This Minimalism Which is Not One: Patriarchy in an Expanded Field
A number on the street made no announcement. You were admitted, buzzed, through a steel door into a grey quadrangle. You turned left into a courtyard perpendicular to the quad. On the far side was the way in. Inside you were elevated, a few concrete steps above a large space, dominated by a plywood colossus. In ten sections, it would nowadays be relatable to Ikea shelving, amplified beyond reason, clearly not intended for books or nick-nacks. Recondite. This was London 1985, the inaugural display of Charles Saatchi’s collection. The scale and confidence were unprecedented. An American idea, and my first understanding of Minimalism. Imposing and introverted. The artist was Donald Judd, the heroic figure who lived far out in the desert.
In a discussion under the title of “New Nihilism or New Art?” published in Art News, September 1966, Judd and Richard Serra valorized scale. They critiqued European abstraction for its balance, fussiness, originality, lack of spareness, and illusionism, in short, for its effect as a whole deduced from parts. By contrast, their objects, pressed to the wall or freestanding, were singular, or ‘specific,’ as Judd described them.
Scroll forward to today and enter the elegant 18th century stuccoed rooms of the Bishop of Ely’s former residence to see ‘Female Minimal: Abstraction in the Expanded Field.’ An exhibition highlighting the trans-national alignment of a group of artists. According to the information provided in a wall text, the omission of this configuration from critical histories of Minimalism has previously been little noted, ‘written out of art history due to gender inequalities and the politics of their time.’ The exhibition, curated by Anke Kempkes & Pierre-Henri Foulon, asked the spectator to consider figures minimized in male-dominated avant-gardes. The Expanded Field of the title played on the exclusivity of discourses fixated on abstractions and axioms, purity, seriality, and the modular, excluding the creative input of varied backgrounds and experiences. The exhibition’s narrative had its own exclusions. There was no space for Eva Hesse, Mary Martin, Agnes Martin, Maya Lin, or Anne Truitt. Artists whose inflections of minimalism also interfaced with second-wave feminists’ dematerializations, as mapped by critic Lucy Lippard. Their inquiry rejected the heroic gestures of Minimalism, displacing modularity with taxonomy and rigid embodiments with variable systems. The ‘Expanded Field’ identified in an essay by Rosalind Krauss’s in 1979, pushed the sculptural memorial, once the foci of architectural and landscape schemes, to the perimeter of larger enterprises of construction, of environments and utopias.
In his founding essay, ‘Specific Objects,’ Judd attacked ‘anything spaced in a rectangle and on a plane.’ The artists in ‘Female Minimal’ return to the origins of associative essence, embracing the field’s sectional characteristics, ‘cut from something indefinitely larger.’ In a response of sorts to the inability of objects to be purged of extrinsic relationships, Serra and Judd proposed incontrovertibility, involving the domination of space, rooms, plazas, and entire landscapes. By contrast, the Female artists defined relationships, initiating an inquiry, redolent of Luce Irigaray’s question, posed in ‘Sexes and Genealogies,’ “what is between us?”
Entry into the space preoccupied by Judd’s plywood Untitled (1981) gave an experience of regularity and material consistency, an ineffable unity. By contrast, the presentation of Female Minimal foregrounded texture, variance, shift, interpolation, and interrelationships. A corridor led to the exhibition. On the wall of this passage Vera Molnar’s Movement giratoire (noir) (1959) and Movement (1959), as their titles suggest, are dominated by progressive rhythms. Both present measured arrangements of carefully spaced elements, the former a circle of long black rectangles disposed at angles in an additive plan, the latter a horizontal row of eleven verticals, interrupted, according to a pattern of increments, by a semi-circular bump. The visitor’s physical movement, across a floor punctuated by decorative ebony and white marble, is synthesized in the even spacing of parts in the works. In Judd’s account, these would disintegrate into discrete independent unities; here, like stepping stones, interconnectivity frees adjacent modules for imminent occupation. The disparity of Molnar’s approach to that of classic Minimalism can be understood against floor works by Carl Andre. Between 1967 and 69, Andre produced six works in different metals, a series, each comprised 144 twelve-inch square plates, designed to be walked across. The potential association with chess movements or hopscotch was a non-starter. Interaction was to stabilize the work’s totality and delimit its materiality. The audience is mandated to conclude that each modular unit is intrinsically the same. Progression across Andre’s work verifies awareness of the nature of the material. The investigative movement confirmed an initial impression of quality and quantity.
