Anna Chave, Minimalism and Power

Following a previous post about Minimalist sculpture, I would like to delve further into this field. In 1990, the art historian Anna Chave published a paper, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power”, on Arts Magazine. The work is a sharp analysis of Minimalism’s communicative devices and approach to the matters of display and experience. I am not going to review the piece. Rather, I would like to develop some of the arguments put forward by the author to show a variety of interesting aspects of Minimalist art: the role of industrial materials; the idea of the artist as a labourer; the importance of the exhibition space.

Carl Andre Uncarved BlocksUncarved Blocks – Carl Andre – 1975

In his essay “Specific Objects”, the Minimalist artist Donald Judd emphasises the importance of new industrial materials in the production of sculpture. Judd himself worked with a variety of media from plexiglass to galvanised iron. Other sculptors such as Carl Andre showed a similar interest in new ways to construct interesting forms. In Six-Metal Fugue (for Mendelev), he arranged 1296 squared tiles made of six different metals, arranged in a pattern based on their atomic number from the lowest (aluminium) to the highest (lead). According to Chave, the use of innovative materials helped Minimalist artists fashion themselves as makers of industry and technology. However, we should not mistake this attitude for an endorsement of Capitalism. Carl Andre declared himself to be a Marxist and Robert Morris supported the idea of artists as labourers, apparently refusing ideas of individualistic glorification. Of course, beyond the statements, it is worth noting that these artists reached soon a great fame in the Western Capitalist art world and Morris was blessed with a solo show at the Whitney Museum and a retrospective at Tate as early as in 1970 and 1971 respectively.

Donald Judd Untitled 1974Untitled – Donald Judd – 1974

Minimalist art asserts its presence physically by occupying the exhibition space with solid masses of significant size. Chave calls this a “domineering, sometimes brutal rhetoric” which aims at controlling both the world inhabited by the gallery and the viewers’ aesthetic experience. Once, Carl Andre had one its pieces removed from a gallery. The work was made of timber blocks and it was causing the floor to collapse under its weight. Following the accident, the artist declared that he wanted to “seize and hold the space […] not simply fill it”. This episode may support Chave’s argument. Indeed, it shows that Minimalist artists were well aware of the issues of display and perception. For this reason, the Formalist critic Michael Fry criticised Minimalism as a “theatrical” art form (“Art and Objecthood”) and dismissed it as a failure to answer to poorer aesthetic concerns.


Donald Judd Untitled 1980-1984Untitled – Donald Judd – 1980-1984

After the ideals of pure aesthetics propagated by Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism attempted to recover the idea of a mediated aesthetic experience. For instance, Morris was interested in Modern theories of perception and was a follower of the so-called gestalt psychology, which played an important part in its creations. Chave sees these elements as an exercise of the artist’s control over the passive viewer. In fact, I believe this may be an exaggeration, as visible from a variety of statements by the artist themselves. For example, Judd’s interview with Michael Archer shows that the artist accepted chance in his work and that his method was much more tentative than Chave would let us think with her “rhetoric of power” theory. Nonetheless, this remains an intriguing theory which helps us catch a glimpse of the innovative methods employed by Minimalist artists in a period of great social and political turmoil such as the 1960s.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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