Only yesterday, it seems, one could safely consider Minimalism to be art. Once the initial shock and irritation had passed, the insolent muteness of Donald Judd’s boxes, Frank Stella’s pinstripe paintings, and similar works of the Sixties registered as evidence of a dogged kind of artistic integrity. No rhetoric, no sensuousness, no recourse to “exhausted” conventions such as compositional hierarchies—just the facts. And the facts were invariably aesthetic in nature. Now, however, we learn that we've been wrong all along. Minimalism wasn’t mute; we were just deaf to its voice, a voice sharply political in character and raised in criticism of bourgeois society, the art gallery, and the museum.

Such at least was the reading we were asked to accept at a symposium held at the School of Visual Arts last February 26 entitled “The Crux of Minimalism: Style or Politics?” Although one might wonder, Why Minimalism now?, the question didn’t seem to bother the many people who showed up for the event. The cramped, dark auditorium was filled to overflowing, and not just with students. In the audience were art-world personages ranging from dealers Jay Gorney of the East Village and Sidney Janis fils to the art historian Irving Sandler, who is currently preparing a study of Sixties art as part of his history of the New York School.

Still, for some of us the question persisted: Why the sudden interest in this movement? Had something long overlooked finally been discovered? Well, not exactly. The catalyst was apparently the recent “Neo-Geo” boomlet—that is, the return to a Sixties-type geometric abstraction in the work of such artists as Ross Bleckner, Peter Halley, and Sherrie Levine. It is the conventional wisdom that these artists are not just picking up where Frank Stella left off, but using abstraction to explore other issues: meaning in art, or the lack of it, the deadening effects of received imagery in a “consumer society,” etc.

On one level, then, the subject of the evening was the similarities and differences of Sixties Minimalism and its more radical epigone. “Radical,” in fact, was the watch-word that night. For as it turned out the panel’s organizers seemed eager to replace the accepted definition of Sixties Minimalism with a new one. According to this revised version, Minimalism emerged not in reaction to Abstract Expressionism’s intense subjectivity and transcendent aspirations but in response to the socio-political upheavals of the Sixties, in particular the antiwar movement, whose ends it supposedly served. In addition, or so we were told, Minimalism’s true purpose was not to contribute to any ongoing aesthetic dialogue or to engender any sensuous response in the viewer but to serve as a critique of such cultural institutions of “late capitalism” as the art gallery and the museum.

Minimalism emerged not in reaction to Abstract Expressionism’s intense subjectivity and transcendent aspirations.

It quickly became clear, then, that the symposium was not going to feature a dispassionate reconsideration of an important art movement. Rather, it would involve the promotion of a radical agenda attacking bourgeois society and its institutions, with art enlisted in the cause. Over and above these topics, however, the more pressing issue became the management of the historical record, a subject which was to prove far more troublesome than any revisionist view of the period.

The organizer and moderator of the panel was Brian Wallis, an art historian, critic, and adjunct curator at the New Museum in SoHo. Wallis is a champion of the engagé position that sees only political value in works of art, and only self-serving conspiracies in the efforts of art galleries and museums. A typical sentence, selected almost at random from his essay in the catalogue to the New Museum’s recent Hans Haacke retrospective (for which Wallis served as curator), reads: “How do the museum and the corporation employ the art exhibition as a promotional vehicle for advancing their interests and, specifically, for propping up existing class, racial and sexual hierarchies?” (It must irk Wallis enormously that the New Museum itself, which is supposedly untainted by such corrupt practices, must seek and accept funding from individuals and institutions associated with personal and corporate wealth.)

