For me minimal art will always be a secondary interest. I often enjoy its austerity but am never quite entirely won over by it (or at least not for much longer than the time I’ve spent in an exhibition – though some might say that is plenty time enough). Really exciting abstract art needs to throw much more into the mix. But regardless of what I or someone much more important may think about it, it has its own place and its own momentum. The fact that minimalism of various stripes – a much broader category than “the Minimalists” aka Judd, Andre et al – has managed to keep on reinventing itself is striking. Whether it is a respite from the image saturation and complexity of modern life, or a continuation of modern design and views on hygiene, the aesthetic presentation of almost nothing isn’t going away any time soon.*
Minimalism asks for two main types of visual response.** One is close up, an appreciation of details, of subtle differences and minute distinctions. This tends in the direction of the satisfaction one can get from craft or design, from the sense of something being well-made, economically executed, neatly finished. The other is the general view, where either shape or structure is seen whole, or almost whole, as a perfect thing within its surroundings; or becomes a kind of architecture, an adjunct to or interruption of its surroundings. More often than not it is seen against glowing white gallery walls, minimalism within minimalism. Particularly when shown as a singular, whole object it can take on a mystical tinge, but can be appreciated much more matter-of-factly, a kind of visual cleansing. Sometimes the details can – intentionally or not – disrupt or distract from the general view; within slicker operations one subtly shades into the other. Perhaps my ambivalence toward minimal work is that for all its attractions it doesn’t offer enough substance between these two poles.
There are a few exhibitions which fall under the general category of the minimal on in London right now, all worth visiting. At the ICA until the 6th of April is a recreation of Richard Hamilton’s ‘an Exhibit’ of 1957; at Pace Gallery also until the 6th, recent works by James Turrell; at Bartha Contemporary until the 26th of April new work by Douglas Allsop; and at Annely Juda until the 22nd of March recent works by Alan Charlton.
* There must be many examples of this type of aesthetic response throughout history and across cultures. It is well known that Japanese aesthetics was a important influence on European modernist design and architecture in the early twentieth century.
** I suppose I am discounting the many pseudo-dada-ish or dryly conceptual uses of minimalism, where the fact we can accept an almost blank canvas as art is used as vehicle for another concern. Oliver Osborne’s paintings at the Saatchi Gallery are the most recent example I’ve seen. The ease with which minimalism can be co-opted in this way is problematic.