The Bare Minimum: a Brief History of Minimalism in Visual Arts

In the domain of visual arts, minimalism was a post-World War II art movement that peaked in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But what was it about?

What Are the Characteristics of Minimalist Art

Minimalism as a movement, much like the minimalist art style, is associated with the 1960s and early 1970s and innovative American visual artists, many of whom were NYC-based. Some of the most famous minimalist artists include Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Agnes Martin, and Sol LeWitt. 

If you’re looking for the shortest, most straightforward definition of minimalism, we could call it an extreme form of abstract art. Nowadays, you will find minimalist art galleries in every major city of the world. However, some sixty years ago, the concept of minimalism was brand new, fresh, and exciting. And it would be a long time before it was fully embraced by the general audience.

What Does Minimalist Mean in Art?

Minimalism is a style of visual art that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the United States, with artists such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin creating large-scale installations of simple geometric forms. However, in Western art, minimalism really began prior to that and can be traced back to the post–World War II era.

How Can You Tell if Art Is Minimalist?

In minimalist art, the emphasis is on the essential elements of the work, with everything else removed or minimized. This can include reducing the amount of detail, using a limited color palette, or working with basic geometric shapes such as squares, circles, and lines.

Minimalist sculptures, paintings, and other minimalist works of art often feature bold geometric forms created with industrial materials like wood cubes and metal floor tiles. These pieces were confronted with sheer materiality without revealing anything but their relation to a viewer’s physical self-creating an immersive experience that revealed nothing about itself except its own bareness.

What Defines Minimalist Art?

Minimalist works often incorporate light and movement, creating an immersive experience for the viewer. It is characterized by a focus on simplicity, clarity, and economy of form, often through the use of simple geometric shapes and monochromatic color palettes.

What Artists Are Considered Minimalist?

Some of the biggest names in the visual arts domain of minimalism are Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Anne Truitt, and Frank Stella. Their works range from minimalist sculptures and installation art to painting and drawing and often use industrial materials such as steel, concrete, and fluorescent lights.

Minimalism often reduces painting to its most essential elements. For instance, a cut or slit in the canvas disrupts the flat surface of the painting, creating a sense of depth and dimensionality. A single vertical line may create a sense of balance and harmony, while the white background allows the viewer to focus on the line.

What Are The Origins Of Minimalism?

The history of minimalism is rather fascinating. For instance, Japanese traditional design and architecture can be counted among its key influences. In these areas, the “Less is more” mantra and aesthetic lives on.

After World War II, many things were changing radically all over the world. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a group of artists working in New York City began to develop a new style of art that would come to be known as minimalism. Like every other movement, it was born against the backdrop of complex, diverse, and intriguing social and cultural circumstances. Minimalism is often seen as a reaction to abstract expressionism and modernism.

A number of different sources influenced these artists, including the work of the German artist Adolf Wislicenus, the Italian artist Lucio Fontana, and the American artist Frank Stella. They also drew inspiration from the writings of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the poet Ezra Pound, and the novelist William Carlos Williams.

The Early Beginnings of the Minimalist Art Style

As stated above, minimalism can be traced back to a number of different sources, among which is the work of the German artist Adolf Wislicenus. In the early 1900s, Wislicenus developed a style of painting called “reductionism.” It was this style that was based on the belief that art should be reduced to its simplest, most essential elements. This has significantly impacted the development of Minimalism, as it provided a model for how art could be stripped down to its fundamentals.

Another important influence was the minimalist work of the Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, who is also known as the founder of Spatialism. In the 1950s, Fontana began to create “slash” paintings, in which he used a sharp object to puncture the canvas and create a slit or cut in the surface of the painting.

What Are the Characteristics of Minimalist Art?

What Does Minimalist Mean in Art

The very first minimalist paintings were characterized by their use of simple geometric shapes, often painted in a single color. In the rich history of minimalism, these early works were often compared to the work of the Russian constructivist artists of the 1920s, which were largely based on simple geometric forms. 

However, minimalists rejected constructivism’s ideological and political implications, focusing instead exclusively on the formal qualities of these works, and elements such as shape, size, and material. These artists used simple materials to make complex statements about their surroundings.

Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, and Sol LeWitt scarcely utilized color but did use a vast variety of tones, which added layers and complexity to each work. Donald Judd was not a fan of organic shapes. He felt they weren’t as effective or interesting to look at, and he made his minimalist sculptures out of cubes, boxes that are similar in shape but vary in depth. His installations would center around geometric precision. He also wanted to create compositions that would not continue the conventional European tradition but rather give him a degree of refreshing creative flexibility.

What Question About Art Did the Minimalists Seem to Be Asking With Their Works?

Artworks in minimalism aim to explore the elements of an art form instead of bringing attention to authorship. Oftentimes, these works are a combination of simple, geometric forms and industrial materials. Minimalist artists often seek to create a sense of purity and clarity in their work and to eliminate any extraneous or distracting elements. This can create a sense of serenity and calm in the viewer, as well as a heightened awareness of the formal qualities of the artwork itself.

The Message of Minimalism Artworks

The minimalist art style is a reaction against the complexity and turbulence of modern life, which many artists felt had become too abstract. The minimalist movement sought to simplify and flatten objects so the viewer can process them with ease. 

Minimalist work is often large in size and scale. Minimalist artwork was often criticized for its lack of context, with critics complaining that the work seemed too much like a theater production. Minimalists felt this comparison proved they have accomplished their goals.

In less than ten years since its inception, the minimalist movement has spread throughout Europe. Minimalists sought to change how we think about art. Minimalists and other movements like Pop Art were responding to the changing times by introducing radical changes to the domain of art.

Land art was another product of artistic changes and endeavors in late 1960s America. Although bordering with Conceptualism and Minimalism, Land art or Earth art is heavily influenced by environmentalism. It is a genre of painting that typically utilize shades from black to white, giving them depth when seen up close.

The Effect of Minimalism on Art

What Defines Minimalist Art

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, minimalism began to lose its popularity as artists such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat reintroduced more traditional elements into their work. However, minimalism never really fell completely out of favor. The powerful influence of minimalism is still lingering and can be seen in the work of many contemporary artists and minimalist art galleries. Minimalism’s original objectives are still being pursued through contemporary postminimal art practices.

Minimalism has had a significant influence on contemporary art and design, and its legacy can be seen in everything from architecture and product design to fashion and advertising. Its emphasis on simplicity, clarity, and reduction has been embraced by many artists and designers as a way to create works that are both elegant and functional.

It is an ever-popular trend in interior design, with key features being simplicity in terms of colors, textures, and shape. Minimalist interior design employs essential, functional elements within an open floor plan. It uses clean lines and a monochromatic palette. A pop of color here and there is used to add an accent touch.