"Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape." That's the kind of banner that museums use to pull in crowds. But how about in 50 or 100 years? What will be the shows to bet on once the impressionists have lost their draw?
Brave gamblers might want to stake their money on a long shot: "The Box, the Bulb and the Minimalist Object" sounds like the kind of title that could get mobs to gather. That may seem far-fetched, but there are signs that shows of pared-down art could someday beat the competition, even when it's from the likes of Monet and Renoir.
A first clue to minimalism's approaching popularity came with a recent visit to a show called "A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958-1968," on view at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art for another month. The beauty on display quite simply had me reeling: Room after room of the sparest abstract art of the 1960s and early '70s gave me a massive dose of old-fashioned, uncomplicated aesthetic pleasure. "A Minimal Future?" convinced me that we are facing a future full of minimalism, no question about it.
One glorious gallery held the massive geometric solids of New Yorker Robert Morris. Huge, crisply carpentered beams, painted in a plain matte gray, stood and leaned and lay around the room. There was a sense of fallen trees in virgin forest, recast into the forms of modern industry. Morris's works had all the breathtaking presence of the monoliths at Stonehenge.
Another gallery featured the glistening lacquered slabs and planks of Californian John McCracken: Two Ferrari-red boxes, stacked one on the other, combined into a solid object about as high as a viewer's head, about as wide as outstretched arms can reach and about the thickness of a slender waist. McCracken makes pure color take up space that anybody with a body cannot help relating to.
And then there was a room aglow with the fluorescent-tube sculptures of Dan Flavin. Basic lighting fixtures, set here and there into a white-walled empty gallery, managed to produce a sense of awe. Flavin mixed industrial heft with luminous evanescence, the pedestrian with the transcendent.
The pleasure these objects triggered was the plain old visceral joy you felt when you were given your first zebra fish, or bought your first Adidas, or first saw your greatest love -- the kind of raw pleasure you feel at once, then later maybe try to ponder through. And I figure that if I can get this kind of jolt from a show of minimalism's greatest hits, there's no reason someone else -- museumfuls of someone elses -- shouldn't someday get it, too.
That's on its way to happening. For years, minimalism shows were rare events. In just the last year or two, however, they've hit the big time, big-time.
In May 2003, the Dia Art Foundation opened its Dia: Beacon space, in rural New York a good hour from Manhattan. The foundation managed to draw crowds and the media to a sprawling factory complex stuffed with such stripped-down objects as the plywood boxes of Donald Judd -- a bright light and torchbearer for the minimal movement. Dia: Beacon had predicted an attendance of 60,000 for its first year. When the final count was tallied last month, it had hit 150,000.
Later in 2003, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art chose to draw attention to its permanent collection by highlighting its most minimal objects, and the Guggenheim followed suit this spring. Then this past April, a massive Judd retrospective was winding down at the popular Tate Modern gallery in London just as the minimalism survey in Los Angeles was getting underway. L.A.'s MOCA has organized "A Minimal Future?" as part of its 25th-anniversary celebrations. For only the second time in its history, it has given over all its galleries to a single spread of art. Within the last few weeks, the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art has launched an impressive show called "Beyond Geometry," which helps set American minimalism in the larger context of the hard-edged abstraction that was being made all over after World War II.
And finally, for this fall season the main event at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York looks at minimalism's ties to the decorative arts, while the National Gallery is hosting the world's first comprehensive look at the minimal, fluorescent-tube art of Flavin.
In the art world, minimalism has never fallen completely out of sight. Rather than being ignored, it's always been either deeply loved or fiercely opposed. But the current flood of minimalism exhibitions indicates a new desire to come to grips with the movement as a whole and to rethink some of the narrow polemics that have built up around it. Instead of being part of the live, ferocious debates of contemporary art, with people choosing sides for and against, minimalism is now the subject of measured, art-historical contemplation. Which means it has truly arrived -- next stop, official, unquestioned Old Master status.
Minimalism, even when it's nothing more than some fluorescent bulbs stuck on the wall, is now the kind of stuff that gets a major show at Washington's venerable National Gallery, which, as Director Earl A. "Rusty" Powell pointed out in a recent interview, tends to take a more "conservative" stance on recent art, waiting for it to fall out of the contemporary mix into a more distanced, historical context.
