‘There is a problem with minimal art: it never existed. At least, for most of the artists …it was at best meaningless and at worst a frustratingly misleading term’. David Batchelor, in his book, Minimalism, sets out to find the common ground among five celebrated minimalist artists, Carl Andre, Don Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt and Robert Morris. He also notes that the similarities are also the ground on which differences are developed. [Batchelor, 1997: 6] James Meyer, in his book, Minimalism: art and polemics in the sixties, takes seriously the claim of Le Witt that no one has successfully defined minimalism. Rather, Meyer presents minimalism as a critical debate that developed in response to the three-dimensional work of, among others, Andre, Judd, Anne Truitt, Morris, Flavin, and Le Witt. Their work invited an unusual amount of critical attention and minimalism cannot be understood apart from the extraordinary debates that surrounded the new art. [Meyer, 2001: 3-5]

Written for Arts Yearbook 8 in 1965, Donald Judd’s seminal essay, ‘Specific Objects’, challenged Greenbergian modernism and set forward ideas for art to move beyond painting and sculpture. It is a highly selective account that weighed the merits of recent practices and their relevance to the new work. [Meyer, 2001: 134] Judd began his essay by stating that the best new work in recent years is neither painting nor sculpture but particular forms producing fairly definite qualities. He stated that the use of three dimensions were an obvious alternative to move away from, and against painting and sculpture, and that these negative reasons were what held the diverse new works in common. [Judd, 1965: 181] Judd claimed his objections to painting and sculpture were not a judgement on the developments of the latest advances in modernist art but ‘a disinterest in doing it again’. [Judd, 1965: 181] 


Judd firstly set out his arguments against modernist painting. ‘The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it’. In painting, he continued, the edges of the rectangle are the boundary and the end of the picture, and the composition within reacts with those edges. [Judd, 1965: 182] He featured the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, noting how the rectangle was emphasised, and the broad simple elements closely corresponded to it. For Judd, the new painting established the rectangle as a definite form. [Judd, 1965: 182]

Equally importantly, he continued, the space within the rectangle is almost traditionally illusionistic, that is, ‘…anything spaced in a rectangle and on a plane suggests something in and on something else, something in its surrounds, which suggests an object or figure in its space’. [Judd, 1965: 182] Judd’s concern was that the time honoured media were essentially pictorial in nature and the tendency of both to resolve a pictorial scheme, set up an objectionable anthropomorphic European derived order. [Meyer, 2001: 134] Nonetheless, the painters that Judd highlights were, in his view, only ‘beginnings’. Although the mural scale and wholeness of Pollock and Newman were foundational for the new art, the work of these artists, radical as it was, still suggested the illusionism that Judd believed painting inevitably must. [Meyer, 2001: 135]

Addressing modernist sculpture, Judd says, ‘Most sculpture is like the paintings that preceded Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman’, that is, abstract, broad in scale, with the materials more emphasised. Like painting, the imagery involves resemblances to other visible things, with some more oblique references, and the parts and the space are allusive, descriptive, and anthropomorphic. [Judd, 1965: 183] He attributed the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain as ‘beginnings’ to the new work. Although composed primarily of imagery from earlier painting, Judd described Chamberlain’s work as unified through the use of three dimensions, particular material and definitive colour. [Judd, 1965: 183] Judd also praised the figurative works of Yayoi Kusama and Claes Oldenburg as exemplary specific objects. Instead of representing common items in illusionistic space they are presented as objects. Judd claimed Oldenburg’s giant scale divested the objects of their usual human associations and emotions to simply exist as objects; that is, they are no longer anthropomorphic. [Meyer, 2001: 135]

For Judd, painting and sculpture had become set forms. Three dimensions were the logical space to move into, and he claimed it would be more significant than both painting and sculpture. Judd described the use of three dimensions as ‘real space’ and ‘actual space’, that is, intrinsically specific and anti-illusionistic. He stressed that any materials could be used, even materials not yet used in art or not yet invented. [Judd, 1965: 184, 187] Judd believed the new works finally had one quality, being made according to complex purposes and asserted through the one form making them intense, clear and powerful. ‘They are not diluted by an inherited format [of] ‘…European art [that] had to represent a space and its contents as well as have sufficient unity and aesthetic interest’. [Judd, 1965: 187]

However, Judd’s partiality was revealed when he described the new art, claiming that synthetic materials were less illusionistic and allusive than traditional materials and valorizing the kind of work that he himself had begun to produce. Both Robert Smithson and Rosalind Krauss pointed out the arbitrariness of his claim that specificity and materials went hand in hand, noting, on the contrary the inherent materiality of Judd’s own work. Both Smithson and Krauss were drawn to Judd’s work because it was not so easily seen and not so specific as he claimed; that is, illusionistic. Judd later claimed that the only objectionable illusion was the spatial illusion of painting, that illusionism in objects was somehow not a problem, fundamentally unavoidable, and that inevitably all art had illusion of one kind or another. [Meyer, 2001: 138]

