Claes Oldenburg). All this goes well with Judd's fondness for Pop (Oldenburg's wholeness, for instance), Morris's engagement with Marcel Duchamp, Flavin's early interest in Dada and assemblage, and the widespread rejection of Minimalism's non-art look. We are led to conclude that the established binary structures of 1960s art-and, by implication, of twentieth-century art-are oversimplified and historically inaccurate. The time has come to think beyond the divides of Pop and Minimalism, of Dada and abstraction, and of avant-garde and modernism. To be sure, Meyer makes such large-scale historical revisions and theoretical shifts only implicitly and through the lens of scrupulous historical detail. Meyer's arguments are so convincing because they are barely there. This is a modest book with major ramifications.
One exception to this approach is the brief treatment of the social, cultural, and political meanings of Minimalist art. This is contentious ground to tread. Meyer takes issue with what he terms an "iconological model of interpretation" (184) in recent reflections on the political meanings of Minimalism-Anna Chave's notorious rejection of Minimalism based on its subtexts of fascist, corporate, and male power and Caroline Jones's insistence on an industrial aesthetic in Stella's work at performative, iconic, and metaphoric levels.' In contrast to Chave, Meyer seeks to ground the problem historically Thus, for him, it is seriality that brings the issue to the table in 1966.This is the year in which Mel Bochner included pages from Scientific American and other culrural documents alongside his artist's notes in his Working Drawings exhibition, and it is the year in which Dan Graham published his Homes for America, suggesting a link between the serial structures of Minimalist artists and those of cheap, prefabricated housing developments. Bochner, and by implication Graham, revealed "that the systemic techniques of Judd, Flavin, Andre, and LeWitt could only have emerged within a culture of replication-the socalled consumer society-that these artists sought to resist" ( 184). Meyer charges Jones with sidestepping the Minimalist refusal to signify and proceeds to take this refusal as a point of departure, ending up with a dialectical defense that relies on the help of Theodor Adorno. Minimalist objects both use and resist the reality of an industrial and consumer society In Meyer's words:
Much like the Beckett plays that Adorno admired, minimalist work communicates precisely in its "lack of communication." Its failure to signify is a refusal of higher truths-of any truth beyond one's experience of the work itself and gallery site. Yet, in refusing to point directly to the world, minimalist work sublates, and obliquely alludes to, the reality it negates. ( 187)
In seeking to come to terms with and present an alternative politics of Minimalism, the book, if only in this section, becomes a different project, basing its conclusions mainly on a theoretical premise that does not have the tight historical reference points on which Meyer's arguments elsewhere consistently thrive. Among the Frankfurt School thinkers, Herbert Marcuse was certainly more central to the left intellectual climate in the United States at this time than Adorno, whose major American reception only took off in the 1970s, with the exception of his English publications during the war and a few, less central essays published here and there in the 5os and 1960s.2 Moreover, as brilliant and poignant as Adorno's negative dialectic of affirmation and resistance remains in its universal applicability to modern and especially abstract art, its ultimate limitation in the face of specific works and movements will always be precisely its inability to make sense of nuances of, and differences between, individual visual art objects and specific visual artists. In other words, Adorno may not help us much if we are seeking to distinguish between the social and cultural meanings of, let's say, Kazimir Malevich's black squares and Stella's black paintings. Not all negations are alike.
The concluding chapter, " 1968," works out the social readings of Minimalism that emerged during that year in Europe and the United States. These range from a sympathetic embrace of Minimalism's nonhierarchical structures, based on its implied democratic worldview, to a fierce rejection, based on its purported complicity with the capitalist system and an American military dominance. They culminate in a set of important texts on the politics of Minimalism, dating from the 1970s, by the German art historian Jutta Held and by the artists Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn, which Meyer briefly discusses. Despite their combative and sometimes naive tone, the latter especially raise a host of issues that should be considered in greater detail in the context of the politics of Minimalism, that is, its politics of art making and distribution, in addition to the political meanings of its objects. We should consider from this point of view, for example, the prolific writing of many Minimalist artists, on their own art as well as on that of others; their particular involvement with the presentation of their own work and that of others, culminating in Judd's Chinati Foundation; and their active interest in the role and rights of the artist, such as Andre's participation in the Art Workers Coalition. A curious issue, too, is Judd's increasing political engagement from the late i96os to the time of his death, ranging from his work for the War Resisters League, to his co-organization of the Lower Manhattan Township in the face of plans for a new expressway, to his speaking out against the Gulf War. Does the dramatic rift between the extremely limited political efficacy of Judd's work and his activist engagement in the sphere of local and national politics present a new type of avant-garde artist, one who believes that art is inevitably powerless but does not resign himself or herself to complete passivity? A more comprehensive treatment of these issues, one that would equal the scrupulous historical standards of the rest of the book, is largely beyond its scope. After Meyer's fantastic study, it may be the only path left to be explored for any fan of Minimalism.3
1 . See Anna Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts Magazine 64 (January 1990); and Caroline Jones, "Frank Stella, Executive Artist," in her Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 114-88.
2. See, for example, Gregory Battcock, "Marcuse and Anti-Art," Arts Magazine 43 (summer 1969): 47-50; and Maurice Berger, "Against Repression: Minimalism and Anti-Form," in his Labyrinths: Robert Morris, Minimalism, and the 1960s (New York: Harper& Row, 1989), especially pages 6 1 ff.
3. An interesting and complex addition to this set of issues is a recent article on Judd's politics by David Raskin, "Specific Opposition: Judd's Art and Politics," Art History 24 (November 2001 682-706.
Christine Mehring is assistant professor of art history at Yale University. She is currently writing a book on the German abstract painter Blinky Palermo and coediting an anthology of sources on postwar European art.…
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Publication information: Article title: Minimalism: Art History as Detective Novel. Contributors: Mehring, Christine - Author. Journal title: Art Journal. Volume: 62. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 96+. © 2008 College Art Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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