I never gave much thought to minimalism until this year. My art history education went straight from Pollock to identity-politics postmodernism, and I had no point of reference for the movement. If someone had asked what I thought of minimalism, I probably would have replied that I hated it, as the word brought to mind monochromatic canvases and white blocks indistinguishable from the plinths that hold what I considered “real” art. I assumed it was all about rules, austerity, and high-minded ideology. In short, I stereotyped minimalism as anti-fun and grueling to view.
As is probably obvious, I was very narrow minded about art for a long time. This was mostly due to stubborn traditionalism—painting was art, installation was a bunch of crap in a room—but some of my naïve irritation was justified. I still don’t understand the audacity it takes to declare a canvas painted flat white a finished work of art, and most of the work I see in galleries enrages me with its heavy-handed gaucherie. However! Thanks to the insistence of a dear friend, and a drive through west Texas, I discovered an abiding love for minimalism and, consequently, a more optimistic view of art in general.
A few weeks ago my friend convinced me that a visit to the Dia Foundation in upstate New York was worth the exorbitant price of a train ticket, and we set out into the bucolic Hudson Valley. I had seen a show of California minimalist art in Chelsea a few months before, and I expected to have a similarly spa-like experience at Dia: relaxing lights, saturated colors, and comfortingly simple forms. Our day trip to Dia left me not soothed but exultant and energized. There are many wonderful pieces there: Michael Heizer’s dizzying bottomless pits, On Kawara’s hypnotic date paintings, and Imi Knoebel's mysterious, inviting studio.
Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West
On Kawara, Date Paintings
Imi Knoebel, Raum 19
Donald Judd’s presence at Dia consists of a series of fifteen rectangular boxes partially painted red and green, a series of similar boxes hung on the wall, and a phenomenologically tricky sculpture that must be seen in person. The perfectly flush edges and bold colors of the plywood boxes are pleasing, but it is their variation that compels. Slightly different designs, all confined by the same exterior dimensions, draw the viewer into an insular logic. They are not comprehensive, because not every variation is present, and the ones that are do not follow a particular line of spatial inquiry. The viewer can only assume that Judd is adhering a list of guidelines rather than random impulse. The piece is maddening and tantalizing because it responds to a system the viewer cannot apprehend. The rules that governed its creation make the piece playful and intellectually engaging, and the boxes have a solid, monolithic presence that belies their cheap material.
Donald Judd, Untitled
In a way my assumptions were correct: minimalism is about rules, but this is its most charming quality. Much of the minimalist work at Dia, and Judd’s boxes in particular, reminded me of the game Set. For those unfamiliar, Set is a card game based on four variations: shape (diamond, squiggle, pill), color (red, green, purple), texture (solid, striped, empty), and quantity (one, two, three). Each possible combination of variations appears once in the deck. Nine cards are laid out, and players must identify sets of three that share either all or none of the variations. To an observer, a game of Set is a rapid fire battle following no discernible logic. It is difficult to grasp the rhythm of game, but once you do, it’s addictive and gratifying. Judd’s work is like stumbling across the aftermath of a colossal game of Set played by extraterrestrial visitors. Rather than constricting, the structured variation of his practice affords the viewer great pleasure.
A game of Set, with example sets
I saw a perfected example of this principle at Judd’s desert utopia, the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa, Texas. Chinati’s collection falls short of Dia’s (partly due to an excessive allocation of space to the junkyard clichés of John Chamberlain), but the setting can’t be beat. Similarly varied boxes, this time larger and made of polished aluminum, hold court in a massive artillery shed and reflect the dusty palette and enormous grasshoppers of the Texan desert. The enlarged scale intensifies the sense of discovering a game board long forgotten by greater beings. Viewers wander tentatively between the gleaming blocks, like explorers in an extraterrestrial archaeological site. The mysterious lights that regularly appear in the sky over Marfa encourage such reveries.
Donald Judd, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum
Very convincing photographic evidence of the mysterious Marfa lights
Minimalism at its finest is not at all simple: it’s a logic game, a test of variations, but what elevates it above dry didacticism is its pointlessness. It’s a balance between aesthetics and problem solving, completely bizarre when juxtaposed with a natural setting. The system is so deliberate it must have a purpose, but like the game of Set, it’s impossible to justify to someone who doesn’t immediately take a shine to it. Viewing Judd’s work, I felt simultaneously mindless and intellectual, like I was using my brain in a new way. Like the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was rendered speechless by an immaculate, mysterious form that seemed both ancient and futuristic.