Furthermore, Judd claimed in his essay, that a work of art need only be ‘interesting’ and this has been interpreted as a rebuke of Greenberg’s notion of taste; the idea that good works of art possess a certain formal quality that a viewer can know. [Meyer, 2001: 139] Interestingly, Judd later claimed that he and Greenberg actually wanted the same thing: quality. In his essay, Judd mentioned many artists, but only highlighted a few, Pollock, Newman, Oldenburg, Kusama and Chamberlain. For Judd, ‘interesting’ didn’t automatically imply greatness, and throughout his career as artist and critic, he invested deeply in knowing the difference. [Meyer, 2001: 140] Moreover, his essay was not a move outside of the conceptual framework of modernism but rather a displacement. Judd’s simultaneous proximity to, and distance from, Greenberg, was a formidable challenge to modernism itself, opening up, perhaps more than Judd would have liked, the theory and practice of postmodernism. [Meyer, 2001: 141]

Marcel Duchamp has been recognised as having an enormous influence on the development of western art in that, what an artist does, and what an object does, is paramount to the evolution of art. [Battcock, 1968: 35] The obvious example of a work of art which is both merely an object and at the same time more than an object is the ‘readymade’. [Batchelor, 1997: 65] Judd cited the work of Duchamp as foundational to minimalism, but viewed him in largely formalist terms, and much like Greenberg valued the readymades as actual objects, not merely concepts. He valued them for their wholeness but considered they still alluded to their everyday origins and were therefore interpretable and not purely specific. Judd understood Duchamp’s readymades as a step beyond cubism, and together with dadaism, were ‘beginnings’ to the new work. [Meyer, 2001: 139] Most importantly though, Greenberg’s claim of linear continuity of formal innovation from Manet to Louis without a break, is challenged by Judd’s claim that modern art crossed between media and dissolved the boundary between modernism and dada. In response to Greenberg’s continuity Judd stated, that ‘Linear history has unravelled somewhat’. [Meyer, 2001: 139]

In 1967, in the catalogue to the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts exhibition American Sculpture of the Sixties, Greenberg, in ‘Recentness of Sculpture’, said, the ‘borderline between art and not-art had to be sought in the three dimensional, where sculpture was, and where everything material that was not art also was.’  It was in this context that Michael Fried, in his 1967 essay, ‘Art and Objecthood’ defined his term ‘objecthood’ as being not-art, or more specifically, not modernist painting or sculpture. At the same time he defined modernist painting and sculpture as not objects. This set up a sharp contrast between modernist art and what Fried referred to as ‘literalist art’. He claimed the demands of art and the conditions of objecthood were antithetical. [Fried, 1967: 152-153] Fried described literalism as largely ideological, and if it distinguished itself from modernist painting and sculpture, then it also defined itself in relation to modernist painting and sculpture, and aspired to occupy its position. [Fried, 1967: 148-149]

Although it was Greenberg that began the defence of modernism against minimalism in the mid 1960s, it was Fried’s essay that was the first articulate version of this defence. More importantly, it was this essay that became minimalism’s most lasting analysis, and transformed a previously contentious field into a recognised phenomenon. Meyer claims that it was Fried’s essay that more or less invented minimalism for later critics. [Meyer, 2001: 229] The essay can also be understood as a declaration of independence from Greenberg. It was Greenberg’s call in the nineteen-sixties for a pictorial flatness in painting that seemed to Fried to have no better followers than the literalists. [Meyer, 2001: 231] Both Fried and Judd discerned the limits of flatness, that being the blank canvas itself, as a condition of not being, a point where a painting ceased to be a painting and became an object. The difference between Judd and Fried is that Judd celebrated the end of painting and the beginning of objecthood, but Fried envisioned a revival for painting. [Meyer, 2001: 236]

Modernist painting had, to Fried, the need to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, and that the crucial factor in this was shape, but shape that must belong to painting, being pictorial, not literal. He believed literalist art staked everything on shape as a given property of objects, and that it aspired to define and project objecthood. [Fried, 1967: 151] Fried claimed that paintings were not objects, nor had they been perceived as objects, and even when that possibility emerged in the 1960s, it was the result of developments in modernist painting. He believed that the ‘entire history of painting since Manet could be understood as consisting in the progressive revelation of its essential objecthood through the medium of shape’ and therefore the more urgent the need for modernist painting to defeat or suspend its objecthood. [Fried, 1967: 160] So, for Fried, literalism responded to the same developments by embracing objecthood, and that this was precisely what made objecthood an issue for modernist painting. [Fried, 1967: 161]

