Ramblings on why we love minimalism so much

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

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It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It is, however, singularly more difficult to explain what that really means, and how it is that simplicity and repetition can affect our brains and emotions in such powerful ways.

Lately I’ve been rereading what is one of my favorite treatises on modern art, a sort of modern art apologetics if you will, Pictures of Nothing, an AW Mellon Lectures volume, compiled from talks given by Kirk Varnedoe at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2003.

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It’s a defense, in a way, of modern, abstract art since the time of Pollock, and Varnedoe treads waist-deep into the incredibly difficult terrain of defending modern artists and their “pictures of nothing.” It’s a lucid, wholly unpretentious accounting of the artists and their motivations, which have come to compose our modern art history, and Varnedoe is one of those arts world people who invites people in, instead of locking them out.

But I digress.

Varnedoe’s arguments pushed me back towards the place in my head from which I initially determined I would write about art, in which I would refuse to let the traditional critical dialogues be sufficient and would instead, strive always for an analysis, or an argument, which would make the most sense, to the most people, when writing about a subject. In other words, I would eschew dense art-speak and write for more than the .005 percent of the population who can (or want to) decipher it.

The old, transformation by reduction line, in defense of highly simplistic shapes or repetitive notes in music, is a great example.

The idea, in a very general sense, is that by cutting away all excess, anything that could be construed as a distraction from the essence, an artist can create for his viewers or listeners, an environment in which they can rediscover the beauty inherent in, for example, a square, or, if we’re using the music metaphor, an F-sharp, in a way that is impossible when the note is surrounded by hundreds of others.

In the words of Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, writing for ArtForum in 1974, artists, sculptors specifically but the same applies across medium, in this new minimal vein, (I want to say he was referring to the work of Carl André but the subject escapes me, regardless its applicable in a broader way) sought a “phenomenological reduction of the experience of sculpture to its essential condition.”

The assertion being that silence in music, or space in art, allows the mind to more easily process a visual or auditory moment.

But that doesn’t explain, really, how it is an art object or piece of music that is seemingly so simple, can affect our brain in such powerful ways.

A couple of ramblings on why I think that might be the case now follow.

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Part of it is, for me, the intimate connection we feel to the music or art as the artistic representation of our time. For me, it has always seemed like the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, for example, was my music. Not mine in the sense of me personally, but mine in the sense of my generation’s. Now part of that is certainly indebted to the fact that I grew up with the music. It wasn’t shocking as it may have been to those who knew life before it. The same could be said for Carl Andre’s floor pieces.

But the fact remains that a minimalistic bent in art and music, makes sense to me (us), it seems to be the art of the present. Our present. And as such, we feel a powerful connection to it. Historical forms of art, or music, are exactly that, historical, and despite the fact that many of them incontestably maintain some of the same intensity and inner energy they must have possessed when they were created, the connection we have to our music is necessarily different.

There are two ways you can take this, first of all, it could be a chicken vs. egg thing. Do we feel a connection to the music simply because it is our contemporary and it is inherent to human nature to feel connected to something you associate with certain aspects of your life, or do we feel a connection to the music for a deeper reason? For the latter, in other words, do we feel a connection to this new kind of art because the language it is speaking, is directly related to our language, our internal language or philosophy, specifically?

Of course, really, you could postulate even further, concerning whether the art’s language defined our cultural language as a whole, or whether it was influenced by cultural history. Everything is a factor of everything else and I’m not a philosopher so won’t make an attempt at answering the question. Not quite ready for that.

Suffice to say, I posit modern music/art’s appeal is directly related to its contemporaneity with us as its audience.

Varnedoe, in another possible defense, writes of the art of the minimalists, take Robert Ryman for an example, and makes the not immediately obvious observation that “you can’t hang them next to anything else.” Like I said, not immediately obvious, but allow me to explain.

Picture yourself in a room with six paintings by Picasso, or Francisco Goya and hanging in the midst of the exquisite paintings of either master, is a Robert Ryman. A white canvas which reveals nothing more than white until it is examined closer. Upon which painting does your eye rest?

