Art-to-Object Movement Gains Momentum: Once Derided as Stark, Cold and Impersonal, Minimalism's Emphasis on Art-as-Object Is Now Seen as the Transforming Art Movement of the Late 20th Century

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It's not easy to fall in love with the blunt austerity of Minimal Art, with its Spartan use of hard-edged industrial materials and finishes, its emphasis on pure geometry over nature or figuration, and its single-minded approach. But a spate of museum and gallery exhibitions lately have given maximum exposure to Minimal Art, demonstrating the enduring influence of, if not passion for, Minimalism on art-making as well as design and architecture.

"Minimal Art is such a significant and still-controversial segment of contemporary art, yet it is a defining movement of our time," notes Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. "This work sought to renegotiate the object status of a work of art itself. The forms and ideas of Minimal Art continue to resonate powerfully in work produced to this day."

Although there are still many people in the art world and beyond who look at a plain black canvas, a stack of bricks, or a leaning steel L-beam and think, "that's not art" contemporary art collectors Gene and Paula Stevens are not among them. In May, the couple flew from Cleveland to Los Angeles to see MOCA's milestone art exhibition, "A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958-1968," on view through Aug. 2.

"The general public looks at abstraction and thinks it's silly," says Gene Stevens, an attorney, as he admired works like Carl Andre's meant-to-be-walked-on, black steel plate floor mat, "6 X 6 Den Haag Steel Lock." Paula Stevens added, "Everyone says, 'I could have done that,' but nobody else did."

The first exhibition in 40 years to re-examine the history of Minimal Art, "A Minimal Future?" probes the origins of Minimalism and its almost-strident academic emphasis on context--the art object as a logical phenomenon in time and space.

Along with the MOCA show, a broad survey, which includes more than 150 art objects from 40 American artists who worked in Minimal mode in the 1960s, a bevy of exhibitions of works by Minimalist artists have been on view recently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York; at galleries in Baltimore; Sarasota, Florida; and London; and at MOCA's cross-town ally, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which debuted its "Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s--70s," on June 13. After LACMA, "Beyond Geometry" bows at the Miami Art Museum in Florida, from Nov. 18, 2004 through May 1, 2005.

Cavalcade of Concrete Objects

Not surprisingly, the MOCA, Guggenheim and LACMA shows have all included works by Minimalism's heavy hitters: Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, and John McCracken, among others. The Guggenheim show, "Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to Present," drew on its own collection to canvass the "impulse toward reduction, restraint, and lucidity" in the art of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, "Singular Forms" brought forth work by contemporary artists like Wolfgang Laib, Meg Webster, Charles Ray, Ettore Spalleft and Karin Sander, who, like the Minimalists before them, explore basic art elements and structural formulas. Sander, for instance, burnished portions of the gallery wall space to create monochromatic planes.

The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has organized a two-part international conference, "Structures and Systems: Minimal Art in the United States," around the MOCA and LACMA exhibitions. The conference, with its second session slated for Oct. 1-2, is examining the radical changes that occurred beginning in the late 1950s, when, literally, a new aesthetic vocabulary was developed. Man Ray may have placed a urinal on a stand and called it art, but Minimal artists placed plywood planks against a gallery wall, or bricks on the floor, and challenged viewers to see them as "primary structures," sculptural objects with shape, form, color and weight--but not content and meaning, and certainly not emotion.

Minimalism exalted the literalness of the art object, be it a perfect cube or a repetitive geometric series, and changed the art object's relationship with the viewer--first and foremost by knocking sculpture off its pedestal in the same way that Modern paintings had cast off their frames. …