carl andre [born 1935]
A leading figure of the minimalist movement, Carle Andre is best known for his floor sculptures comprised of standard industrial materials arranged directly on the ground. Made of repetitive, factory-finished materials such as blocks, bricks, and metal plates, these sculptures questioned the very nature of the medium itself and the role of the artist in a work’s creation.
Andre’s childhood fascination with the local steelyards and granite quarry in his hometown of Quincy, MA—along with his later position as a freight conductor and brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad—influenced the artist’s concerns surrounding materiality, space, and scale. His oeuvre was based on raw materials: lumber, steel, bricks, aluminum, copper, lead, magnesium, and zinc—to name only a few. Yet, unlike the sculptural tradition that pre-dated him, Andre’s work was characterized by a lack of intervention or manipulation upon the material at hand. Instead, the artist withheld a steadfast commitment to pure matter and lucid arrangements void of any metaphorical meaning. His geometric arrangements threatened a viewer’s assumptions and understandings of art, introducing new relationships with what was perhaps once seen as arbitrary materiality, and encouraging a newfound awareness of how one generates aesthetic judgment. In the artist’s own words: “My work has not been about the least condition of art but about the necessary condition of art. I will always try to have in my work only what is necessary to it.”
A work like 49 Pieces of Steel conveys Andre’s insistence that his works function “as real material conditions in the world” rather than “embodiments of ideas or conceptions.” As the title suggests, the work includes forty-nine equal pieces of hot-rolled steel—not transformed in shape or appearance but, rather, simply and tightly situated together in an arithmetic arrangement on the floor. Andre first began creating sculptures meant to lie flat on the ground in 1966, inviting viewers to walk upon the various arrangements of raw, metal plates to establish a physical relation with the object, registering their materiality through a sensory experience. 49 Pieces of Steel perceptually challenges viewers, offering a simple, nearly ready-made form that occupies space without filling it. For Andre, this epitomized his minimalist agenda: “My work is atheistic, materialistic and communistic. It's atheistic because it's without transcendent form, without spiritual or intellectual quality. Materialistic because it's made without pretension to other materials. And communistic because the form is equally accessible to all men.”
richard artschwager [1923–2013]
Exploring disjointed relations between materiality, form, and space, Richard Artschwager’s sculptures touched upon the aesthetic preoccupations of minimal, pop, and conceptual art, often all at once. The artist’s focus on solid, sculptural forms and geometry earned his inclusion in the Jewish Museum’s seminal Primary Structures exhibition, thus securing his position as a member of the minimalist movement despite his varied, idiosyncratic practice that was often characterized by a sense of deadpan humor and wit.
In the artist’s own words: “It was Formica which touched it off.” Formica, or synthetic laminate, was a popular product in home refurbishment given its low cost but was rejected by craftsmen for its tacky appearance. As a former cabinetmaker, Artschwager was well-aware of this association, calling the material “the great horror of the Age.” But this cheap material was precisely the means through which the artist would achieve his illusionistic aesthetic goals. Artschwager’s early experimentation with combinations of Formica led to three-dimensional objects that appeared both flat and sculptural, abstract and figurative. The flat surfaces of a cube, for example, were adorned with geometric combinations of Formica that suggested a tablecloth, turning the form into a caricatured table. As the artist described, “It’s not sculptural. It’s more like a painting pushed into three dimensions. It’s a picture of wood. The tablecloth is a picture of tablecloth. It’s a multipicture.”
In 1967, Artschwager utilized burled wood Formica—Formica laminated in faux wood veneers—to create twelve works, including Small Construction with Indentation. Although mounted on the wall, the work disrupts the function of a traditional painting, instead commanding space and—through its Formica surface, alluding to some sort of domestic function outside of the fine-arts realm. By taking a photograph of wood processed into plastic, laminating it upon a thin sheet of wood, and then re-adhering this sheet of wood atop of base structure of plywood, Artschwager calls for a condensation of the processes that underscore illusion, abstraction, and figuration, inviting viewers to peer into the artwork as they ponder what, exactly, warrants it the status of art. Confounding categories in his work, Artschwager explored the viewer’s perception of art and space, the deceptions of pictorial illusion, and what constitutes our understanding of art.
larry bell [born 1939]
A prominent figure of the Light and Space movement, which developed on the West Coast parallel to minimalism in New York in the 1960s, Larry Bell is best known for exploring the visual effects of light in his sculptures. The artist is particularly interested in the duality of glass’s transparency and reflectiveness, and how these competing elements interact with viewers and given environments. Bell described the complexities of his preferred material: “Although we tend to think of glass as a window, it is a solid liquid that has at once three distinctive qualities: it reflects light, it absorbs light, and it transmits light all at the same time.” The preoccupation with perception and the exploration of light and space through sleek, highly polished surfaces was commonly referred to as “finish fetish,” a term used to describe several artists’ work in the Light and Space movement. Unlike their contemporaries associated with minimalism in New York, Bell and his West Coast cohort prioritized notions of viewers’ perception over the literalness of the objects at hand.