Maybe the most important product of this new, impartial contemplation is the recognition that minimalism, as a movement with coherent goals and practices, never really existed. There were just a bunch of people working in the early 1960s -- sometimes in collaboration, sometimes in conflict, sometimes quite isolated from each other -- who happened to be making objects and paintings and installations with an extremely pared-back look. "Let's make it and see what the hell it is," said Tony Smith, and that's just what he did in 1962, when he designed a six-foot cube of welded steel and called it "Die." (The National Gallery acquired it last year, and it's been on prominent display.)
It was only later, when the critics came along, that such works and artists were corralled into a "minimalist movement," billed as having a new, highly conceptual approach to art. The first critics couldn't get what this radically novel art was all about, so they decided that ungettability had to be its central point. (Even Judd at first complained that there wasn't "anything to look at" in the gray beams of his colleague Morris.) Both friends and enemies came to see minimalism as a gambit in an intellectual game. They saw a close connection to Marcel Duchamp's dadaist decision to hang a urinal on the wall and declare it art. They denied a kinship to more classic art, meant to appeal to both the senses and the mind -- or to the mind by way of the senses.
In an important recent book on the subject, Emory University professor James Meyer has captured how the readings of minimalism changed over the first decade of its existence. "It comes to be seen as this kind of anti-art art," Meyer said in an interview last week, ". . . but the aspiration of those artists was to make aesthetically powerful objects." He's pointed out that the cerebral reading of minimalism was important and fertile. It helped promote the rise in the later 1960s of truly conceptual, nonvisual art. But it wasn't the original one, or the only one available, or the one that artists favored.
They begged, mostly without success, for looking at their work to take the place of listening to "the secret language of art critics," in the words of artist Sol LeWitt. They weren't paring down their art as a polemical rejection of the visual in art, as many critics argued. Their art, they felt, was trying to explore how maximal perceptual effects could come from minimal means. "Less is more" was the mantra, not "less is clever." But most critics couldn't see it, and they went on to decide that the work was brilliantly -- or intolerably -- brainy. And somehow, that's the reading that worked its way down to the general public over the years. The public came to see minimal abstraction as a kind of placeholder for everything that's remote, artificial and far-fetched in contemporary art.
Even experts are only now beginning to move away from seeing minimalism as a rigorous intellectual exercise whose artists kept a single goal in view. They're beginning to understand it as a varied practice with lots of different ideas and attitudes behind it, and a shared "look" -- a very appealing one -- as the only coherent common thread. "As some of the polemics have faded away, the physical properties of the works have become more apparent," said Jeremy Strick, the director of MOCA in Los Angeles. He's the man who had to give the nod to filling every inch of his museum with gray beams and fluorescent lights.
The new minimalism surveys all happily include works that would once have been read as out of the mainstream of minimal art. Now, if a piece looks good, and looks minimal, it's worth a good long look. "The simple beauty of the works has become clear over the years," said Strick.
There are signs that the general public is also starting to have such an open-eyed, open-minded approach to the minimalist movement.
In England, Tate Modern prepared for noisy tabloid attacks on its Judd show. After all, when the Tate displayed an installation of bricks by minimalist Carl Andre in 1976, the popular press went ballistic. This time, there was hardly a whisper of complaint. Curator Helen Sainsbury said feedback from some of the exhibition's 80,000 visitors -- a normal number for one of Tate's ticketed events -- showed that "many people who came in cold went out with a very positive attitude toward Judd's work."
Now nearing the end of its run, the L.A. survey is reporting a similar response. Attendance for the show is about as predicted, said Strick, but he added that the buzz it generated, with the public and especially the press, has surpassed expectations. "If there's a zeitgeist, one element in it is the minimalist revival."
That zeitgeist governs the art market, too.
