The idea of the “academy” of art in the seventeenth century, of “aesthetics” in the eighteenth, of the “independence” of art in the nineteenth, and the “purity” of art in the twentieth, restate, in those centuries in Europe and America, the same “one point of view.” Fine art can only be defined as exclusive, negative, absolute, and timeless. It is not practical, useful, related, applicable, or subservient to anything else. . . The art tradition stands as the antique-present model of what has been achieved and what does not need to be achieved again. Tradition shows the artist what not to do. . . The first rule and absolute standard of fine art, and painting, which is the highest and freest art, is the purity of it. The more uses, relations, and “additions” a painting has, the less pure it is.(1)
In his 1953 essay, ”Twelve Rules for a New Academy”, Ad Reinhardt made his defiant, arrogant and sometimes contradictory stand against the “New York School,” the dominant model of abstract expressionism. He envisioned a new direction for painting, based primarily on negation and reduction, stating that a painting’s frame “should isolate and protect the painting from its surroundings” and that “space divisions within the painting should not be seen.”(2) With his infamous “black square paintings,” Reinhardt would define “space” as the elimination of color, where color becomes an ancillary property, a non-essential element expressed as negation.
In his “black paintings,” Frank Stella closed the gap between literal shapes and depicted shapes, as his “stripes” appear to be generated by the framing edge, an image interdependent to the object. This denial of balance and ordering (“relational painting”) was a conscious avoidance of the traditional ideas about a painting’s composition held-over from an older European rationalism and rejected by “early minimalists” like Stella:
“I had to do something about relational painting, i.e., the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry – make it the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration symmetrically placed on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionistic space. The solution I arrived at . . . forces illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”(3)
To many observers, Stella’s stripes and Reinhardt’s squares seemed “empty,” engineered and impersonal, prompting art critic Richard Wollheim to describe these new paintings’ monochromatic and obdurate direction, as having “minimal art content.” The label stuck.
Sol Lewitt’s contribution was the module. Lewitt saw the potential for serial repetition of a modular unit and began a series of cube-based drawings and sculptures. The module precludes that other conceit of traditional art – taste – as it allowed an arbitrary formal arranging of the individual parts. As an ordering principle, the module does away with relational, momentary and whimsical decision-making.
Carl Andre would continue the exploration of the module’s possibilities with his own self-imposed modular system, i.e., one and only one kind of object (brick, zinc plate, railroad tie) was used as a module and modules were “arranged” rather than composed, one thing after another, the exact nature of the “finished” artwork unknown before-hand.
Readings for 27 September: Ch. 7 introduction, Process; from Ch. 7: Eva Hesse’s Letter to Ethelyn Honig, Untitled Statements (1968, 1969, n.d.) and Richard Serra’s Rigging; PLUS: Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” in his Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998.
1. Ad Reinhardt, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1975, p. 204.
2. Ibid., p. 206.
3. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 113.