Working with reflective and translucent glass, Bell’s focus on the visual properties of light on surfaces has been a lifelong exploration. He made the first of his iconic glass cube sculptures in the early 1960s, etching their mirrored surfaces with hand-scratched patterns of ellipses, hexagons, and checkers. By the mid-1960s, Bell abandoned the repetitive patterns on his boxes in favor of simpler, more transparent surfaces. As the viewer moves around them, these translucent cubes reveal new illusions, reflections, and experiences, responding to the viewer and the surrounding environment. Bell revisited the cube throughout his career, finding the shape to serve as an ideal form for investigating properties of light.
To alter how absorbent, transmissive, and reflective the glass appeared, Bell employed a variety of industrial methods in making his sculptures. He began using a vacuum-coating machine in 1965 to deposit thin films of metallic and non-metallic substances onto planes of glass. This resulted in a visual complexity defined by a spectrum of colors where light reflects in various wavelengths off and through the surface. Bell rested these treated, glass cubes on rectangular pedestals of colorless Plexiglass. The effect was an illusion of objects floating in space. Old Timer (1969) is an example of Bell’s floating cube sculptures that debuted in his first solo exhibition at New York’s Pace Gallery in 1965, and later at the Jewish Museum’s seminal Primary Structures exhibition the following year, which expanded the definition of minimalism to unite aesthetic and conceptual principles championed on both coasts.
ronald bladen [1918–1988]
Ronald Bladen presents a perplexing dichotomy: while his reduced formal vocabulary and experiments with the limits of space and scale made him a forerunner of minimalism, his romanticized approach is antithetical to the preoccupations of the movement. Exploring the juxtaposition between mass and void through sculptures that activated and intensified space, Bladen utilized geometric shapes and monumental scale to dramatic effect. The artist described himself as “an incurable romantic—so the pieces are essentially emotional, poetic, romantic.” These emotive intentions were perhaps underscored by Bladen’s own engagement with East Asian philosophy, along with a practice of copying dramatic compositions of art history during his youth: paintings by Botticelli, Titian, Picasso, and Matisse, along with illustrations based on Greek mythology. Bladen’s artistic upbringing built a foundation for his austere sculptural oeuvre grounded in romantic feeling, implied narrative, and dramatic encounters. In the artist’s words, he was intent on creating “a drama out of a minimal experience…”
This drama is realized in Thor. When creating his sculptures, Bladen began with an initial, multi-week-long process of ideation within his own mind’s eye. A series of sketches then assisted in visualizing his imagined object, followed by the construction of cardboard or plywood maquettes, and then more sturdy models, which presented the works as they would appear on a monumental scale (one inch proportioned to one foot). For Thor, the estate has authorized the production of the edition of three pieces in each of the three scales Bladen worked: model, midscale, and monumental.
The present edition of Thor is the first midscale model of the work, produced for the purpose of this exhibition by the original fabricating firm with whom Bladen worked: Versteeg Art Fabricators. Reaching over five feet high, the geometric object leans slightly backwards—at the same angle of the great pyramids of Egypt—and appears to hover just slightly above the ground. The resulting, palpable tension between the forces of gravity and mass is typical of Bladen’s sculptures; their seemingly precarious modes of construction were known to frighten viewers. Yet this heightened drama was precisely the artist’s aim; in the exhibition catalogue of the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition, Bladen stated: “How do you make the inside the outside? The engine, the scaffold, the weight—the energy.” Thor exudes energy not only through daunting appearance, but also through its title, which alludes to the hammer-wielding Norse god associated with lightning, thunder, and strength.
judy chicago [born 1939]
Although Judy Chicago is most widely known as a pioneer of feminist art, her early work experimented with minimalist aesthetics, materials, and techniques. Between 1965—the year of Chicago’s first solo exhibition—and 1973, the artist created drawings, paintings, and sculptures that explored color and repetition through a reduced formal vocabulary of geometric shapes.
Living in Los Angeles in the 1960s, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts from UCLA in 1964, Chicago found herself immersed in the flourishing car culture that informed Southern Californian artists’ ongoing “finish fetish” movement—a style referencing East-coast minimalism that embraced innovative materials and processes from the industrial world. Like her largely male cohort, Chicago created sleek artwork with pristine finishes, utilizing industrial materials such as acrylic, automobile lacquer, stainless steel, and car hoods in her art. She even enrolled in an auto body and boat building school to learn industrial sculptural and spray-painting techniques.
