Abstract Critical

Minimal Myth: Interview with Francesco Stocchi

Francesco Stocchi is curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. He curated the exhibition Minimal Myth, which runs until the 16 September 2012.

Exhibition view Minimal Myth, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg

Sam Cornish: To begin perhaps you could explain a little about the thinking behind the exhibition’s title: what is the myth of Minimalism?

Francesco Stocchi: The myth is a traditional story, as most of the traditional stories it is widely known and handed down, although it contains false beliefs. Like a legend, myths arise from misinterpreting or over-determining singular events, specific declarations, transforming an episode into an epitome. This way it is easier to categorize and communicate it but it blurs the boundaries between facts, intentions and speculations. That is how a myth is born, which is also fascinating to reconstruct its genesis. Take for example the famous Frank Stella quote,  ‘What you see is what you see’, which is used as a straightforward way to introduce someone to Minimalism. It is a fable as, for example, there is an important component of illusion in Minimalism. Nevertheless, Minimalism is generally perceived through this nihilistic approach, not only within the general public. The premise of this exhibition is to deal with the paradoxes and contradictions around a movement which has been lately overexposed and strongly influential, as an artistic language inside the gallery, as a stylistic decor outside of it.

Exhibition view Minimal Myth, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg

SC: Your description of the minimalist myth seems to suggest that as it increasingly enters wider culture Minimalism moves further away from the claims to direct, unmediated experience (‘it is what it is’) that accompanied its initial arrival. Could the opposite not be the case: that as we become more familiar with the aesthetic of Minimalism contact with the objects which inaugurated this aesthetic in fact becomes more natural, more direct? Perhaps now we can actually really see Andre or Morris or Judd for what they are and enjoy them simply, unmediated by the need to place in an art historical or art theoretical discourse?

FS: The increasingly apparent position of Minimalism in wider culture could be seen as a result of a successful attempt to find alternatives to the conflict between fine art and society; yet on the other hand, this exposure inevitably banalised the founding arguments behind Minimalism itself, depicting it as a emotionless, theoretically charged movement. The seeming reaction against Abstract Expressionism helped in that direction too (in this regard, it is interesting to read how Judd refers to Pollock in terms of line and rhythm). Minimalism is seen as perhaps the last avant-garde of the twentieth century, for its impact and the radical change of perspective it offered. Now that, 50 years later, this language grew from art to the wider culture, its position is obviously different, probably more ambiguous than before. The exhibition tries to examine this new position today, unveiling its original prospects and proposing new possible interpretations. Or are why restricted to perceive it only historically?

Exhibition view Minimal Myth, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg

SC: I would say that there is a third way between ‘proposing new possible interpretations’ and perceiving it ‘historically’. In that I would hope that there is still the possibility for some kind of direct contact with art that was only produced fifty years ago, even though the speed with which culture moves now may mitigate against this. In some ways I find Stella’s ‘what you see is what you see’ as containing the potential for liberation (from wider culture) rather than being nihilistic. However I am likely being fairly naive in thinking so.

To approach the problem from a different angle, Thomas Crow has quoted a 1967 letter by Donald Judd to Artforum where Judd writes: ‘Sirs: The piece reproduced on p. 38 of the summer issue was put together wrong and isn’t anything’. For Crow this marks a moment when the photograph could present a workable surrogate for a sculpture. Certainly minimalism is incredibly photogenic: ironically so given the phenomenological criticism that often (and I would say appropriately) accompanies it. Is there any work in the exhibition that specifically deals with this break between original and copy, direct and indirect experience? Or the similar coincidence between minimal aesthetics and the digital? 

FS: I agree, Stella’s quote can be seen as liberating and it carries all the potential of a revolution. But should it not be seen as a cynical liberating humor?

The uses which Minimalism has been put to have defined new borders and maybe erected some barriers… Minimal forms are surely photogenic but not challenging if we see the formal aspect as a goal, rather than a point of departure, where the story starts, or actually continues from. It is, to a certain extent, the continuation of the De Stijl, Bauhaus and Suprematism experiences, which were the continuation of Piranesi and so on.  Under this perspective, criticism and visual immediacy can match.

By emphasizing changes in artists’ practices (return to craft, increased valuing of the experience of time in an artwork, etc.), the exhibition tries to propose a more nuanced, or multifaceted approach to Minimalism. Chris Cornish’s video (The Adventure and the Resolution, 2010) is a computer representation of a real environment. Digital and “real” experiences are overlapped, becoming indistinguishable. Ned Vena’s vinyl paintings applied onto emergency doors (Untitled, 2012) is another example. The pattern’s design is first made digitally, whilst the final work depends on the artist’s attempt to manually replicate a digital experience; obviously continuously failing, obviously trying to fail better. The result is vibrant but the work is obviously not about failure itself. It carries the right balance between rule and possibilities. Marc Nagtzgaam works with graphite, not involving any other media in his practice. His drawings solidly question how a direct experience can be the copy of an ideal architecture. How the mind is incapable of transferring the exact idea into the final form; there is always a translation in between. The Minimalists tried to reduce the gap of this translation to a minimum, but the emotion and drama were still there.

Exhibition view Minimal Myth, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg

SC: To finish, one of the key reasons Minimalism has attracted much attention is the sense it was a staging post to the wider field which contemporary art now operates in. This relation has been highlighted by the recent opening of the Tate’s Tanks, where something like a Minimalist aesthetic will frame performance, film and installation art. How have you brought this ‘expanded field’ into Minimal Myth, and what particular challenges did it present to Boijmans as an institution?

FS: The main challenge Minimal Myth presented to Boijmans is the relation with the recent history of the museum. In the last years, much attention in the field of contemporary production has been given to meta-Surrealist projects. Artists carrying an independent vision and language that are nevertheless associated with the legacy of Surrealism or at least the effect their work has on the public is reminiscent of the impact Surrealist works had and still carry. The museum’s holdings are particularly strong in that field, while my point of departure was to try to unveil other aspects of the collection.

To me, Tate’s Tanks’ space carries more of an industrial connotation rather than of the Minimal per se. By this I mean that when in the space attention is focused towards the history of the building, and this confers a certain luminescence to anything that is hosted in it. Having said that, I agree that if a space presents a Minimalist aesthetic this favours a broader use of it, embracing heterogeneousness right from its inception. It is by nature more flexible and receptive. The Bodon galleries, where Minimal Myth is presented, carry these characteristics, though we should not mix the concepts of minimal space with minimal sculptures. The former well encapsulates what it contains by means of neutrality, the latter rather activates the space, whirling the spectator into the expression of basic human emotions, which is what I tried to demonstrate with this exhibition: decrypting the Minimal Myth.