Fried used the work of Anthony Caro as an example of specific resistance to the terms of objecthood. He described the I-beams, girders, cylinders, pipes, sheetmetal, and grill as the ‘mutual inflection of one element by another’, that ‘bestow significance on one another precisely by virtue of their juxtaposition’. [Fried, 1967: 161] He believed that Caro’s sculptures defeated or allayed objecthood by projecting a pictorial syntax. That is, the parts together did not form a mere object, but a visual language of fundamental meaningfulness, as though the possibility of meaning alone made the sculptures possible. Fried viewed Caro’s sculpture as a vanguard of antiliteralist reaction. [Fried, 1967: 162] Ultimately, Fried’s attack on Judd was essentially premised on the two tenets of modernist theory: the necessary separation and autonomy of painting and sculpture, and the unambiguous distinction between art and non-art. [Batchelor, 1997: 65]

In his essay, Fried raised a decisive question: ‘What is it about objecthood …that makes it, if only from the perspective of recent modernist painting, antithetical to art?’ The answer he proposed was this: ‘…the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing more than a plea for a new genre of theater; and theater is now the negation of art.’ [Fried, 1967: 153] The crucial distinction that Fried proposed in his essay was between work that was fundamentally theatrical and work that was not. Whatever the differences between Judd, Morris, Andre or Le Witt it is theatricality that Fried claimed held them in common. [Fried, 1967: 157] Like actual theatre, the literalist work blurred the distinction between a timeless visual art, that being a painting or sculpture, and a temporal experience, that being theatre. [Meyer, 2001: 233]

Within a modernist interpretation, a spectator viewing a modernist work, knows they are looking at a sculpture or painting. There is no confusion or doubt, and this awareness that the work is what it is fosters an awareness of oneself looking at the work, of being oneself, for a mere instance. This is what Fried described as ‘presentness’. [Meyer, 2001: 236] On the other hand, Fried described the literalist sensibility as being concerned with the situation of the viewer encountering a work, including the viewer’s body in relation to it, and the temporality of engaging the work in space. This is what he described as ‘presence’. [Fried, 1967: 153] Fried claimed that for modernist art the encounter of the work relied entirely on the specificity of the materials, and like the shape, the materials did not represent, signify, or allude to anything. According to Fried, it was the presentness of modernist painting and sculpture that defeated theatre. [Fried, 1967: 165-166]

In the years following these essays, the writings of Annette Michelson and Rosalind Krauss further developed and consolidated Judd’s and Fried’s arguments. It was Michelson particularly who systematically challenged Fried’s values in her essay, ‘Robert Morris’, in the catalogue to Morris’s 1969 retrospective exhibition. Where Fried valorized instantaneousness, Micheslson supposed perception in real time, where one privileged an ideal space, the other called for actual space. It was this point-by-point opposition that affirmed Fried’s analysis. [Meyer, 2001: 239-240] In 1977, in Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss goes on to reinforce the notion of art in real time and space into the broader field of post war art, even proposing a counter history of twentieth-century art that subverts the instantaneous visuality of the aesthetics of presentness. [Meyer, 2001: 241] According to Meyer, as a result of the critical writings of Michelson and Krauss, ‘Art and Objecthood’ and ‘Specific Objects’ emerged together as an ‘epistemological rupture’ connecting and separating modern and postmodern art. [Meyer, 2001: 242]

For Fried literalism failed as art because it negated the pictoriality of sculpture and painting, but for Krauss minimalism failed as art because it remained pictorial. To modernist critics minimalism was not pictorial enough and to postmodernist critics it was too pictorial. The interesting question is not who was right or wrong but what it would mean if both were right. If both modernist and postmodernist theory consistently failed to categorise minimalism, then conceivably it does reside at the juncture of modernism and postmodernism. [Batchelor, 1997: 66] Anna Chave, in her 1990 essay, ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power’ set out to show minimal art as authoritarian, domineering and complicit in the perpetuation of all things modernist, that is patriarchy, power, and profit. This is an important point, for it exposes the relationship of art with institutions and the mechanisms of power. What Greenberg, Fried and Judd may all have interpreted from different perspectives as the continuity of artistic practice, may simply be a continuum of institutional power. [Batchelor, 1997: 71]

Although it has been problematic to define minimalism as a movement, the debate that surrounded the new abstraction certainly developed into one of the most substantial narratives of contemporary art. Minimalism established a significant position in the turbulent period of art and polemics in the nineteen-sixties, and opened a window of opportunity for transition from modern to postmodern art. [Meyer, 2000: 6] In his essay Judd said, ‘The form of a work and its material are closely related’. He believed materials were simply materials, and specific, and if used directly, they were more specific. It is plausible then that it was the materials themselves that produced an inheritance for modernism. [Judd, 1965: 187] The common minimalist attributes of industrial materials, blank geometry, and repetition are commonplace in studios, galleries, offices and homes today. In purely formalist terms then, this is possibly minimalism’s greatest legacy. As Batchelor said, ‘Minimalism may never have existed, but its influence is everywhere’. [Batchelor, 1997: 75]

© Andy Vagg 2006


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