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Robert Ryman

Everything else is destroyed in the wake of the work of Judd, or Ryman, or the music of Glass, or Adams.

It almost seems like, for a beginner, it would be so much easier to understand the power of minimal art, if that very thing happened. If instead of walking into a room, like I recently did for Carl André’s retrospective at Dia:Beacon, and encountering work after work on the floor, one were to walk into a room full of figurative paintings and one André floor piece. The powerful statement of the work would make more sense wouldn’t it?

Of course art exhibitions aren’t designed for entry-level arts enthusiasts, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The work, in the rather uncommon context I described above, would make you stop and think. You’d ask yourself why, and, unless you’re an incurably, uncurious person, you’d wonder why it’s there, how it got to be there and what it means.

It’s involvement with you as the spectator would be “immediate” in the words of Varnedoe. In other words, you wouldn’t have to get up close and personal with the work to see what it included. It’s right there, all laid out for you. In this case, your gut reaction, of surprise, or immediacy, would be correct. In all honesty, you don’t really have to engage with it any further. You’ve already grasped its meaning.

And there-in lies its power.

I believe one of the stumbling blocks for audiences listening to a Cage piece, or examining a Judd sculpture, is the ignorance many have of the “artist’s” intention. The artists and musicians of minimalism weren’t really interested in art in the traditional sense, which makes it hard (impossible for some) to relate to their work in an artistic way. In the traditional way. They didn’t really want you to. Many artists of the period, Judd and André for example, were pretty vocal about not wanting to be a part of art. André’s “idea of art was related to some kind of abstraction, from something outside of art.”

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André, Judd, Cage, Reich, they all wanted their viewers or listeners to examine the idea of experience. They saw their work as an experimental departure, which is why context, in art, is often key, much of the work on view at spaces and museums of canonical artists like Judd and André, was never intended to be seen. We value it now from an art historical standpoint as we tell the story of how an important artist becomes an important artist. But even apart from that, much of André’s work, even the completed work, was still simply an experiment.

I could go on forever. Part of the appeal for me, specifically as it concerns visual art, is the minimalist’s penchant for creating useful art, entailing a strong belief in the power of design and simplicity, to better our lives. Something I believe in wholeheartedly, and another aspect of this movement that is worth exploring in more detail. It’s easy to say good design betters lives, much harder to actually explain how/why in an empirical sense.

I’ve got to stop there though. In summation? Art of one’s time is powerful. The most powerful. And minimalism’s power lies in its simplicity, especially when confronted in the context of traditional, historical art. You can’t look at anything else. And that’s all that needs to be said.

Laurie Anderson, Performance Art vs. Theater, and Minimalism

Laurie Anderson “works in real time.” That’s her take on what differentiates her from theater artists. A response to that age-old question of what really is the difference between certain performance art and theater.

Anderson, who made a name for herself in the aftermath of performance art movements such as Fluxus and minimalist musicians such as John Cage, has experience with many different mediums, separating herself from the Fluxus artists whose ‘happenings’ earned them a spot in the art history book but whose artistic merits rested more firmly in the tradition of philosophy and protest movements than it did in true art (although that term’s definition is up for debate.)

Professionally trained, Anderson is a renaissance man when it comes to artistic practices; she writes music, she designs sets, she writes dialogue, sings, acts, and more. If you see something on stage at an Anderson performance, she designed and most often fabricated the piece or set.

I’m drawn to Anderson for many reasons, not least of which is her innate ability to defy easy classification.

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The recipient of an extensive education in the visual arts, Anderson achieved notoriety for, for lack of a better term, performance art, but has left a lasting legacy that is often most closely associated with independent music, owing in large part to her radio ‘hit,’ “O, Superman.”

Despite what she’s known for now, in Anderson’s prime, she spearheaded a form of performance art that bridged the gap between the ‘happenings’ of the 1960’s and the opportunities that video would provide artists and performance artists in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But Anderson’s sensory overload productions were only part of what earned her a place in the history books. It goes without saying there has been no shortage of meaningless ‘art’ that stimulates plenty of senses. No, to enter the canon, as it were, Anderson had to create content and dialogue and a production that would coalesce to deliver something imbued with meaning and importance. That’s exactly what she did.