Created in 1968, Clear Domes on Dark Base demonstrates the artist’s own take on the preoccupations of the masculine finish fetish and related minimalist aesthetic, utilizing acrylic and other synthetic materials evocative of the aerospace industry to create sleek, highly polished forms. This work is part of a series which includes groups of three moveable, lustrous domes arranged on reflective, mirrored surfaces. Chicago created her rounded forms with double layers of blown transparent acrylic, which were then spray-painted with tinted lacquer so that color was “integrated totally with the shape and inseparable from it,” as she explained.
While the work’s precise measurements and polished, industrial finish clearly emulate the work of her minimalist contemporaries, Chicago turned away from their typically hard-edged geometry to introduce supple curves and anthropomorphic forms. Her emphasis on rounded shapes and triangular compositions would lead to a new direction in her work: stylistic motifs directly alluding to the female body and underscoring a feminist intervention within the greater history of art. Emerging from these early experiments with minimalism, Chicago developed the approach that would guide her lifelong, revolutionary ambition to dismantle the patriarchy underscoring aesthetics, art, and history at large.
dan flavin [1933–1996]
Dan Flavin made his first light construction in 1963—the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi)—out of a single fluorescent light installed diagonally on the wall. Until his death in 1996, Flavin would continue to explore the possibilities of his signature medium, using commercially available fluorescent lights to create installations, or “situations,” as he preferred to describe them. He worked with a limited palette of colors—blue, green, pink, red, yellow, ultraviolet, and four whites—exploring five shapes: a circular form and four straight fixtures of various lengths. Interested in how light transformed and redefined specific spaces, Flavin’s work became increasingly site specific. Eventually, he would reject the studio entirely, choosing to work directly within the context of gallery spaces—such as Judson Gallery and Green Gallery, where his works were shown.
Focusing on the light itself, Flavin believed that the objects extended beyond just the fluorescent tube and into the realm of space illuminated by light. This open-ended assessment of what constituted art, paired with the artist’s reliance on an industrially produced material, aligned Flavin’s practice with minimalism. When staring at the cool white fluorescent tubes within White Around the Corner, the light offers a cylindrical effect that extends past the tube itself, disrupting and playing with the space of the room. In his corner pieces, Flavin consciously considered “physical structure, glare, and doubled shadow,” allowing the works to “completely eliminate that definite juncture.” Flavin further elaborated on these works, stating, “Though the installation must look very stable, it’s easily understood with a slight confounding paradox, as the lamps operate out of the corners and with the corners.”
robert grosvenor [born 1937]
Robert Grosvenor’s sculptures of the 1960s activated spaces with their large-scale, dynamic forms and unique, gravity-defying constructions. A founding member of the cooperative Park Place gallery in SoHo, Grosvenor, like many of his colleagues, was inspired by science and mathematics. Beginning in the early 1960s, he constructed works that generated a sense of weightlessness despite a clear connection to the space in which they were situated. Grosvenor’s 1965 work, Transoxiana, exemplifies these concerns. Exhibited in the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum, the 31-foot-long wood, polyester, and steel object juts out of the ceiling in a V shape, creating a 45-degree angle hovering just above the ground. Art critic David Bourdon observed that Grosvenor’s works, “complicate the form as much as they simplify it.” A career of aesthetic investigations into simplified form, contradictory spatial dynamics, and complex considerations of mass, balance, and linearity connect Grosvenor with minimalism, though his work also transcended the austerity of the movement.
Despite his streamlined forms, Grosvenor often maintained narrative connections in his work. As he explained, “I’ve always been directly inspired by something.” The artist’s overt intentions in redoing, rebuilding, or constructing objects he observed was executed through basic carpentry and, as he described, his hobby of “making things: boats and cars.” Alongside Grosvenor’s lifelong interest in automobiles, boats, and other machinery, this inclination to build led to Grosvenor creating his own operative forms, such as Untitled (Sculpture with Wheels) of 1969. The seven-inch work’s structure is nearly identical to a 10-foot-long work of the same year titled Three Wheel Car. Grosvenor explained that Three Wheel Car was a result of a failed sculpture, which he “flipped over on the floor and turned into a sort of three-wheeled car” for his daughter. The small, untitled piece, painted in orange and featuring a handwritten dedication to Paula Cooper (a supporter of Park Place and many of its artists within her own gallery) is fully operational with a metal wind up and wheels, capable of springing into motion.
