Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Minimalism, also known as ABC Art or Minimalist Art, is a loose design movement which began in New York in the 1960s. A form of abstract art, minimalism eschews representation and ornamentation to focus on basic shapes and solid colors. The basic principle is to remove as many elements as possible in order to call attention to what remains.
Minimalism can be described as a reaction against the contemporaneous art movement Abstract Expressionism. The early minimalists were unimpressed by the confusion, complexity, materiality, and emotion of abstract expressionist artwork. Their response, inspired by such philosophies as Russian Suprematism, Dadaism, and Japanese Zen Buddhism, was to reduce art to the fundamental basics of line, shape, form, and color.
Common features of minimalist artwork include:
- Monochrome compositions.
- Smooth finish with no brushstrokes or artifacts.
- Hard edges and blocks of color.
- Repetition of forms and color blocks. This emphasizes the scale and arrangement of the forms.
- Optical depth. By reducing the composition to basics, minimalist artwork emphasizes the optical relationships between lines, shapes, and colors.
- Viscerality created through solid color blocks and larger-than-life scale.
- Lack of humanism / connection to the real world.
Kazimir Malevich was an abstract artist who founded Russian Suprematism in the 1920s and was a heavy inspiration for Minimalism. He believed that representation could not completely capture the artist’s emotion, and instead worked with basic shapes and solid colors like black and red. His most famous work is Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas. This was a radical departure from the traditionally representative art forms of the period.
Ad Reinhardt was a minimalist artist who focused on monochromes. Produced in the 1960s, his many untitled abstract paintings consisted of solid colors with underpaintings of colored squares. His work invites us to question what quantifies a “monochrome” and observe the depths of color possible in a single monochromatic composition.
Yves Klein was an extreme minimalist who held exhibitions featuring nothing but monochromatic canvases in a single color, which he patented as “International Klein Blue.” He also held an exhibition, Le Vide or The Void, which contained literally nothing; and wrote the Monotone-Silence Symphony which consisted of a 20 minute sustained chord followed by 20 minutes of silence. Klein was interested in pushing the boundaries of the art world and challenging the world’s definition of “art.”
Donald Judd was an American sculptor sometimes called the foremost expert on minimalism, due to his work on the 1964 minimalist manifesto “Specific Objects.” He disliked calling his work sculptures, preferring to call them “objects” as they were manufactured rather than sculpted. His many untitled works consisted of varying arrangements of identically sized boxes in steel, glass, and plastic. His philosophy was that “art should not be representational, but rather stand on its own.”
Tony Smith was an architect and sculptor who was fascinated by the visceral, monumental feeling that could be created when basic shapes and forms were scaled up to colossal scales. His most famous work, Die, was a black steel cube scaled up to 6 foot to a side. In eschewing all decoration or ornament, Smith invited viewers to contemplate the pure geometry and scale of his work.
Richard Serra was a sculptor and video artist who worked with large, curved pieces of wood and sheet metal. His work was frequently monumental and lacked any kind of observable representation or curation, consisting only of enormous pieces of material placed side by side. Serra’s giant curved sculptures draw attention by virtue of their visceral mass and gravity-defying placement.
In modern times, flat design can be considered a successor to minimalism. Much as minimalism was a reaction to abstract expressionism, this movement was a reaction to skeuomorphism or the imitation of real-world materials in digital interfaces. Flat design consists of blocks of solid colors with no texture, ornamentation, or animation, achieving beauty through form and alignment alone.