Minimalist Art

The Minimalist art of the 1960s, produced by Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and others, reduced art to its bare elements in reaction to the flamboyance of Abstract Expressionism. By paring down their materials, forms, and procedures, the... [more]


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John McCracken at David Zwirner, Sep. 2008

    Light and form are not new subjects for John McCracken. A pivotal minimalist working since the mid-sixties, the artist’s latest exhibition at David Zwirner gallery dictates why, after forty years, McCracken is still a prolific artist. The success of the exhibition lies in the ephemeral quality of the subject matter. Although working within the vein of a traditional, minimalist practice, the exhibition unintentionally plays into the recent trends of manipulating organic matter into a new form of artistic beauty and mysticism. 

    Coming to prominence during the mid-sixties through the pioneering exhibition, “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum,   McCracken’s sculptures showcase the combination of minimalist utility and the readymade through his use of color and form. According to the artist, he is “primarily interested in form alone, but…color seemed a natural material to use because color is abstract.”  The planks featured in the current exhibition are long, rectangular forms that are lacquered in a bright spectrum to reflect and amplify every beam of light that hits them. The success of the work relies heavily on a well-lit environment, which the gallery provides. The resin-coated planks create a twisted and contoured reflection of oneself and the minutiae within the space—turning the world into a candy-colored fun house of light and pattern. An important aspect of McCracken’s work is not how the work changes due to its’ environment, but how the space changes due to the impact of his sculptures within it.  

    When entering the latest exhibition at David Zwirner, the viewer is first confronted with a dim room of white planks. The color white, which is formed by the perception of all colors of light, is a self-referential metaphor for the entire exhibition, which features planks from all colors of the spectrum. (Image 1)  The pieces, arranged in a line at a forty-five degree angle, leave an unsettling first impression. Because of the planks positioning and the darkness of the room, one feels disoriented, almost seasick. The white of the wall and the white of the forms, combine to create an uneasy metamerism; it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Due to the conditions, the work creates an overbearing sense of self-awareness.

    The beauty of McCracken’s work is that he reduces content into an elegant geometric grammar. Relating to concepts within Kaizer Malevich’s Suprematism manifesto, McCracken reduces his concepts into its’ purest form. Unlike Malevich, though, the artist is using this language to speak on thought not feeling.  Taking steps away from genuine Minimalist thought, the artist has created a distinctive style by “manipulating the psychological and physiological processes inherent in abstraction”  by focusing on the vernacular of matter and shape, decreased to its most natural state, which creates a sense of fluidity between the space and the viewer.

    In affect, the viewer is confronted with solid figures structurally placed against a white wall. The arrangement of the work suggests a movement or rhythm as the viewer passes through the spectrum of light and dark shades. One is incorporated in the work through the way in which it is displayed; instead of hanging on the wall it is leaning against it, thereby making it approachable. It has entered the viewer’s space. Thus, a new dichotomy has been created between the viewer and the work of art. The work is not about the artist, but rather about the utility of a work of art within a space—a goal of Minimalist sculpture.

    Following the principles set by Clement Greenberg in Modernist Painting, Minimalism literally adopted the idea of removing painting “from its representational agenda to a new agenda in which the means of presentation became the object of representation.”   Essentially, Minimalists created objects that were purged of symbolism and removed from the ideas of pictorialism.

    As of late, New York has been inundated with exhibitions focusing on light, color and space as material—most notably Color Chart:  Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today at the Museum of Modern Art, and Olafur Eliasson’s Take your time at P.S. 1 and MoMA.  Like McCracken, Eliasson’s work employees the utility of materials to create a heightened sense of self-awareness and skew the viewer’s perception of space.   This trend is also present in a new wave of photography that is focusing on strange and mystical properties of organic materials.

    McCracken’s influence, whether or not noted, is apparent in that he is still exhibiting work constantly in the United States and abroad.  What must be questioned is the new wave of artists who are lightly treading into this practice. The success of any practice relies on one’s understanding of the past; McCracken is still a vital component of the gallery milieu, which indicates that the work of emerging and contemporary artists is not adding to the foundation that he has already lain.