While the small scale of this object differs from much of the artist’s oeuvre, its sleek appearance nonetheless withholds the same, minimalist aesthetic that defined Grosvenor’s sculptures of the 1960s. With its wheels hidden underneath the low-hanging triangular form, the piece mysteriously hovers, adopting the ethereal appearance of Grosvenor’s other freestanding objects. Like large-scale works such as Transoxiana, this work relies on geometric forms that pierce through space, defined by sleek angles and sharp lines.
eva hesse [1936–1970]
Eva Hesse spent her brief but influential career pushing the limits of sculpture by pioneering the use of innovative, non-traditional materials such as latex, fiberglass, resin, rubber, and cord. Creating abstract works that dismantled the boundaries between painting and sculpture, Hesse employed repetition to amplify the effects of her unconventional materials and forms. The fluidity of her dangling cords or the curved, irregular contours of fiberglass or latex shapes introduced a bodily sensibility to the orderly, sterile language of minimalism. Though her career was tragically cut short—Hesse died at the age of 34 after having undergone several surgeries to treat her brain tumor—her evocative, organic work is widely recognized for its influential role in paving the way for post-minimalist and feminist art.
Hesse first began experimenting with industrial materials in 1965, abandoning her early work with painting to work exclusively in three dimensions. In the summer of 1967, Hesse began working on an idea to create a work of nineteen individual cylindrical “buckets” with hoses coming out of them. The piece, Repetition Nineteen, would eventually exist in three versions, the final of which (Repetition Nineteen III) now resides in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Achieving this ultimate vision required numerous preparatory experimentations, including (test piece).
(test piece) is one of Hesse’s attempts to translate her recent discovery of latex into Repetition Nineteen. The work demonstrates a clear transition in Hesse’s art, with latex enabling Hesse to tap into expressive vestiges normally rejected by minimalism, while still maintaining its use of simplified geometry. (test piece) is visually seeped with the tensions Hesse continuously strove to balance in her work—it is geometric yet organic, emotive yet restrained, beautiful yet repulsive, ordered yet chaotic. Although Hesse ultimately abandoned latex for fiberglass to ensure structural soundness in her third and final version, Repetition Nineteen III was nonetheless inspired by the softness and color that Hesse discovered through her work with latex.
Nearing the abrupt end of her career, Hesse stated, “I wanted to get to non art, non connotative, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point, is it possible? I have learned anything is possible. I know that, that vision or concept will come through total risk, freedom, discipline. I will do it.”
douglas huebler [1924–1997]
Douglas Huebler is best known for his conceptual practice and his multi-media assemblages of photographs, text, and drawings. Less well-known, but critical to the artist’s mature period, are his sculptures of the 1960s, which are aligned with the aesthetic concerns of minimalism. In the early 1960s, as Huebler’s early drawing and painting practice developed into hard-edged abstractions, the artist explained that his work “had become so visually reductive that little distinction existed between the image within the edges of the canvas and that outside of it.” Believing his paintings had transitioned to objects, the artist explained he “went ‘off the wall’ and began making constructions,” which took the form of plywood structures lacking a predetermined top or bottom, often embellished with Formica lamination. Void of figurative association, the objects function on the notion of gestalt or, as the artist described it, “where something is in relationship to you, in relationship to the rest of the world, and so forth.”
Huebler’s untitled work of 1965 is in one of some forty constructions the artist created from 1964 through 1966. Although this object lacks the Formica coating or color associated with much of his sculptural practice, it similarly features an austere linearity and a commanding presence. Through a uniform wooden materiality shaped by parallel lines that highlight transitions between curvilinear and level forms, each angle, façade, and segment of the sculpture is interconnected, forming an object reflecting Huebler’s goal: “to make an image that has no privileged position in space and neither an inside nor an outside,” as he described in his contribution to the catalogue for the Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966.
In his later reflections upon his sculptural forms, Huebler explained “it was not the ‘concreteness’ of an object that interested me, but rather its capacity to generate an organic relationship between itself, its percipient, and the spatial continuum within which they are natural coexistent.” While this interest would soon lead to his abandonment of sculpture altogether in favor of ideological preoccupations, his three-dimensional objects nonetheless impacted the development of his oeuvre–and the aesthetics of minimalism at large. Huebler’s simplified, non-hierarchal objects are less concerned with their physical appearance, and more with the spaces and ideas activated and generated.
donald judd [1928–1994]
Donald Judd disavowed the categorization “minimalism,” believing his work could not be limited to a broadly defined school or style. However, his embrace of non-associated objecthood has nonetheless aligned his practice with the movement, and he is widely recognized today as one of minimalism’s foremost practitioners.
After studying philosophy and art history at Columbia and painting at the Art Students League, Judd first earned recognition as an art critic, writing reviews for Arts Magazine, Art News, and Art International from 1959 to 1965. At this time, he abandoned his work as an abstract painter—frustrated with the limitations of the flat surface and frame of painting, he turned to making three-dimensional wall-mounted works and free-standing objects that were placed directly on the ground, without a pedestal. Judd refused to label his works as sculptures, believing the “specific objects” he produced (a term coined in his seminal 1965 essay of the same title) did not fall in line with the traditions of the medium. His unprecedented work rejected any compositional hierarchy, eliminating referential qualities or details and instead encouraging a viewer’s focus on the materiality and form of the object itself, along with their relation to it. By enlisting manufacturers to fabricate his works out of pristine, commercial materials and employing carefully developed compositional tools that emphasized order and repetition, his work begged consideration of material, space, and color, while destabilizing the very definition of art.