Molnar’s compositions mark space flatly, enigmatically, inviting speculative exploration to intuit changing order. Elsewhere in the show, her suite of computer drawings from 1974 had a similar effect. In this case, the intervention of algorithmic determinants forming a conjectural composition of vertical and horizontal lines. Molnar’s input of parameters only defined a possible space, to be appraised and imagined by a spectator, who negotiates, between eye and mind, from one point to another.
Located in the entrance corridor, opposite Molnar’s abstractions, Rosemarie Castro’s Black Flasher (1979) was representational, a dark freestanding cloak, an opened-out tube of crumpled metal, disturbingly tall. The empty interior is literal. The act of exposure embodied in the covering, intended to be stripped away, protects the audience from threat or trauma. This flash of nothing maintains sufficient menace to promote a likely effect, quickening the audience’s progress, moving away, moving on.
The corridor opened to a large salon. On the floor was Mary Miss’s expansive installation Knots (1969), twists of thick rope marking out a 9 x 14 grid. The work is identifiable with minimalistic occupations. Art that monumentalizes a room’s blandness, pressing proportion into service, or contrasting an integral formal rigor with vernacular measurement. In this case, the modest organic elements, hemp, and latex, each unit similar but not identical, recalled the acts of knotting. To knot, was number 24 on Serra’s Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself (1967–68), an exhaustive handwritten sheet of acts and qualities. These many knots suggest community. They revivify the potential of a cultural memorial. The traditional association of knots and memories suggested that this field was not a formal exercise in reduction but a trace of past events. Miss’s practice exemplified expansion, referring to the inclusion of new occurrences and practices as sculpture. In the same gesture, the work initiates possibilities to go beyond habitual concerns in contemporary art, the environments, structures, and audiences of galleries, museums, and events. Minimalism and Female Minimal suggest polarities. The former, an aesthetic rarefication, exemplified in the imperious self-referentiality of objects. The latter, a desire to de-constrict space, free it for the viewer as an inner sense.
In the 1967 essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ Michael Fried critiqued artists, including Judd, for ‘theatricality,’ an insistence on spatial situations with audiences essential but at a physical and psychic distance.
Ascending, a serpentine and supremely elegant stair, led to an upper space where two kinetic works were in dialogue. Liliane Lijn’s Poemkoan=D=4=Open=Apollinaire (1968) was a revolving cone, chalky white, of roughly human size, studded with glossy white plastic letters and numbers. Its motion occasionally caused the letters to flash reflections of the gallery’s lights. The spinning surface offered many possible readings of word couplets and sequences, sky — dust — air — 4 — Apollinaire — stuttered poems cranking, a little hastily, through the mind. Projected on the wall opposite Ana Sacerdote’s Essai de couleur animée (1959/65) showed a sequence of overlapping, expanding and shrinking, squarish, abstract shapes. These too morphed quickly, refusing to rest in a definite configuration. Both works opposed ideas of absolutes with indecision and opportunity for the audience.
The exhibition’s introduction states that the show will ‘disrupt and expand the canon forged by the male-dominated avant-garde movements.’ While advocating for the inclusion of a multiplicity of approaches, this ambition does little to challenge the formations of abstraction and its connection to broader formations of patriarchy. Artists, working with spiritualist and occultist connections, notably Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz, evoked multiple benign spiritual entities in contrast to Theosophy’s singular divine absolute, suggested in Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1913), and often evoked as a precursor to Minimalism. In accounts of male artists coming to abstraction, Theosophy looms large as the definitive spiritual influence, an antecedent to the aloof theatricality and oneness of ‘specific’ objects. These ‘Female Minimal’ artists push against uncompromising geometry connecting it to explorations of healing, protection, attachment, inclusion, and psychic harmony. In short, an expansion of Fried’s constricted view of theatre. They embrace Alain Badiou’s conviction, ‘coming into the auditorium is, at a minimum, to give a chance to what is going to happen.’ (Alain Badiou with Nicolas Truong, In Praise of Theatre, trans. Andrew Bielski, 2013, Cambridge, Polity Press, p78)
Female Minimal: Abstraction in the Expanded Field was at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Ely House, October 29 — December 18, 2020
Featuring: Rosemarie Castoro, Maria Lai, Liliane Lijn, Verena Loewensberg, Mary Miss, Lucia Moholy, Vera Molnar, Marlow Moss, Lydia Okumura, Ana Sacerdote, Lolo Soldevilla, Magdalena Wiecek, Shizuko Yoshikawa.