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MARLENA DONOHUE

M(m)INIMALISM REDUX
AND WHAT IT CAN TELL US


The planning of, the public and critical response to, and the curatorial wisdom of a spate of shows on Minimal (and minimal) art invites some observations. Noted has been that in their prescience the curators of MOCA, LACMA, the Guggenheim and MOCA San Diego may have spotted or “vibed” some collective ethos stirring or building in the air toward reductive, spare formats.

In fact shows are often planned as mech as a decade in advance, so the idea that they reflect some finger on the social pulse and relay current communal needs--for clarity, for perceptual and psychological closure after five decades of post modern open-endedness--seems to me to be the easy way out of this discussion.

Museums communicate corporately, much like studios and any other viable commerce in the age of mass media. We see one film about dead people and fourteen permutations on the theme later we have a "spiritual ethos." And though some are loathe to call Minimal (and some minimal) art truly post modern because much of it quotes so directly ideas from Constructivism, Dada, Schwitters, etc., what is distinctly post modern about the recent venues of reductive art is how they lay bare the central mechanism of post modern cultural practice: legitimation.

We might be inclined to ask whether this is a viable revival and why it comes just now, what it might mean, but if we take some social construction of reality as an unavoidable given--and we must in 2004--these sorts of questions will always be trumped by the question of what power legitimates any post modern recycling at any given time. "Why " will always be subsumed in whole or part by "who."

If we explain these shows as a search for clarity in troubled times, we may lose sight of something that is probably more enduring, and therefore reassuring in the sea of uncertainty, that the current interest in clean cubes is here (or so we are told) to hold at bay: things never change. The thing that never changes and will never change (even as governments move radically to the political right and are decent only when we catch them in the act; even as Islamic tribal leaders who decry modernism use, in true Warholian fashion, mass media to inure us to horror; even as the last Marxist outposts discover Coke and embrace marketing) is that culture is a form of commodity. We cannot go back from this. A cultural idea is proffered as new (or in post modernist terms as "renewed"). It sends its (these days) instantaneous versions into the sphere of cultural (re)production. These are reified by power purveyors who pronounce a trend--formal, psychic, political, toward clarity, toward whatever--and lo and behold, twenty-five people call me to ask for a "top dealer who can help sell their Carl Andres to top museums at top price." With enough critical mass, this wave moves to our academies--art schools, grad schools, think tanks--and before long, we speculate about an ethos, in this case, a desire for formal clarity.


John McCracken, "Blue Post and
Lintel I," 1965, plywood/fiberglass
and lacquer, 102 x 32 x 17".











Richard Artschwager, "Step On, See,"
1966, formica on wood, wallpiece:
36 x 36 x 10", floor piece,
53 1/2 x 33 x 34 1/2".











Judy Chicago, installation view of
works, "Minimal Future" exhibition.











Sol Lewitt, installation view of work
in "Minimal Future" exhibition.

More than telling us anything about deep psychic needs, in fact what we are witnessing tells us more about the market economy and the quirky and reassuringly predictable way it works within the art machine. I am not suggesting here that art does not and cannot serve as a compelling, analogical barometer for mysterious things, for quintessential desires like the need for a controllable world and a knowable self; I am not suggesting that art does not and cannot speak magically and symbolically to us about who we are often before we can look to those internal places directly; I am not suggesting that our critical thinkers do not provide guideposts. I agree with the view of Jean-Françcois Lyotard that some art is art because of its ability to "present the unpresentable," i.e. anticipate a zeitgeist, cathect a need, plumb the sublime. But as we ostensibly move toward the post Post Modern (yes, two posts) and as such begin to notice and construct in dialectical fashion a return to eternal grand narratives like "Clarity," "Beauty," and "Order," I think it is dangerous to lose criticality and relegate analysis under a quick "return to geometry in tense times" type of argument. To lose sight of who constructs this new clarity, how systems design its edges and its contours aesthetically and politically, that is a dangerous thing, especially now.

Donald Kuspit, as early the mid-1990s in an essay called The Contradictory Character of Post Modernism, was already warning us that theory could devolve into its own self sustaining ideology. He warned that theory--designed to show the way--could end up its own hall of mirrors, reflecting itself again and again, reverberating with in-house lingo, cognoscenti banter and no real signification beyond its own existence and the egos of its players. Similarly, in his recent book After Theory, Terry Eagleton, once a diehard post modern theorist, raises questions about the tail end of post modernism--presumably where we find ourselves in this supposed return to order. He also worries that theory, itself commodified and running on mystique, will lose real criticality, and that analysis, exhibitions, criticism will move away from uncovering defining structures at a time when such analysis is sorely needed.

What can we learn about the state of criticality from ideas reflected in these shows? What can we learn about the non-linear relationships between an "ethos" and ideology? If, by having fallen into what Kuspit suggests is exhausted theory, we accept a review of minimalism to glibly end at "the desire for clarity,” then not much.

There are other telling things to notice about these shows. At LACMA they call their effort Beyond Geometry and use Mimimal Art (big M) as a sort of springboard to look at a dizzying array of global minimalist (small m) production with an essentially anti-art, reductivist idea driving it. At LACMA there is an overly concerted effort to undo the idea that minimal and reductive styles are a Yankee invention. Since the ‘90s, U.S. hegemony and hubris have been grad-ually checked--we are seeing the escalated effects of this arc as everything the U.S. stood for seems exposed, like the little man behind the curtain posturing as the great and wise Oz. The result has been that everyone is quite careful at LACMA to share the stage with the global margins, to the detriment of understanding.



