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Maximal exposure

An expansive investigation into the initiation and impact of Minimal art fills MOCA. And more is on the way.

March 14, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

If art movements were people, Minimalism would be a tough guy who sticks to basics and expresses no emotion. Think Donald Judd and his massive metal boxes, Carl Andre and his firebrick floor pieces, Dan Flavin and his fluorescent light sculptures. No fluff, no chatter, no personal touch. Just austere, geometric objects made of industrial materials.

Such is the stereotype. But curator Ann Goldstein had something different in mind when she organized "A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968," an enormous exhibition that opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art. If the result isn't a kinder, gentler Minimalism, it's certainly more expansive. Billed as a landmark investigation of the emergence of Minimal art, the surprisingly varied assembly of paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 40 artists fills the entire gallery space at the museum's California Plaza building.

"There's color, extreme shifts in scale, handmade objects and manufactured objects," Goldstein says of the artworks, which evolved in reaction to the romantic excesses of Abstract Expressionism. "The diversity embodies the contradictions of the movement. I thought I would try to define what the work was doing rather than try to fit it all into a category. The exhibition doesn't claim all these artists as Minimalists per se, but that their work together represents a key shift in the aesthetic discourse of the moment.

"These artists were seeking to redefine art and, in the process, address its structure, form, material and production," Goldstein says. "They were also addressing art's relationship to other objects, physical and temporal space, architecture and the spectator. These are works that one can walk around, look at the sides of paintings as well as the faces and think about the production. These may even be works that one walks on, and that was a radical change."

Along with the expected archetypal pieces -- a black painting by Frank Stella, giant L-beam sculptures by Robert Morris and a white gridded construction by Sol LeWitt -- there's a crumpled metal sculpture by John Chamberlain, whose trademark abstractions are baroque conglomerations of junked auto bodies. Claes Oldenburg, known for witty public monuments based on ordinary objects, is here too, with a vinyl-covered "Leopard Chair," apparently inspired by tacky furniture.

Art history books track Minimal art to a 1929 show of John Graham's paintings at the Dudensing Gallery in New York. "Minimalism derives its name from the minimum of operating means," art historian David Bulyuk wrote in the exhibition catalog. "Minimalist painting is purely realistic -- the subject being the painting itself."

But it took three decades for the movement to shape up as the umbrella for a wide range of work that was concerned with itself rather than the world outside or the feelings of its creators. Partly inspired by Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, Russian Constructivist art and Kasimir Malevich's Suprematist compositions, the artists' efforts encompassed monochromatic paintings by Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt and Brice Marden; Pop artworks by Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann; modular works by LeWitt; serial configurations by Mel Bochner and geometric sculptures by Andre, Judd and Morris.

Exhibitions and critical writings wrestled with all this work when it emerged and dubbed it variously: Primary Structures, Specific Objects, ABC art and Cool art. But Minimalism was the name that stuck. By March 1967, when Arts magazine emblazoned "A Minimal Future?" on its cover, Minimalism had taken the art world by storm and created a critical backlash. In the magazine's lead article, "Union-Made: Report on a Phenomenon," critic John Perrault gave Minimalism its due but took a skeptical view of its long-term importance.

"The current avalanche of Minimal art will pass," Perrault concluded, "as Pop has passed, to be supplanted by Eccentric Abstraction, Organic art, Sensuous art, Visionary art or who knows what new provisional and deceptive grouping. And just as most of the second-rate Pop artists have fallen by the wayside and the really good Pop artists continue to expand and develop their unique sensibilities, so too will all the minor Minimal artists, producing a boring glut of unimaginative, superficial variations on a worn-out theme, sink to their just reward, leaving perhaps three of four major artists for the history books and for the younger artists to oppose, contradict, love and hate."

Minimalism's legacy

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