Joining him was Maurice Berger, also an historian and critic, who is currently on leave from the School of Visual Arts to serve as a visiting professor of art history at Hunter College. The other members of the panel were the choreographer Yvonne Rainer and sculptor Richard Artschwager, and two younger artist-photographers, James Welling and Haim Steinbach. These two pairs represented the Minimalist movement in its old and new incarnations, respectively. Of all the participants, Artschwager’s presence was the hardest to explain. Certainly, his sculptures of chairs, tables, and the like are reductive and geometric. But their Formica surfaces, with patterns mimicking the textures and colors of the everyday objects he represents, give his work a wittily subversive Pop Art twist that takes them out of the Minimalist mainstream. Then why not invite Donald Judd instead? That was the point, of course. Judd represents the received definition of Minimalism—the Minimalism of aesthetic seriousness—that needs to be overturned. In Richard Artschwager, the organizers evidently felt they had an exemplary figure with whom to make their case for the engagé version of the movement, an assumption that had the effect of reducing Artschwager himself to a sort of lab specimen. Still, it remained to be seen whether this “test case” would prove out.

The symposium format was the usual: moderator’s introduction, brief statements from each panelist, questions from the floor. Accordingly, with a slide of Gregory Batt-cock’s standard anthology, Minimal Art (1968), projected above him, Brian Wallis led off, observing that Battcock’s definition of Minimalism was seriously flawed. A deliberately selective reading of the historical record, Wallis said, had restricted our view to formalist or aesthetic issues. In fact, as Wallis wished “provisionally” to suggest that evening, Minimalism was a response to the socio-political conditions of the Sixties—the Vietnam war and the civil-rights movement on the one hand, and such trends as the increasing geometrization of, say, fashion design, on the other. “Has Minimalism lost its radical status,” he asked, “through absorption into historical or market structures?” Clearly he believed the answer to be “yes,” since he then asked whether “we [could] comprehend or reinstate the original, complex purposes of Minimalism and move beyond the exclusivity of our definition.” Only this way, he said, could we understand contemporary Minimalism.

This sounds innocent enough, perhaps. Definitions always need revision. Moreover, the Sixties do offer the curious spectacle of a “cool” art produced in a tumultuous period. Why not look back to see if the old terms still hold? And yet, the working out of a new definition proved not so innocent after all. For in a twist that would become significant later in the evening, Wallis quietly established a crucial distinction: Minimalism could only be “radical” as an outgrowth of the war and related upheavals, not as an aesthetic phenomenon. Aesthetic phenomena are part of the “system,” and thus not radical at all.

With Maurice Berger’s presentation, the first of the six, the evening really got up to speed. Berger, too, used slides, one a contemporary Artforum cover featuring a Donald Judd box, the other a still photograph of a Robert Morris performance from the Sixties. Berger’s point was the same as Wallis’s, namely, that the received definition of Minimalism is too narrow; as the slides showed, Morris the hermetic Minimalist was also a performance artist. As proof of the hegemony of the narrow view, Berger cited an article by Phyllis Tuchman that appeared in the Artforum whose cover we were looking at. The Tuchman piece, Berger said, exemplified the way in which contemporary critics deliberately “distance” Minimalist art from social and political issues, in spite of the “archives” of available material, as yet un-consulted, which showed Minimalism to be radical. Such archives, Berger said, included the many small presses which had flourished during the Sixties, the testimony of certain “activist artists,” and the “archives” of the artists themselves. Then, quoting Michel Foucault, Berger proceeded to characterize Tuchman’s article and the outlook it represented as constituting “a repression of the social praxis ... a fetishization of the object consistent with a history written for upper-class consumers of high art.” In other words, the celebration of the individual work of art in Tuchman’s writing, and in that of other critics, was undertaken to advance a view of art as a negotiable commodity, accessible only to the highest echelons of society.

Berger then singled out Robert Morris as the kind of “activist artist” he had in mind, a distinction Morris achieved by transforming his 1971 Tate Gallery retrospective into a “subversive” event. In his show, Morris exhibited no work, only a continuously running slide show of the pieces which would otherwise have been displayed. Presumably, by transforming them into mere simulacra, he rendered them tantalizingly present, while shielding them from the “fetishization of the object.” In place of anything more recent, Morris provided custom-built structures for the public to climb on and walk through. The lesson here was twofold: the structures were unconnected to his ongoing oeuvre and so intrinsically invulnerable to the museum’s process of consecrating certain objects, as against others, by its process of selection; and the public interaction undercut the characteristic “noli me tangere” preciousness of the work of art, thus liberating the viewer from his role as passive consumer. Berger noted that the Tate had closed down the Morris show soon after it opened. Although it had given as its reason the need to protect the public from injury, Berger’s tone made it clear that he believed the action was taken in order to reassert the museum’s authority.