Interview with Philippe Vergne by Paul Schmelzer

This is an interview by Paul Schmelzer on his blog

The co-curator of the 2006 Whitney Biennial discusses art, social change, and "genuine America": Through my day job—I'm managing editor of the Walker Art Center's magazine—I've encountered some amazing minds in contemporary art, from Yoko Ono to Julie Mehretu to, just for a handshake, Matthew Barney. But one of the figures that most stands out in my mind is French curator Philippe Vergne. He's organized some of the most compelling shows of recent years, from 2000's Let's Entertain: Life's Guilty Pleasures to the important 2003 exhibition on the "new internationalism in art," How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age. And in October, the Walker will premiere the world's first retrospective of works by Chinese-born, Paris-based artist Huang Yong Ping, curated by Vergne.
After eight years in Minneapolis, Vergne will be leaving in a few days to become the director of the new François Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris (or Venice, the location is still up in the air). On the occasion of his departure, I sat in on an interview between Vergne and Minneapolis artist Todd Norsten as they discussed, among other topics, Vergne's role as co-curator (with the Whitney's Chrissie Iles) of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. A few excerpts from the conversation, which is available as a pdf at, gives a hint why I'll be missing his thinking 'round these parts:

Todd Norsten: Do you think art can change the world?

Philippe Vergne: Yes. I want to believe it’s like the butterfly flapping its wings in Minnesota and creating a hurricane in Ulaanbaatar. And if it’s not true, well, I’ll still believe it’s a viable idea. Art provides a social contract—with audiences, with artists, with content, whether it’s coming from visual art or music or philosophy or films—that doesn’t find an obvious channel in everyday life. An art center provides a venue for something that won’t be on television, won’t be carried by major music distributors. Look at [Ellsworth] Kelly’s work. It’s tough. What justifies Kelly in a culture informed by the market, by entertainment, by a logic of efficiency? You have to work on that, you have to create an ideal space to promote and support that.

TN: That’s a good question: what does justify Ellsworth Kelly?

PV: What justifies Ellsworth Kelly or Matthew Barney or Kara Walker, or artists in general, is that they’re anomalies in a culture run by Cartesian logic—therefore, they are absolutely necessary. They create the unnameable, and if you don’t make a place for it, the coefficient of civilization goes down. What justifies Ellsworth Kelly or Thomas Hirschhorn or David Hammons is civilization.

TN: You’ve chosen to be in the Midwest. Being from the middle of the continent—and French—what kind of perspective will you bring to the Whitney Biennial?

PV: It’s actually interesting that two Europeans are doing the American biennial, because America occupies such a strange place in culture right now. I think the 20th century was when America became—it’s totally cliché—the dominant voice in diplomacy, politics, economics, and aesthetics, and I really think...

TN: It’s coming to an end?

PV: Not coming to an end, but there’s competition. The aesthetic that America has broadcast to the world has been dominating the discourse for the last 50 years. And it’s changing. Even the language about art has been dominated by American vocabulary. Like Minimalism. Minimalism was basically a village, like two blocks—two great blocks—in Manhattan. Then it went all over the world. Can you look at a Brazilian abstract piece of art without saying...

TN: It’s a Minimalism derivative.

PV: It is absurd... It’s a problem that something that was very provincial has become universal. When the Whitney decided to ask two Europeans who have been living in America to do the Biennial, it wasn’t necessarily to have European artists in the Biennial, but was to look at America with a European eye. The way Chrissie Iles and myself are reading
American art is very different from the way an American-born curator would look at it. To have two Europeans look at American art is a way to put some distance from this kind of superficial categorization, which I think also exists in America in terms of geography: you have New York and Los Angeles and there’s nothing in between. That’s really a mistake. There’s an amazing art community here, as well as an amazing university scene, music scene, and an incredible wealth of discourse being produced outside of the major visibility “highways.” There are fascinating underground scenes that one would not expect from Europe, or from New York. I think being in Minneapolis is to work with the contradiction of the culture—to be in America and not to be in what people think America is, which actually ends up being what America really is. It’s absolutely fascinating.