In the 1970’s Anderson began performing a set of performances she collectively entitled “United States.”

In the over seven hour work which skips precariously between topics, Anderson simply used her unique style to portray the (or at least a) collective American dream, in this case broken up into four parts: transportation, politics, money and love, resulting in what was referred to by the New York Times as a “pop Opera.”

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The lengthy staging featured Anderson performing her act solo. Singing, ‘dancing,’ miming, talking, conversing (with herself), performing ‘stand-up’ and playing musical instruments (many of which she had altered or straight up invented. She was a pioneer in the combination of unique synthesizers). She tells stories, she sings songs, she changes her voice (Anderson is synonymous with instruments which could alter her voice so she could perform as numerous characters). Sometimes she makes sense, sometimes she doesn’t. Images are projected, props are used, she uses and re-uses musical themes and more. If you’d seen it (or if you have), some of it you’d like, some of it would speak to you, some of it you’d hate, some of it wouldn’t make any sense but you’d probably leave feeling like you hadn’t totally wasted your time and you’d certainly leave impressed by Anderson’s talent and creativity.

Despite the way it sounds, Anderson’s work is strangely minimal. Not minimal in the visual or even sensual sense, but rather in the artistic, performative sense. A sense wherein the performance itself is defined as the copresence of the performer and their audience. One cannot exist without the other. And just as with minimal art, the experience of the artwork is dependent upon the temporal and spatial condition in which the audience member views the artwork.

Here’s what I mean, and here’s a key differentiator between performance art (at least Anderson’s style) and theater.

While it may not always be the case, it can be widely agreed upon that playwrights very predictably utilize their work to vocalize or artistically express their philosophy, worldview or some kind of life experience.

Anderson doesn’t do that.

If you go to an Anderson performance expecting to learn about Anderson, you’re shit out of luck.

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Anderson’s performance art is minimal in that she utilizes herself as a medium, “elucidating ideas and notions from a cast of characters” without ever indicating when she is playing Anderson and when she’s simply using her voice to as the vehicle for someone else.

Anderson’s purposeful obscuring of herself (both implicitly and explicitly through disguising her voice) in order to express myriad viewpoints and portray myriad characters allows her audience members to draw their own conclusions and experience the art in their own way, just as a viewer experiences not Donald Judd’s silver boxes, but rather the space between and around them.

She skews our collective notion of performance art, subverting it to her own aims of forcing us to question where the thoughts and voices she is acting as a channel for are coming from. Are they coming from us? Are they coming from our friends? Are they simply imaginary?

According to Anderson, her approach to theater and performance leaves her “freer to be disjunctive and jagged and to focus on incidents, ideas, collisions.” The fact that there is no cohesive structure, no attempt to create true characters or project the future allows room for the audience to work with the creator in orchestrating a complete work of art. Just as Judd and others rely on audience members to complete their sculpture with spatial experience of it.

Anderson was and is an incredibly unique artist whose artwork defies categorization while redefining what we think of as performance art. She’s hard to understand, combining frenetic, sensational productions while at the same time serving as the proponent for a unique, minimalist take on performance. And, as mentioned previously, despite a prolific output, you’ve been fooled if you think you know anything about Anderson from her art.

on museums, nature, universal symbolism and land art

With the first “retrospective” of the Earthworks movement, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” currently on display at MOCA, I thought it an a propos time to explore (briefly) the ideology and work of Robert Smithson, one of the early artists working in the Land Art movement and probably most well-known. While many high profile artists are associated with the movement, Smithson’s prolific writing and his high-profile project “Spiral Jetty” allow a deeper understanding of the “why” than most of his contemporaries.

Land Art, or Earthworks (a term Smithson coined) is an art movement that falls under the category of minimalism and emerged in the late 1960’s.  Land artists utilize land or the landscape as their canvas (or on their canvas) and are characterized by a rejection of what they saw as the commodification of art in the 1960’s, a fascination with nature and an emphasis on the product used in their art rather than the finished product (see minimalism as a whole).