Untitled (DSS #108 - first version) exemplifies Judd’s early minimalist practice. Produced by the manufacturing firm Bernstein Bros, the polished surface of scarlet lacquer upon galvanized iron negates any trace of the artist’s hand and refuses figurative associations. Instead, the work presents a captivating sequence of four projecting sections, separated by recessed spaces of the same measure. In the artist’s own words, “Material, space and color are the main aspects of visual art. Everyone knows that there is material that can be picked up and sold, but no one sees space and color…The integrity of visual art is not seen.” The shape of Untitled—a form that Judd frequently utilized—enmeshes light, color, and form to combine “definite wholes” in a single, linear entity. Challenging a viewer to consider the space they navigate, which is reflected in the surface of the lacquered object, the work fits Judd’s belief that, “It isn't necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.”
sol lewitt [1928–2007]
Through an artistic practice based on a refined language of simple, geometric shapes, prioritizing the idea over the process of execution, Sol LeWitt was a leading figure of both minimalism and conceptualism in the 1960s. Moving away from the dominant, gestural language of Abstract Expression, LeWitt focused on concepts and systems and a reduced vocabulary of simplified forms in his art, making “structures” (his preferred name for his modular sculptures) reliant on methodological formulas and mathematical ratios, often utilizing the grid as the foundation of his work. In 1964, the artist transitioned from his previously solid, planar three-dimensional objects to open forms, explaining: “I decided to remove the skin altogether and reveal the structure. Then it became necessary to plan the skeleton so that the parts had some consistency. Equal, square modules were used to build the structures. In order to emphasize the linear and skeletal structure, they were painted black.”
These modular, skeletal structures would later be painted white and, by 1965, were based primarily on the content and form of his preferred shape, the cube. In 1966, LeWitt completed Serial Project 1 (ABCD), a large-format combination of cubes and rectangles reflecting LeWitt’s ongoing experimentation with the notion of seriality. LeWitt regarded himself as a serial artist, whose intentions were not to produce something “beautiful or mysterious” but simply operate as “a clerk, cataloguing the results of his premise.” In Serial Project I, LeWitt explored the premise of one form within another—a square within a square—and each possible variation of this arrangement within both two and three dimensions. This project resulted in four sets (A, B, C, and D) of nine pieces each, presenting a methodological arrangement upon a grid of each possible combination of open and closed squares, cubes, and extensions of these shapes. The first complete construction of this project was fabricated out of baked enamel on steel to be exhibited at Dwan Gallery in 1967. Each set was conceived in both large and small-scale versions, which could be displayed together or separately.
#8 is a variation within a full-scale set A, which consisted of the interplay of two open structures: a cube within a cube. Concerned primarily with seriality and clarity of form, #8 relates closely to the minimalists’ ongoing preoccupations with distilled appearance in favor of conceptual ideas. LeWitt described the iterations Serial Project I (ABCD): "The set contains nine pieces. They are all of the variations within the scope of the first premise. The First variation is a square within a square. The other variations follow: a cube within a square, a square within a cube, an outer form raised to the height of the inner cube, the inner cube raised to the height of the outer, larger cube, a cube within a cube and all cross-matching of these forms.”
walter de maria [1935–2013]
Upon moving to New York City in 1960, Walter de Maria became immersed in the city’s vibrant downtown art scene: he participated in performative “happenings,” operated a gallery space, and spearheaded his own sculptural practice. His early sculptures, characterized by simplified geometric arrangements based on mathematical sequences, established him as a forerunner of the minimalist movement. With their overarching emphasis on simplicity and a sense of the absolute, these works foster a heightened awareness of their surroundings. Though de Maria’s mature period would be largely defined by his pioneering role in establishing the land art movement—immersing viewers in the natural environment with ambitious, conceptual works—his early experimentations with minimalism informed his entire oeuvre’s visual vocabulary. Exploring the notion of perception, de Maria was focused on the viewer’s relationship with his objects from his early wood and steel sculptures through his later, ephemeral earthworks that pushed the boundaries of what constituted art.
No objects better encapsulate de Maria’s minimalist and conceptual concerns than his High Energy Bars, which he began in 1965. Described by the artist as a “summation of [his] minimal investigation in sculpture,” the bars explored the nature of the rectangle through stainless steel or aluminum. Each bar was originally issued with a specific certificate-contract for the owner, which stated that the bar was not-transferable and a “part of a whole work of art to be known as the High Energy Unit.” The executed certificate guaranteed each bar its operative and authentic quality.