Cildo Meireles, “The Southern Cross,”
1969-1970, wood, 3/8 in x 3/8 in x 3/8 “.
Photo by Wilton Montenegro









Giulio Paolini, “Untitled (Plakat
Carton),” 1962, cardboard, wood,
polyethylene, 11 4/5 in x 11 4/5 “.
Photo courtesy Galleria Christian Stein.









Stanislaw Drozdz, "Between,"
1977, installation, room
size 10.7' x 17.2 x 23 feet.









Wojciech Fangor, "M 15,"
1968, o/c, 56 x 56".
In an effort to acknowledge that it takes a village, this show spreads the boundaries of inclusion so far that we lose any sight of what reductive art means. Case in point, the almost baroque canvases of Brazilian artist Mauricio Nogueira are tossed in with the Art as Language works of John Baldessari (Composing on Canvas). This show decides that geometry is global. This is a truism, as all of this art traces its roots back to Malevich and Gropius. But in fact the most important resuscitation of these ideas was a Yankee accomplishment after Communisim, Facism and the Third Reich managed to all but kill off avant garde thought. That is just a fact. American abstract and conceptually-based geometry put this sort of art back on the map.

Stretching to make this homey and global, to find a new twist on a theme, we see international "minimal art" that is really very dated and repetitive modernism (Rhod Ruthfuss' borrowing from DeStijl) made in places like Latin America, Poland, Holland, and dating from the 1940s and ‘50s. We read essays about the strong pockets for geometry in places outside the U.S., and we are guided toward the idea of a global reductive ethos that once looked for a utopian order amidst all the chaos and looks there again in similar times. The idea is pushed too far, and the inclusion of many Europeans here seems like fitting the step sister's huge foot in a tiny shoe. The forced fit becomes a bit of PC inclusiveness so romping it loses viable criticality about the complex and subtle possible relationship between form and ethos, to become in the end a visual list.

If at LACMA we get the a distorted picture of the global margins, at MOCA we get a distorted picture of an epicenter. A Minimal Future focused on American Minimal art with a big M and circumscribed a very specific moment in geometric aesthetics in the U.S. This show is closest to providing a straightforward definition of Minimalism: Art that strives very hard, works conspicuously to eliminate all information but essential form and the perception of form by artist and then by viewer. As such, and without really saying so, this exhibition highlights American Minimal Art of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that was not so much a post modern revolution (which is the thesis that is being pushed) as it was the last step in a Greenbergian desire to have art "self purify" itself. Art to modernist purists was that stuff out of which everything but form had been excised. To the lineage of Fry, Bell, Greenberg, and indeed Judd, what you see is what you see. Socio-political narrative, any narrative for that matter, philosophy, personal angst, the mystique of authorship, all these were arenas of speculation that fit with other disciplines and had no place in self-purified art. When you took everything away that was not "art," then you had "pure form," art's legitimate purview.

The result of a show that centers on such a concept at this time is to remove the soft edges of Minimalism, and as a consequence there are very few women closely considered who worked in and then through this style, who helped to define and also to challenge it, like Eva Hesse and very early Lynda Benglis. Hesse and even Judy Chicago were indeed included, but I for one perceived that the art of these women was subsumed under a foregone conclusion of stark minimalism, so that the particular way they made this work, or consistently pointed a way out of it was ignored. When curatorial decisions eliminate the work at the margins to highlight attention to order, to suggest "clarity," even if these decisions are sound and sincere scholarship, the resulting ethos is more created than real. In A Minimal Future there is an emphasis on the starkest masculine voices: Donald Judd, John McCracken, Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly.

I find it funny that in all the venues--Guggenheim, MOCA, LACMA--Kelly figures prominently as a primary exponent of "what you see is what you see," non-gushy, tell-it-like-it-looks purism. I interviewed Kelly many years ago, and instead of confirming all the Minimalist clichés he came across to me as a quiet and intensely lyrical man. He said that the stark edges of his canvases are often inspired by the contour of a leg casting a shadow in afternoon light, and recalled how he might stop his car to look at a field of yellow flowers. This humbled me to the mystery of art making. It reminded me of the remarkably complex circuitry between theory and practice, and made me suspicious of all art history labels, including now "The New Geometry." That Kelly's work is offered up in all these shows as the paradigmatic example of the heights to which reductive, logical object art can be taken, but its origins and etiologies are another matter.

By underscoring a utopian return to clarity while being less than critical in this conclusion, very few involved in these minimalist revivals have mentioned the real significance of truly reductive paradigms. As we take information out of art, there is a practical consequence that the viewer activate viewing, be involved in sign-making, enliven space, depth, and the construction of meaning. In a word, that viewers complete the art experience. In this idea of activated and participatory viewing lies the death of authority, the challenge to the white box, the intersection of activism and life, the origins of performance, new genres, installation, and just about every aspect of intertextual theory you might care to think of that bases meaning on shifting context. It is this feature of M(m)inimal art that distinguishes it from its older modern ancestors, makes it really contemporary, imbeds it in robust theory; and it is this aspect that might be more closely addressed before we decide on a "search for clarity."