Brett Gorvy, international head of postwar and contemporary art for Christie's auction house, credits the current museum focus on minimal art with pushing values up. Though he still describes prices for Flavin and Andre and even Judd as "absurdly low" for artists of their stature, he notes that things have come a long way from when their works were considered almost unsalable. Although other kinds of art already seem to be peaking in the current red-hot auction market, Gorvy says minimalism still has four or five years to go before it gets to where it ought to be. A typical Judd from the 1960s that might have gone for at most a few hundred thousand dollars before about 2000 would now sell for $1 million to $2 million -- but that's still too low for Gorvy. "That same piece should be selling for 31/2 to 4 million dollars -- and it will," he said. After all, in the June 25 Christie's auction in London, Gorvy watched a small but very attractive Judd wall piece, estimated at $150,000 to $210,000, sell for more than $350,000. In fact, its modest size may have helped boost its price, Gorvy explained. Fashionable collectors, now living in spare lofts, are eager to use minimalist works almost as nostalgic decoration, instead of seeing them as objects of abstruse contemplation. "Beauty sells," he said.
None of the museum curators and directors interviewed for this story was willing to see things in quite as bright a light as Gorvy. All of them still worried that minimalism might remain forever out of reach of the larger, blockbuster-going public. "With the object-ness, the factory-made-ness and the monochromy of a lot of these works," said Meyer, the Emory art historian, "I'm just not sure that it's ever going to be a popular sell." In Los Angeles, a stunning museum exhibition that opened just across the street from LACMA's "Beyond Geometry" show, and at nearly the same time, tells me that he's wrong.
In that other exhibition, exquisitely sleek objects, with the same crisp lines and immaculate, monochrome finish as a McCracken, and some of the same room-filling presence as a Morris, and dependent on the same industrial machining as a Judd, drew nothing but oohs and aahs from a distinctly un-arty public. No one seemed to be objecting to a lack of representation in these rarefied objects, or to the out-in-orbit prices they fetch. But then, these were objects that people have been conditioned to admire, and the show -- called "French Curves: The Automobile as Sculpture" and featuring the most radically streamlined cars from 1930s custom body shops in France -- was at the Petersen Automotive Museum, an institution that no one's been taught to fear.
Though minimalists had to counter accusations of making "mere" design objects -- that's how 1960s ubercritic Clement Greenberg managed to dismiss them -- the fact that their work had so much in common with pared-down modern furniture, or even with some gorgeous 1930s roadsters, can't just be ignored.
Minimalist art is different from design because it gets to leave all function out. It can distill any reductive impulse to its purest form. And by setting that impulse into, or against, a history of other very different high-art objects, minimalism also gets to grab an extra load of meaning and import: minimalism could feed into heavy-duty conceptualism and generate shelves of criticism, while it's hard to imagine a Knoll sofa panning out in quite the same substantial way. But the connection to design is still real, and maybe even something that will help guarantee the movement's long-term success.
A very few minimalist artists embraced the connection: Flavin was once quoted as saying that "art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration. . . . We are pressing downward to no art -- a mutual sense of psychologically indifferent decoration -- a neutral pleasure of seeing known to everyone." Others, like Judd, actually made functional objects, while insisting they be carefully segregated from their official "art." But regardless of the artists' views, there must be some sense that both minimal art and mid-century modern design -- which actually came before the art -- both gave 20th-century humans a specific kind of sensory, and maybe also social, thrill. There may be a single set of impulses that drives someone, even today, to prefer a spare Armani suit to a Versace paisley number, as well as a Judd to a de Kooning.
In the 1960s art world, minimalism fit the bill as radical art. But that doesn't mean this is the only role it can ever play or that it isn't firmly rooted in the stuff that matters in the largest scheme of things.
Which brings us back to French impressionism. It, too, started out as a radically avant-garde movement. It was dismissed by many as a fad that was more about shock value, and intellectual conceits, than about making art that anyone could actually like. (The terms "impressionism" and "minimalism" were both coined as insults.) And as with minimalism, some of impressionism's most supportive critics turned its practical experiments into a set of almost abstract principles, which went on for a while to become the official cant of vanguard art. Like minimalism, impressionism eventually fed into a wide range of other movements -- some even in deliberate opposition to it -- that took off even as the first impressionists began to lose their edge. And for a few decades after that, as the art world passed impressionism by as safely museum-worthy, some populists continued to use the term "impressionist" to describe, and deride, artists as unlike Monet as Gauguin and Matisse. That's where we are today with minimalism: fully canonized within the art world but still not quite accepted by the very broadest public, and sometimes still facing attack.
It took a further hundred years or so for impressionism to become a nearly foolproof source of pleasure for people from all walks of life. It could be that minimalism has to wait only another century to see that same future unfold for it.