Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is set out to expose the essence or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. Minimalism is any design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.

As a specific movement in the arts it is identified with developments in post–World War II Western Art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s. Prominent artists associated with this movement include Donald Judd, John McCracken, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Anne Truitt, and Frank Stella. It is rooted in the reductive aspects of Modernism, and is often interpreted as a reaction against Abstract expressionism and a bridge to Postminimal art practices.

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The terms have expanded to encompass a movement in music which features repetition and iteration, as in the compositions of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Minimalist compositions are sometimes known as systems music.The term “minimalist” is often applied colloquially to designate anything which is spare or stripped to its essentials. It has also been used to describe the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett, the films of Robert Bresson, the stories of Raymond Carver, and even the automobile designs of Colin Chapman. The word was first used in English in the early 20th century to describe the Mensheviks.

Minimalism in Design

The term minimalism is also used to describe a trend in design and architecture where in the subject is reduced to its necessary elements. Minimalist design has been highly influenced by Japanese traditional design and architecture. In addition, the work of De Stijl artists is a major source of reference for this kind of work. De Stijl expanded the ideas that could be expressed by using basic elements such as lines and planes organized in very particular manners.

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe adopted the motto “Less is more” to describe his aesthetic tactic of arranging the numerous necessary components of a building to create an impression of extreme simplicity, by enlisting every element and detail to serve multiple visual and functional purposes (such as designing a floor to also serve as the radiator, or a massive fireplace to also house the bathroom).

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Designer Buckminster Fuller adopted the engineer’s goal of “Doing more with less”, but his concerns were oriented towards technology and engineering rather than aesthetics. A similar sentiment was industrial designer Dieter Rams’ motto, “Less but better” adapted from Mies. The structure uses relatively simple elegant designs; ornamentations are quality rather than quantity. The structure’s beauty is also determined by playing with lighting, using the basic geometric shapes as outlines, using only a single shape or a small number of like shapes for components for design unity, using tasteful non-fussy bright color combinations, usually natural textures and colors, and clean and fine finishes. Using sometimes the beauty of natural patterns on stone cladding and real wood encapsulated within ordered simplified structures, and real metal producing a simplified but prestigious architecture and interior design. May use color brightness balance and contrast between surface colors to improve visual aesthetics. The structure would usually have industrial and space age style utilities (lamps, stoves, stairs, technology, etc.), neat and straight components (like walls or stairs) that appear to be machined with equipment, flat or nearly flat roofs, pleasing negative spaces, and large windows to let in lots of sunlight. This and science fiction may have contributed to the late twentieth century futuristic architecture design, and modern home decor. Modern minimalist home architecture with its unnecessary internal walls removed probably have led to the popularity of the open plan kitchen and living room style.

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Another modern designer who exemplifies reductivist ideas is Luis Barragán. In minimalism, the architectural designers pay special attention to the connection between perfect planes, elegant lighting, and careful consideration of the void spaces left by the removal of three-dimensional shapes from an architectural design. The more attractive looking minimalist home designs are not truly minimalist, because these use more expensive building materials and finishes, and are relatively larger.

Influences from Japanese tradition

The idea of simplicity appears in many cultures, especially the Japanese traditional culture of Zen Philosophy. Japanese manipulate the Zen culture into aesthetic and design elements for their buildings.  This idea of architecture has influenced Western Society, especially in America since the mid 18th century. Moreover, it inspired the minimalist architecture in the 19th century.
Zen concepts of simplicity transmit the ideas of freedom and essence of living.  Simplicity is not only aesthetic value, it has a moral perception that looks into the nature of truth and reveals the inner qualities of materials and objects for the essence. For example, the sand garden in Ryoanji temple demonstrates the concepts of simplicity and the essentiality from the considered setting of a few stones and a huge empty space.

The Japanese aesthetic principle of Ma refers to empty or open space. That removes all the unnecessary internal walls and opens up the space between interior and the exterior. Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by the design element of Japanese sliding door that allows to bring the exterior to the interior. The emptiness of spatial arrangement is another idea that reduces everything down to the most essential quality.

The Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi values the quality of simple and plain objects.  It appreciates the absence of unnecessary features to view life in quietness and reveals the most innate character of materials.  For example, the Japanese flora art, also known as Ikebana has the meaning of let flower express itself. People cut off the branches, leaves and blossoms from the plants and only retain the essential part from the plant. This conveys the idea of essential quality and innate character in nature.

MA is manifest in Japanese living architecture, garden design and flower arrangement (Ikebana). However, far from being just a spatial concept, MA is ever-present in all aspects of Japanese daily life, as it applies to time as well as to daily tasks.

Minimalism in Art

In a more broad and general sense, one finds European roots of minimalism in the geometric abstractions of painters associated with the Bauhaus, in the works of Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and other artists associated with the De Stijl movement, and the Russian Constructivist movement, and in the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. Minimal art is also inspired in part by the paintings of Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Josef Albers, and the works of artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio Morandi, and others. Minimalism was also a reaction against the painterly subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism that had been dominant in the New York School during the 1940s and 1950s.

Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967, National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa

Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967, National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa

Artist and critic Thomas Lawson noted in his 1977 catalog essay Last Exit: Painting, minimalism did not reject Clement Greenberg’s claims about modernist painting’s reduction to surface and materials so much as take his claims literally. According to Lawson minimalism was the result, even though the term “minimalism” was not generally embraced by the artists associated with it, and many practitioners of art designated minimalist by critics did not identify it as a movement as such. Also taking exception to this claim was Clement Greenberg himself; in his 1978 postscript to his essay Modernist Painting he disavowed this incorrect interpretation of what he said; Greenberg wrote:

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There have been some further constructions of what I wrote that go over into preposterousness: That I regard flatness and the inclosing of flatness not just as the limiting conditions of pictorial art, but as criteria of aesthetic quality in pictorial art; that the further a work advances the self-definition of an art, the better that work is bound to be. The philosopher or art historian who can envision me — or anyone at all — arriving at aesthetic judgments in this way reads shockingly more into himself or herself than into my article.

In contrast to the previous decade’s more subjective Abstract Expressionists, with the exceptions of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt; minimalists were also influenced by composers John Cage and LaMonte Young, poet William Carlos Williams, and the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. They very explicitly stated that their art was not about self-expression, unlike the previous decade’s more subjective philosophy about art making theirs was ‘objective’. In general, Minimalism’s features included geometric, often cubic forms purged of much metaphor, equality of parts, repetition, neutral surfaces, and industrial materials.

Robert Morris, an influential theorist and artist, wrote a three part essay, “Notes on Sculpture 1-3”, originally published across three issues of Artforum in 1966. In these essays, Morris attempted to define a conceptual framework and formal elements for himself and one that would embrace the practices of his contemporaries. These essays paid great attention to the idea of the gestalt – “parts… bound together in such a way that they create a maximum resistance to perceptual separation.” Morris later described an art represented by a “marked lateral spread and no regularized units or symmetrical intervals…” in “Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects”, originally published in Artforum, 1969, continuing to say that “indeterminacy of arrangement of parts is a literal aspect of the physical existence of the thing.”

The general shift in theory of which this essay is an expression suggests the transitions into what would later be referred to as postminimalism. One of the first artists specifically associated with minimalism was the painter, Frank Stella, four of whose early “black paintings” were included in the 1959 show, 16 Americans, organized by Dorothy Miller at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The width of the stripes in Frank Stellas’s black paintings were often determined by the dimensions of the lumber used for stretchers, visible as the depth of the painting when viewed from the side, used to construct the supportive chassis upon which the canvas was stretched. The decisions about structures on the front surface of the canvas were therefore not entirely subjective, but pre-conditioned by a “given” feature of the physical construction of the support.

In the show catalog, Carl Andre noted, “Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting.” These reductive works were in sharp contrast to the energy-filled and apparently highly subjective and emotionally-charged paintings of Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline and, in terms of precedent among the previous generation of abstract expressionists, leaned more toward the less gestural, often somber, color field paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Although Stella received immediate attention from the MoMA show, artists including Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Robert Motherwell and Robert Ryman had also begun to explore stripes, monochromatic and Hard-edge formats from the late 50s through the 1960s.

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Because of a tendency in minimal art to exclude the pictorial, illusionistic and fictive in favor of the literal, there was a movement away from painterly and toward sculptural concerns. Donald Judd had started as a painter, and ended as a creator of objects. His seminal essay, “Specific Objects” (published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965), was a touchstone of theory for the formation of minimalist aesthetics. In this essay, Judd found a starting point for a new territory for American art, and a simultaneous rejection of residual inherited European artistic values. He pointed to evidence of this development in the works of an array of artists active in New York at the time, including Jasper Johns, Dan Flavin and Lee Bontecou. Of “preliminary” importance for Judd was the work of George Earl Ortman, who had concretized and distilled painting’s forms into blunt, tough, philosophically charged geometries. These Specific Objects inhabited a space not then comfortably classifiable as either painting or sculpture. That the categorical identity of such objects was itself in question, and that they avoided easy association with well-worn and over-familiar conventions, was a part of their value for Judd.

This movement was heavily criticised by modernist formalist art critics and historians. Some critics thought minimal art represented a misunderstanding of the modern dialectic of painting and sculpture as defined by critic Clement Greenberg, arguably the dominant American critic of painting in the period leading up to the 1960s. The most notable critique of minimalism was produced by Michael Fried, a formalist critic, who objected to the work on the basis of its “theatricality”. In Art and Objecthood (published in Artforum in June 1967) he declared that the minimal work of art, particularly minimal sculpture, was based on an engagement with the physicality of the spectator. He argued that work like Robert Morris’s transformed the act of viewing into a type of spectacle, in which the artifice of the act observation and the viewer’s participation in the work were unveiled. Fried saw this displacement of the viewer’s experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art. Fried’s essay was immediately challenged by postminimalist and earth artist Robert Smithson in a letter to the editor in the October issue of Artforum. Smithson stated the following: “What Fried fears most is the consciousness of what he is doing–namely being himself theatrical.”

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