Although the High Energy Bars appear identical, de Maria claimed that he “detest[ed] multiples (in art).” The artist explained that despite the objects’ infinite editions—as he would continue to make them his whole life—his personal connection with each bar and each object’s non-transferable relationship with their owner made them unique despite their repetitive nature. De Maria’s larger concern was the bars’ esoteric, minimalist concerns. As he explained in an interview: “It was the idea that you could take a perfect cube, a perfect rectangle and [...] the notion that the ideas and lines were so perfect and so perfectly composed and self-contained that it was perfectly satisfying to look at the one object as a sculpture without having it confused with a lot of needless relationships. It was perfectly focused on itself and implied a lot more than it was.”
john mccracken [1934–2011]
John McCracken’s preoccupation with vivid color and reflective surfaces enlivened the typically subdued aesthetics of minimalism, combining the restrained formal qualities of the movement with a distinctly West Coast sensibility. Incorporating glossy surfaces and mirror-like finishes, McCracken’s sculptures came to be associated with Southern California’s “finish fetish” movement inspired by the sleek aesthetics of car and surfing culture. His simplified geometric forms and use of industrial materials earned McCracken a leading position among the minimalists—and he was included in all the movement’s seminal exhibitions, beginning with the Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966.
In 1966, McCracken began making his signatural sculptural form, the plank, which he would continue to explore and reinterpret over the following decades. His planks—tall, monochromatic rectangles rendered in lustrous, bright colors—were designed to lean against the wall at an angle. Resting on both the ground and the wall, they occupy the site of sculpture and painting simultaneously, calling attention to the viewer’s surroundings and the space the art inhabits. He explained, “I see the plank as existing between two worlds, the floor representing the physical world of standing objects, trees, cars, buildings, human bodies, and everything, and the wall representing the world of the imagination, illusionistic painting space, human mental space, and all that.”
Unlike many of his minimalist peers, McCracken eschewed industrial machinery in making his sculptures, painstakingly laboring by hand to match the flawless, industrial finish of mass-produced articles. He achieved his illusionary, reflective surfaces by meticulously buffing and polishing coats of polyester resin and fiberglass, which were built up in layers of radiant, shiny color over bases of wooden boards. Often working for months at a time on a work, his hard-won, reflective finishes dynamically respond to light and their surroundings, linking his work to other Californian “Light and Space” artists such as James Turrell. McCracken’s mirrored finishes achieve a new age sensibility; a firm believer in extra-terrestrials and space travel, he often said that he wanted to make art that looked like it was made by aliens, or like something that an alien visitor might leave behind on earth.
robert morris [1931–2018]
Throughout the 1960s, Robert Morris’s oversized, geometric sculptures and theoretical writings helped shape and define the development of minimalism. In 1966, in the first of his four-part essay, “Notes on Sculpture” published in Artforum, Morris discussed the experiential framework of minimalist art, explaining that the minimal object “takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision.” Through austere and simplified geometric forms lacking composition, spectacle, or narrative, Morris’s objects manifested the artist’s idea of “gestalt,” making the viewer aware of their own act of perception while calling into question the objective status of art.
Morris’s column is the first form that manifested his minimalist approach, which he continued to develop throughout the following decade. Closely involved with improvisational theater and dance, Morris introduced the column in an experimental performance which he developed with the dancer and choreographer Simone Forti. The performance debuted at the Living Theater in New York in 1961. In this show, Morris, the “performer,” wore a six-and-a-half-foot rectangular column built out of plywood. He then stood within the upright column for three and a half minutes on stage, before tipping over and lying motionless on the column’s side for another three and a half minutes, before the curtain fell. This simple act suggested complex implications, including the idea that, by occupying space, an object takes up time. Later, when Morris presented the same shape of the column in a gallery setting (including the Green Gallery, where Morris frequently exhibited), viewers were often frustrated, waiting for a grand takeaway or meaning. Yet astute observers would understand this act of waiting and perception to be the very point. As the artist stated: “Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience.”
fred sandback [1943–2003]
For nearly four decades, Fred Sandback utilized elastic cords, metal rods, and acrylic yarn to create subtle yet visually complex sculptures outlining planes and volumes in space. Although Sandback was younger than the generation of artists whose practices shaped the minimalist movement, he was deeply influenced by their work; Donald Judd and Robert Morris, for example, taught Sandback at Yale University in the mid to late 1960s. By 1966, Sandback was presenting his own innovations within the context of the minimalist movement, creating works with a reduced vocabulary of materials and forms reliant upon stringlike materiality: yarn, cord, steel wire, and rope. These chosen materials emerged from the artist’s earlier interests in music and outdoor activities; during his adolescence Sandback created stringed instruments like dulcimers and banjos, while also practicing archery with handmade longbows. The same tools that informed these hobbies literally shaped the artist’s sculptures, offering him the means to create striking perceptual effects and to explore the relationship between space and void.