In the 1960’s the art world was seeing a plethora of movements rejecting established practices. Art historian Donald Kuspit describes the systematic rejection of the frame and the pedestal in painting and sculpture during the decade while artists attempted to redefine the boundaries of their art. Removing art from the gallery and giving it indefinite boundaries, ie. Land Art, was simply the next logical step.

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A still from Michael Snow’s “La Region Centrale,” 1971

Minimalism attempts to expose the essence of something by eliminating everything but the necessary. For artists working within the tenets of minimalism (including the Land Art artists) a museum tended to offer their pieces a sense of grandeur and importance the piece did not deserve.  Moving the piece into nature allowed the majesty of the outdoors to dwarf the artist’s creation, better achieving the goals of the minimalist artist.

Smithson began as a painter but his ideology was always minimalist. A rejection of the traditional museum/gallery system as well as a systematic attempt to reject the art world’s insistence on defining an artist and his art form, led Smithson to produce works not easily categorized, even before he delved into Land Art and developed his important notion of the site and non-site.

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Smithson’s “Partly Buried Wood-shed,” 1970 – an example of Smithson’s fascination with the relationship between man and nature as well as the concept of entropy

Site and non-site meant for Smithson respectively the creation of his art in nature as a part of nature and in the case of the non-site, the movement of articles from a site in nature and their placement in the gallery. In the late 1960’s, Smithson’s output was almost entirely focused on these sites and non-sites as his art grew more and more inextricably intertwined with nature.

Apart from a rejection of the establishment, Smithson and others also sought in nature a therapeutic removal from the “life-draining urban environment.” Like many before and after them, an aversion to the technology and chaos implicit in modern man’s daily life, led Land Artists to escape to nature in order to attempt to assuage some of the human trauma incurred through what they saw as life on overload.  It also allowed them in turn to explore the chaos inherent in nature, something especially important to Smithson who was fascinated by the concept of entropy and the effects of the elements on his outdoor work.

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a 1,500 foot long coil composed of rock and soil dramatically jutting out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the embodiment of much of Land Art’s central tenets as well as the significance of universal forms and symbols.

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For Smithson the “Spiral Jetty” explores not only the majesty and at the same time fragility of nature as well as our relationship with it, but it also explores the concept of the universal form, in this case the spiral, as a “symbol of the cosmos.” It exemplifies the Land Artist’s desire to avoid the placement of their creation onto the landscape, but rather to work within it as they explore the human relationship to nature.

“Spiral Jetty” in short, inspires viewers to contemplate the complicated notion of human manipulation in nature while viewing a symbol we as a collective humanity have been inserting into our dialogue for centuries. What is the true relationship between man and nature?  The choice of the spiral is no accident. As Smithson attempts to ease the trauma of daily life through nature, he is also attempting to do so by creating a link to the centuries of civilizations that have come before us.

Viewing Smithson’s masterpiece is moving as the viewer contemplates the universally emotional experience of an un-touched nature, only this time, it’s only seemingly un-touched. Smithson here has been able to create an item that is inextricably linked to the human experience while at the same time it’s presence in nature seems perfectly natural; as if Smithson’s intrusion almost didn’t happen.  Maybe man and nature are closer than we think.

So there you have it, Land Art, art within nature that attempts to be a part of nature and while almost succeeding, still serves as an example of man’s manipulation of nature. We can attempt to make our mark minimal, but it’s still there.

Side-Note: Smithson’s notions of entropy and the ephemeral nature of the landscape and his art within it were subjects upon which he wrote profusely, making the Dia Art Foundation’s discussions of the “Spiral Jetty’s” preservation somewhat ironic. Just something to keep in mind as the debate continues; Smithson valued the aspect of nature that involves organic growth and decay. Would he have wanted “Spiral Jetty,” an artwork that almost isn’t an artwork, to be preserved as such? Or would he have wanted it to go the way of nature?