Perhaps it was the ritual quote from Fou-cault, with its reference to “upper-class consumers of high art,” that did it, but at a certain point in Berger’s presentation it became depressingly evident that the art of the period in question was to be held hostage to an interpretation every bit as “narrow” as the one the symposium was convened to debate. At the same time, an eerie feeling of unreality descended over the affair. One felt sealed off in a world removed from everyday experience, a world in which truth was to be determined only by the extent to which it served a pre-existent point of view.

The choreographer Yvonne Rainer spoke next—sort of. She opened by confessing only a marginal involvement with Sixties Minimalism; deduced from that that her invitation was based solely on her box-office appeal as “an ex-lover” of one of the principal figures of the period; protested being the only woman participant on a panel with five men; and announced that she had in fact prepared no statement and so instead planned to “titillate” the audience with “reminiscences.” Thus began a rambling series of anecdotes, autobiographical fragments, and self-quotations that culminated in a reading—overlong and seemingly irrelevant—of a grotesque excerpt from J. D. Ballard’s Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. In this passage, located in a fictional present, the erotic stimulus of television violence is measured on a test audience that is being shown increasingly ferocious scenes of human degradation. Not quite what one expected to encounter at an evening devoted to the fine arts.

It was Richard Artschwager’s turn next. What was he, a veteran of the Sixties, making of all this? Would he defend the old orthodoxies or turn his back on it all and join forces with the revisionists? At least on this occasion, Artschwager did not impress one as the most cogent public speaker. He talked for the most part hesitantly, disjointedly, and often on a highly abstract plane. Yet it was clear from certain remarks that he was unhappy with what was going on around him. “Are we into guilt by association?” he asked at one point. When he concluded, in a tone of outraged perplexity, “This cause-and-effect tangle has confused me so that I don’t feel able to make a statement; I may have to return my fee,” one got the first real glimpse of his opposition to the views propounded by Wallis and Berger. And who could blame him? He must have felt he was being made a fool of as the values of a lifetime were publicly dismissed as irrelevant and, somehow, wicked.

Little of note occurred in the remaining presentations. Brian Wallis took the floor again and offered a series of questions designed to guide audience and panel in their deliberations. (For example, How do the new Minimalist works “function as commodities or critiques of commodities”?) As it turned out, his questions went unaddressed, since they didn’t bear on what by that time had emerged as the most urgent task of the evening; namely, finding a reliable definition of Sixties Minimalism that would accommodate the revisionist ideology.

For much the same reason, neither James Weliing’s nor Haim Steinbach’s statements had much effect. In a near monotone, Welling read an autobiographical essay tracing his evolution as creator of “anti-monumental” photographs. And in complete silence, Steinbach projected slides of interior-decorator catchphrases alongside pictures, culled from magazines, of assorted household furnishings upholstered in striped fabric. One supposes his point was to show how degraded and co-opted the aesthetic of Minimalism had become through commercialization.

Then it was question time. Picking up on an idea thrown out by a member of the audience but momentarily lost, Brian Wallis turned to Artschwager and in a by-the-way sort of tone tried to clarify the reason for his presence on the panel. Attempting to paint Artschwager as a “transgressive” artist in the mold of Robert Morris—that is, an artist concerned more than anything else with challenging the artistic status quo—Wallis observed that, while from his point of view Artschwager’s work certainly bore superficial resemblances to a narrow kind of Minimalism, it also seemed involved with broader questions. What Wallis had in mind, he said, was the way “it investigates various kinds of institutional space” and appears to be “involved in dealing with the viewer in various ways.” Artschwager’s sculptures seem to ask that they be taken as everyday objects, but they aren’t, a fact which supposedly discomfits the viewer, who doesn’t know whether to look at them or sit on them. Wasn’t this the case? Wallis wanted to know. Well, actually, no, Artschwager responded. Having worked in a furniture factory for thirty years, he wanted to create in his sculpture something which would distill that experience into a single object. In a chair, for example, he wanted to make a “platonic essence . . . the chair of all chairs.” So it was autobiographical content, not “transgressive” polemics, that Artschwager was interested in.