Equally important as the materials Sandback employed was the space in which his sculptures were situated. Sandback relied upon context to construct his work, tracing space between points on the floors, walls, and ceilings. From afar, these sculptures have the illusion of appearing as solid structures, constructing and claiming space through their outlined forms. Yet closer examination reveals the gossamer sculptures’ lack of solidity. Through a central tension between negative and positive space, Sandback created artwork that emphasized but did not dominate its architectural framework. As the artist later reflected in his notes, a given sculpture is “present in pedestrian space, but is not so strong or elaborate that it obscures its context. It doesn’t take over a space, but rather coexists with it.” Sandback coined the term “pedestrian space” to refer to the context in which his sculptures operate.
Series of Eight Sculptures is an early example of Sandback’s corner sculptures, and is made from steel and elastic cord, and covered with gray acrylic. The sculpture’s floating rectangular forms penetrate the “pedestrian space” the work occupies, but—in keeping with Sandback’s sculptural concerns—“is not illusionistic in the normal sense of the word.” The piece, along with his other sculptures, “doesn’t refer away from itself to something that isn’t present. Its illusions are simply present aspects of it.” By tracing space while maintaining a void, the work offers an open-ended takeaway for viewers, allowing them to fill in the negative space with their own imagined continuations of volume and form. Keeping with minimalist preoccupation, Series of Eight Sculptures refers to nothing but its own form and the space it occupies.
tony smith [1912–1980]
A sculptor and painter, Tony Smith was close with the Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt, among others, in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. Like these contemporaries, Smith engaged in an intuitive process of creation. Yet the austere forms of the artist’s mature works, which were rooted in mathematical systems, contributed to the development of minimalism in the 1960s. While Smith’s objects preconfigured the movement’s rise, the artist’s emphasis on simplified, geometric form and the dichotomies of mass and void secured his place as a founding father of the movement.
Smith’s work as a sculptor evolved from his earlier career as an architect. After attending the New Bauhaus in Chicago and apprenticing under Frank Lloyd Wright, Smith established his own architectural practice in 1940, working professionally in the field for two decades before turning his focus to sculpture. Smith dated this moment of transition to 1957, when, during a design class he was teaching at the Pratt Institute, he made a demonstrative model out of materials on hand: acoustical tiles and electrical tape. As he constructed a tetrahedral angle, which he describes as “in a word, the least number of spokes possible in a three-dimensional configuration,” he noticed the small model’s sculptural potential. Afterwards, the artist began producing sculptures based on preparatory models like the one he made in the classroom. Maquettes would then be fabricated as full-scale plywood mockups, painted with automobile body undercoating, and eventually cased in metal.
Smith described Generation as “the first piece I thought of as a certified monumental expression. I don’t think of it as personal or subjective. I attempted to make it as urbane and objective as possible.” When Smith was asked to create a large-scale commission for a city square, he considered something open in form and began experimenting with the forms of Generation. The artist explained: “In attempting to give it a more dignified and stable appearance, I kept compressing the octahedra through about three versions until they became regular. It took about three more versions to bring it to the static quality that it has at present. The whole development took about a year, the model for the present work having been made in the summer of 1965.” The present work, cast in bronze with a black patina, would also be realized on a monumental scale in black-painted aluminum. Combining the artist’s modular, architectural roots with simplified, pared down form, the model at hand serves as a visual testament to the artist’s own practice and growth. In his own words, “Architecture has to do with space and light, not with form; that’s sculpture… I’m interested in the thing, not in the effects…”
robert smithson [1938–1973]
Throughout his short but influential career, Robert Smithson explored his belief that art originated from the natural world rather than reflected it. By 1964, Smithson was working in sculpture, inspired largely by contemporary developments in minimalism, but his interest in the world outside the studio soon led to a new direction in his work. Drawing from his lifelong passion for geology and natural history, by the late 1960s the artist was destabilizing the boundaries of art by introducing natural materials into sculptures exhibited in gallery spaces—such as soil, gravel, stones, and earth from wastelands and salt flats—to offer abstract representations of the natural environment. Eventually, Smithson would abandon the gallery altogether, using the materials of the natural world as his palette, and the environment as his studio and exhibition site. Creating monumental earthworks, including his grandest achievement, Spiral Jetty (1970), Smithson altered environments into site-specific installations, emphasizing at once the grandeur of the earth and nature’s fragility in the industrial world.
Although he lived in New York City starting in 1957, Smithson was more interested in the natural environments outside of Manhattan’s bustling landscape. In the early 1960s, Smithson spent time in his home-state of New Jersey, where he would explore the natural topography and landscape with fellow artists including Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and his eventual wife, Nancy Holt. Particularly interested in what he called “low-profile” or “entropic” landscapes, such as quarries or mining areas, the artist explored peripheral states of post-industrial wastelands within his work. He relished in the processes of change that natural environments underwent, reflecting on pre-historic geology and human intervention.
