Clear Aesthetics: The Myth of Minimalism

“Less is more” is apparently the phrase that’s popping up first when talking about minimalism nowadays. It’s part of almost every social media feed filled with simplicity, and though it’s often associated with Dieter Rams —who is without doubts an icon of minimalism—its original source is unknown. Given that it’s not more than a simple oxymoron, its first written appearance is dated back to 1774 in a German poem by Christoph Martin Wieland—surely in another context, not referring to art or design—and then again coined by the poet Andrea del Sarto in 1855.

This statement became popular when used by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe describing his way of thinking, creating and building. With its extremely reduced and almost opaque framework, the Farmsworth House is an exemplary masterpiece based on van der Rohe’s vision. Rams then modified it and once said “Less, but better”, underlining his ten principles for what he considered was good design back in the late 1970s. The last one, “Good design is as little design as possible”, derives from Rams’ increasing concerns about the state of the world around him, the “impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises”.Dieter Rams | Ten Principles for Good Design | PRESTEL | 2017 Therefore, good design should concentrate on the essential aspects and get rid of anything non-essential.

Almost fifty years later it’s proven that minimalism is not a short-lived trend. “It’s an enduring visual discipline that has influenced every facet of visual culture, including art, architecture, industrial design, photography, music, fashion and graphic design.”Stuart Tolley | MIN – The new simplicity in graphic design | Thames & Hudson | 2016 Minimalism has always been a countermovement to overtly ornate and expressive visual trends. Though this doesn’t mean that it’s only about cutting things off. It’s about simplifying and cleansing the visual landscape but with substantial work and effort.
Unfortunately, the public perception that minimalism is the easy option originated in the 1950s and actually, there were several artists cementing this idea that “anyone can do that”. The American minimalist Carl Andre created a series called Equivalent in 1966 and one of this eight structures—a sculptural artwork made from 120 standard household bricks—was later bought by the Tate Gallery in London for a substantial sum causing public outrage. The work is now a prime example for the perceived and hard to shrug off pretentiousness of abstract art.

Richard Wollheim, potentially the first critic to apply the label “minimal” to art in the 1960s, considered a minimal artwork “both as a process of the building up as well as of the dismantling of some image”Gregory Battcock | Minimal Art: A Ciritical Anthology | University of California Press | 1995 and observed that in Minimal Art, “the elements of decision or dismantling acquire a new prominence”.Richard Wollheim | Minimal Art, Arts Magazine | 1965 Stating examples like the non-“assisted” ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, whose acceptance first caused doubts or anxieties in the art world—no wonder, as the understanding of art has been put upside down overnight. Works by abstract (post)-minimalist painters and sculptors often have minimal art-content – though great precision—and needed years or even decades for proper appreciation by society.

A simplified approach is actually far from the easy option and can take years to master though endless refinement and restraint. “Despite being the simplest of the curves, a circle is considered by mathematicians as a polygon with an infinite number of sides.”Bruno Munari | Square Circle Triangle, Princeton Architectural Press | 2015 What might look simple is mostly not easy. It challenges the viewer’s perception and perspective on art. Minimalism is intellectual, or at least more intellectually demanding than other art movements such as expressionism, as it’s not the representation but the abstraction—which might not be easy to get—of something. Minimalism is not a short high tide but more a constant evolving flow, a reaction to something society is craving for—sooner or later again and again. There has been minimal and post-minimal and now something called neo- or hyper- minimal starring artists like Richard Serra, Susan York, Michel Francois, Banks Violette, Matias Faldbakken, Alicja Kwade and many more who put a strong focus on purity and reduction, the choice of materials—and actually a crucial ingredient of minimalism—the relationship between object and viewer.

It’s important to view minimalist works through the eyes of history in order to avoid misinterpretation. Let’s go back a few years in time when the Internet first caused a rise in so-called, mostly visually opulent works for the sake of exaggeration. Years full of decadence, full of ornaments were ahead. There was a new optimism, a slight smell of boundless possibilities in the air. “If Learning From Las Vegas served as the opening salvo of postmodernism, then hypermodernism could just as easily be inaugurated by a Learning From Tumblr (or maybe Reddit or 4chan?), in reference to the sites that have become the ‘decorated shed’ of the Internet.”Ben Duvall | New Modernism(s) | Conveyor Arts | 2014 But the end was near: Bubbles burst, society lost hope. Still being bombarded
by switch-on imaginary and constant communication enabled by the very existence of new technologies and devices, minimalism is again becoming more and more popular and a reduced approach isn’t bound to visual disciplines anymore but spans across people’s whole life – almost unnoticed. Lately, a new era of breathing has begun.

Though the times have changed, minimalism has always been a barometer for social change. Over a century ago Russian suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich shocked the (art) world by simply painting a black square onto a white canvas and managed to establish a simplified approach to the visual arts. Last year the Guggenheim had a retrospective of Agnes Martin—as her spare style couldn’t be more suitable to society’s current state of mind. Similar to Van der Rohe the abstract post-minimalist painter’s works are making space for the individual human spirit to flourish. Freedom that we are in desperate need of.