Minimalism Right-Sized, Reframed

An exhibit traces a genre’s profound impact on artistic expression and modern discourse

“Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present” charts the history and development of Minimalism, which along with Pop, has been the most influential artistic vocabulary and logic to emerge since Abstract Expressionism.

While glossing over, even ignoring, much of the contentious political and theoretical assertions of Minimalism—it is, after all, most associated with the late 60s—the exhibition presents a beautiful, at times even spiritual, story of its development during the past 43 years.

Most histories of Minimalism begin around John Cage’s Zen-inspired 1952 composition “4’33”” which consists of a pianist sitting at but not playing a piano for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds, hence shifting art’s focus from itself to a more direct and immediate perceptual experience of everyday reality. Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” from 1951 is said to have inspired Cage’s composition. Along with an example of Rauschenberg’s work, those of Ad Reinhardt, Piero Manzoni, Tony Smith, and Ellsworth Kelly occupy the first gallery of the exhibition.

The room sets the stage for a fairly accurate and cohesive narrative from Minimalism’s beginnings to its current manifestations.

After the heavy austerities of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Brice Marden, whose work concerns itself with primary forms and materials and notable self-references, the light-based work of James Turrell and Robert Irwin—along with Bruce Nauman’s sharp visceral reminders—come as welcome relief. Additionally, the work of Rachel Whiteread, Glenn Ligon, Wolfgang Laib, Robert Gober, and Roni Horn interweave social issues and breathe a poetic grace into the ascetic Minimalist vocabulary.

The late Felix Gonzales-Torres’s work always astounds, incredibly working themes of mortality, loss, decay, love, homosexuality, and AIDS into formally reductive paradigms. His work rescues Minimalism from a potentially dangerous form of solipsism by infusing it with an impressive emotional vitality and poignancy.

The most Zen moment of the show occurs not at the beginning, but rather at its end. At the top of the Rotunda’s coil hangs a large, recent monochromatic black work by Damien Hirst, which in fact you can smell before you really see. Dramatically titled “Armageddon,” it is a large canvas covered in a thick layer of housefly carcasses. When I was there, clumps of dead flies, which had fallen from the surface, clustered on the floor right below the piece. After noting a discrepancy in orientation between the catalog and the installation, I learned that the piece may be hung either vertically or horizontally.

At least at the outset, Zen, like minimalism, engaged itself in the radical premise of destroying any and all filters or frames between reality and “art.” Initially, its formal severity was linked to its political aims. What strikes me about “Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated)”—and this is something Peter Schjeldahl often argues—is that the formal structures and logic of minimalism have become the ordering logic of both contemporary art and our post-modern world.

Not unlike the way the Guggenheim relates to the Manhattan grid, Hirst’s “Armageddon”—with its palpable stench of death, its crumbling surface, and its either-way orientation—shakes and slightly loosens the bars of its frame.

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