Paul Bryant's Reviews > Minimalism

Minimalism by David Batchelor
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Aug 09, 2010

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Let's just consider the paintings - canvasses of varying sizes with a uniform coating of one colour or another, and that's it. The history of painted squares in Western art appears to be approximately as follows.

1) Black Square on White by Kazimir Malevich, 1913.

It's always bracing to find how many radical ideas were tried out even before the 1920s. KM's painting is a black square on the white canvas background and according to his madcap philosophising, all past, present and future paintings were this summarised and consumed. To adapt a phrase from the woman in the cafe in When Harry Met Sally, I'll have what he's just had.

2) White Square on White by Kazimir melevich, 1918.

A breakthrough, as now Malevich dispenses with the frankly unnecessary other colour. "I want you to plunge into whiteness and swim in this infinity" said KM. Okay, where do I stash my clothes? I don't want any cheeky gallery-goers making off with them.

3) White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951. (there was more than one)

John Cage called these paintings "airports for lights, shadows and particles" whereby he intended to alert us to the profound truth that if we thought the white painting contained nothing we were wrong, the void is an illusion, there is always something there, ah grasshopper, you have much to learn, let's read Alan W Watts. (Note : must reread Alan W Watts).

4) Abstract Painting, 1956 and Abstract Painting No 5 by Ad Reinhardt, 1962

"The one object of fifty years of abstract art is to present art as art and nothing else, making it purer and emptier, more absolute and more exclusive - non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-subjective, non-expressionist" says Advert (professionally known as Ad).
This was indeed a mystical holy grail for avant-gardists in the 20th century, to try and remove themselves from being hi-jacked by the filth of commerce, the loud brutality of politics and the horror of psychology. Of course it's all crazy talk, you can't do it, you're stuck here with the rest of us stupid yahoos, and you have to eat and pay the rent and fall in and out of love like everybody. This kind of quest for purity is religious and you can see it most clearly in Mark Rothko.

Actually Ad Reinhardt got stuck in his own metaphysical corner because he declared his monochrome to the the ultimate picture and then proceeded to paint nothing else.

5) Affectionate, 1954, Apparition, 1959 and Study for a Homage to the Square, 1972 by Josef Albers

I don't have any notes about these but yes, they're all white squares.

6) Blue Monochrome by Yves Klein, 1960

A few of YK's monochromes were carmine pink but the famous electric ultramarine took over rapidly. By 1960 the canvasses were 6 feet by 5 feet. In 1957 YK exhibited eleven identical monochromes. All of the paintings were priced differently.

7) Bordeaux : Black Blue Black by Bob Law, 1977

8) Cast, Archive, Untitled and Alternate (and many others) by Richard Ryman, 1965-88

Ryman subverts the declared quest for purity by doing his white monochromes with many different materials (oil, baked enamel, paper, vinyl, acetate emulsion), different brushes, different surfaces (canvas, linen, cotten, wood, cardboard, steel, plexiglass, aluminium). One art critic wrote that RR presents his white painting "with such ardor that the coolest of cool paintings begins to emit an unexpected warmth, its pervasive white so nuanced that monochromy appears imperceptibly to break up into a rainbow array of chromatics". Okay, maybe I'll have what he's having too.


Minimalism seems like the moment when some artists said Hold on, let's just calm down a little here, I can't hear myself think! It was clear and calm. I like it a lot. But as you see, art abhors a vacuum and no one wants to bend your ear more about stillness, silence and purity than a guy who's just painted a large white canvas.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Mon (new)

Mon I wish I can say the same thing in my art crit session without getting my head blown off

message 2: by Paul (last edited Aug 09, 2010 04:23AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant On Goodreads you can say what you like!

message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye I was right into all of this stuff, until I started to realise that the only thing that varied between the different artists' squares was their verbal theory.

The art couldn't survive without a theory to explain it.

And they were usually such poor writers.

Paul Bryant Your insight also occurred to Tom Wolfe with the force of a thunderclap and then he wrote The Painted Word.

message 5: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Of course, I bought it as a result of some favourable reference in one of your rants.

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