At last one felt one had arrived at a moment of truth. Here was Wallis citing his eyewitness’s work as an example of the sort of political intention he had in mind, while the artist himself denied having any such aim. Wallis’s star witness, alas, was unable to corroborate his “story.” For Artschwager, the determining factor in defining Minimalism—the “crux,” one is tempted to call it-was neither style nor politics but affect, the innate emotional force of the individual work of art. His remarks had the effect of restoring a proper sense of historical priority to the evening, not to mention a feeling of renewed contact with reality. It was as though a door had swung open and a gust of fresh air had entered, clearing away the close, artificial atmosphere that had surrounded the event.

A short time later, Irving Sandler felt compelled to address the unchallenged twist in Wallis’s opening remarks, where Wallis had tacitly suggested that Minimalism was only radical as politics, not as art. Robert Morris had just been cited again, by Maurice Berger, as an example of an artist responding to the Vietnam war through his art. (Yvonne Rainer had previously asked him how Minimalism could be thought of as part of the antiwar movement when it was all over by the time Vietnam became an issue.) Morris, Berger said, had withdrawn his Whitney Museum retrospective in 1970 to protest the bombing of Cambodia. The incident, in Berger’s view, proved that Minimalism was only “transgressive” when it functioned politically.

At the time Minimalism made its first appearance, Sandler said, “nothing looked uglier, less like art, more ‘transgressive,’” and it was supposed to be that way.

At this point Sandler, who had been quietly taking notes all evening, but who now looked quite annoyed, spoke up. At the time Minimalism made its first appearance, Sandler said, “nothing looked uglier, less like art, more ‘transgressive,’” and it was supposed to be that way. Its area of subversive operation, he implied, was aesthetic. It was art that was made to criticize art, not anything else. If that was the case, Wallis wanted to know, why wasn’t it “transgressive” anymore?

Wallis’s question came as a surprise. After all, it’s the sort of thing one usually works out in one’s college study of art history, yet here was an art historian and museum professional publicly asking, as it were, why audiences don’t riot anymore at performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or even notice Père Ubu’s “Merdre.” Sandler, speaking of Minimalism, offered the only possible answer: because over time, “its aesthetic qualities emerge,” to which Wallis, undaunted, retorted, “You mean it transmutes itself?” He meant, one supposes, that it outgrows its bumptiousness and settles down to become part of the community. “Yes,” Sandler answered, and of course he was right. Only someone with as determinedly sectarian a viewpoint as Wallis would think otherwise.

The juxtaposition of, on one side, Irving Sandler, and on the other, Brian Wallis and Maurice Berger, furnished the most telling of all the contrasts witnessed that evening. One could not help but see it as an opposition between the eyewitness, the art historian committed to a dispassionate study of the historical record, and ideologues too young to have played any role at all in the events under consideration yet determined to raid the “archive” in order to promote a particular agenda, an agenda which, in its political character, could only serve to obscure rather than clarify the art under review. For this reason, one was grateful for Sandler’s presence, and of course for Artschwager’s.

Time was soon called, and as one carefully negotiated one’s way out of the auditorium, thinking back over the evening’s proceedings, the name of a philosopher came to mind, not Foucault this time but Santayana. With numbing frequency one sees quoted his famous admonition that to be ignorant of history is to be doomed to repeat it. Stepping out into the crisp night air, one couldn’t help wondering what he might have said about those who, knowing history full well, are eager to distort it.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 9, on page 59
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