Smithson’s Untitled piece of 1967 features five square, glass elements layered atop one another in descending order: largest and most transparent on the bottom, to smallest and greenest on top. Sitting upon the ground, the work seems to abstractly replicate a geologic feat of nature: a small hill or quarry, as it would be translated through the visual language of cartography—another of Smithson’s interests. The distinction of the work’s five elements suggests growth, gesturing to earth’s transitions throughout time. Time was a preeminent concern for the artist, who wrote: "Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistorical material that is entombed in the Earth's crust."
anne truitt [1921–2004]
Best known for her abstract, columnar sculptures featuring bold colors, Anne Truitt was one of the first artists to be associated with the nascent minimalist movement in the early 1960s. At the recommendation of the art critic Clement Greenberg, an early champion of her work, Truitt debuted ten of her free-standing geometric sculptures in 1963 at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York. Three years later, she was one of three women included in the influential Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum, which helped established minimalism and expanded the movement’s definition to include a variety of geometric abstractions.
Truitt’s first mature works were simplified sculptural abstractions recalling the vernacular architecture of her childhood, drawing upon her memories of clapboard fences and houses in her hometown of Easton, Maryland. Despite their apparent abstraction, her sculptures are suffused with emotion and rich referentiality. Though Truitt placed her geometric, panel sculptures directly on the floor, evoking the scale and syntax of minimalism, her intuitive layers of hand-applied, boldly colored paint and subtle referentiality set her work apart from other minimalists. Nevertheless, Greenberg placed her at the forefront of minimalism, writing in 1968, “If any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she [Truitt], in the fence-like and then box-like objects of wood or aluminum she began making, the former in 1961 and the latter in 1962.”
Dawn City is an early example of Truitt’s painted wooden sculptures that, despite its geometric simplicity, is deeply personal and referential; Dawn City is a reference to Asheville, North Carolina. While Truitt was studying psychology at Bryn Mawr College in the early 1940s, her mother became sick and Truitt frequently took overnight train rides to visit her in Asheville, North Carolina, arriving to the city at dawn. Speaking on this experience, Truitt wrote, “I have vivid memories of color…of being up early and looking at things, at dawn, in the twilight, times when the colors change the quickest…fugitive, beautiful hues.” Truitt also discussed the impact of the Asheville mountains and their sublime beauty on her artistic practice, which she conveys through the geometry in this work, writing, “Mountains are extraordinary in that they give you a feeling of strength. But they also give you a feeling of constriction, because the weight of the earth is so un-liftable… That’s where I learned about mountains. That’s where I learned about sculpture.”
jackie winsor [born 1941]
Whereas many of Jackie Winsor’s minimalist contemporaries utilized factory production for their objects, Winsor meticulously made her sculptures by hand—sometimes spending years on a single work. Upon moving to Manhattan after graduate school in 1967, the Canadian-born artist began experimenting with new sculptural materials: rubber sheeting, tubes, cord, and even hair, ultimately deciding on castoff rope as her chosen material. At first, she dipped the secondhand rope in latex or polyester resin, allowing her to conform it into linear shapes. But upon finding this method to be unsatisfactory (she often returned to her studio to find the rope limp or bent over), Winsor switched tactics. She began a measured process of unraveling a rope into its basic form of twine, and then re-wrapping and braiding the hemp around a metal rod, so the re-formulated rope could adopt a rigid and unwavering form. This work was time consuming; Winsor explained that she could “fiddle around for days over a sixteenth of an inch.” Yet it was precisely through this labor that Winsor was able to achieve her vision: a refined minimalist aesthetic that conflated the human touch within a neatly manufactured form, both natural and fabricated at once.
Rope Trick was Winsor’s first success with this new mode of production. Over six feet tall, the object represents the beginning of Winsor’s mature period. Rope Trick appears to mysteriously stand on its unraveled end—an effect made possible by the hidden metal rod in its center. Jutting into space like a column into the sky, the work possesses a tactile, erotic quality as it spirals into the air. Winsor saw each thread of unwound rope to be equivalent to lines of a drawing—which, when rewound together, created a cohesive composition.
At the time of Rope Trick’s creation, Winsor’s chief source of inspiration was not visual art, but dance. Specifically, Winsor admired the work and theory of Yvonne Rainer, an experimental choreographer whose dancers were taught to concentrate on repetitious, everyday motions, using their bodies as an abstract means of creating shape. In Rope Trick, Winsor seems to reflect on this mode of gesture and production, utilizing a repetitive process of slowly and deliberately constructing the object to create something of both abstract and anthropomorphic form.