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You've probably seen a few cubes sitting in an art gallery and questioned why they were there. How could cubes be important? How did we get here? This is the case for Minimalism.

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Sarah: So you see a few cubes sitting in an art gallery and you think to yourself, "This is the greatest hoax that anyone has every pulled off!" You immediately walk away, discouraged by the wide gulf between what you hope for when you walk into a museum and what they've presented to you.

How did we get here? How could these cubes that the artist didn't even make with their own hands be important? This is the case for minimalism.

First off, we're not talking about minimalism as a general sensibility or the life changing magic of tidying up. We're talking about the art of a particular moment in time, namely the 1960's, when all of a sudden there was a lot of geometric, abstract art. Some of it was paintings by artists like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, but most of it was sculpture by artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Anne Truitt, Robert Morris, Tony Smith, Ronald Bladen, and Sol LeWitt. Art critics called it ABC art, object art, primary structures, and cool art. But the term "minimalism" prevailed.

These artists never called their art "minimalist," by the way, nor did they like the term or the implication that their work was so ridiculous that it was minimally art. But minimalism was a rejection of what came before, specifically abstract expressionism, which dominated the art market in the 1950's.

These new artists wanted to remove expression completely, remove emotion, empty the work of idiosyncratic gesture, make it resistant to biographical reading. Hard-edged basic shapes and forms avoided illusion, metaphor, and overt symbolism. The forms were often repeated, one thing after another, in regular, unhierarchical arrangements, rejecting compositional balancing. No artists hemming and hawing over the canvas here. The objects were impersonal, many of them machine made, fabricated from new and industrial materials.

Sometimes this entailed ready-made units like Andre's "Bricks" or Flavin's fluorescent tubes. They didn't want you to ooh and ah or admire the handling of paint. As LeWitt once said, "It is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting." Robert Morris wrote that he could could hear a resounding "NO" at the time. "No to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience." But what they were saying yes to was a new and startling realness. Abandoning the pedestal to dismantle the separation between you and the art.

Judd claimed these works are neither painting nor sculpture but instead specific objects occupying real space. These objects aren't pointing to anything or referencing anything. Andre called his work a kind of "plastic poetry" in which elements are combined to produce space. So there is no illusion of space, it just is space.

Minimalism had its haters from the start. In 1967, art critic Michael Fried attacked the work for being theatrical. For him, it was an object in a room that had presence before a viewer. But it did not have what good art has, which is presentness, or an instance of aesthetic experience which occurs in no real space or time at all. But Fried really just ended up affirming exactly what the artists were trying to do, proving how radical it really was.

Despite its detractors, minimalism became all the rage. This geometric, unadorned style flowed throughout the world of fashion, theater, and design. In short, it was cool. Because these artists were never trying to be minimalist to begin with, they moved on to other things and other kinds of art had its day. But minimalism changed things.

For centuries, art had been trying to trick you, convince you that the hunk of rock was something other than a hunk of rock. But not this--you feel like there's gotta be some kind of secret to it, but there isn't. There's nothing to interpret.This is what it is. It wasn't supposed to look like art of the past, and it wasn't supposed to function like it either. With minimalism, the meaning doesn't rest inside the object, waiting to be unlocked. The meaning is in the context and exists in your interaction with it. 

But minimalism is a resistant lover--it's just not that into you. It encourages observation but doesn't draw you in, and it was never trying to. Remember these objects were supposed to be emptied of pretension, of mastery; of the usual seduction between art and viewer, and of the grand, glorious traditions that proceeded them.

But the fetishization and commodification of minimalist art has complicated and polluted these ideas. What's less real then million-dollar plywood boxes? And yet, for me at least, minimalist art can still impart a strong feeling--a feeling for space, light, for presence and absence. You're aware of your own body in the gallery as you've never been before. You notice that your position in the room shapes your perception of the thing. You appreciate the architecture, and the spareness. And in a world filled with complexity and information and lots and lots of stuff, this is ball. This is a world more simplified than the actual world is, and that, I can appreciate.