Objecthood and Theatricality in Minimalist Sculpture

In his essay “Specific Objects”, the sculptor Donald Judd defines Minimalist art as somewhat in between sculpture and painting. Judd rejected the severe distinction between the two genres established by Modernism. Influential critics, such as Clement Greenberg, praised the autonomy of art reached by Pollock’s abstract compositions and preached that each art form should focus on its distinctive characteristics. In the case of painting, these would be the geometric shape of the canvas, its bi-dimensionality, and the use of pigments. Minimalism rejected this ivory-tower understanding of art, which inevitably placed the aesthetic experience in a distant realm removed from reality. Rather, it reclaimed the importance of the viewer’s interaction with the works of art and thus created “objects” made to confront the spectator directly.

Untitled (Corner Piece) – Robert Morris

In his essay, Judd pinpoints some characteristics of traditional sculpture:

  • It is made of “discrete” parts which can be distinguished and separated visually.
  • It is organised following a hierarchical criterion, where each part serves the overall design.
  • The design is usually anthropomorphic, representing or hinting at natural forms.
  • There is seldom colour or polychromy.

Minimalist art overcomes these features, favouring the unitary shape and denying anthropomorphism. Indeed, the Minimalist creations claim the exhibition space by the means of their size and ask the viewer to experience them from a variety of viewpoints. While the Modernist approach favours a static and frontal form of engagement, Minimalism defines the aesthetic experience as something that happens “here” and “now”. Therefore, as the viewer moves around the artwork, the experience changes accordingly, provoking a variety of unique reactions.

Accession II – Eva Hesse

In his essay “Art and Objecthood”, the critic Michael Fried accuses Minimalism of descending into the realm of “non-art”. Following the formalist canons set by Greenberg, of whom Fried was a close follower, the author states that Minimalism has a “theatrical” vocation. It is not a pure art form, he claims, since it does not focus on its own expressive forms but rather aims at confronting the viewer to provoke an aesthetic reaction. While the Modernist work of art is far removed from reality and secluded by its own technical boundaries (such as the frame), in a Minimalist perspective the object creates a close relation with the space it occupies. For this reason, the critic Rosalind Krauss, another member of Greenberg’s cohort, underlines the phenomenological root of Minimalism, given its interest in the interrelation between viewer and object.

Untitled – Donald Judd

In his attempt to give a theoretical foundation to Minimalism, Judd expressed the importance of materiality. Several Minimalist objects could be made industrially and Judd himself was conscious of the potential of new materials such as formica or aluminium. As the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt states in his writings, the more the object focuses on its own materiality, the more extrinsic it becomes. In his Untitled piece, Judd created an open box made of four copper sides and an aluminium base. This is painted in red so that the shimmering quality of the material reflects the vibrant colour over the interior of the copper walls. In this way, the object becomes the catalyst of a prolonged aesthetic experience.

Untitled – Robert Morris

When Minimalism was established as a defined artistic movement in the 1960s, it had to fight against the dogmas of Modernism. This was not a mere change of aesthetic canons, it was rather a complete transformation of the understanding of arts, its status and function. In Minimalism, the artwork ceases being a self-contained window over the abstract realm of aesthetic. Descending into “objecthood”, the Minimalist creations occupy a place in the real world and engage the people within it. The aesthetic experience is now contextualised and rooted in its contingent setting.


Featured image

Corner Piece

Accession II

Untitled (Judd)

Untitled (Morris)

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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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