Minimalism and Beyondby Benjamin Clifford
Mnuchin Gallery | September 13-October 18, 2017
Minimalism and Beyond takes its title seriously: an emphasis on ‘beyond’ informs Mnuchin Gallery’s liberal selection of works, and lets surprising, productive connections develop. That said, the conventional narrative of Minimalism’s origins in the early 1960s and its evolution into Postminimalism later in the decade is well represented. In a particularly nice touch, Untitled (Bernstein 90-01) (1990), a ‘stack’ of aluminum and Plexiglas boxes by Donald Judd, is displayed at the top of Mnunchin’s stairs, as if in response to an ascending visitor’s movement through architectural space. And while other luminaries like Carl Andre and Dan Flavin contribute characteristic works, Postminimal sculpture and conceptualism also appear in the form of On Kawara’s text-based May 21, 1985 (1985), Richard Serra’s Plate Roll Prop (1969), and irregular, organic offerings by Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman.
Yet the first thing encountered by a visitor to the exhibition is not any of these well-known works. Instead, Mnuchin has chosen to position Jeff Koons’ Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series) (1985)—a glass and steel vitrine filled with saline solution and two suspended basketballs—front and center. This conspicuous placement demonstrates the exhibition’s willingness to tell a less familiar story, highlighting aspects of Minimalist art that are sometimes obscured. In its impersonal, mass-produced look and geometric structure, Koon’s tank seems quite at home in the company of typical Minimalist objects, but his aim is different. Where artists like Judd or Andre made use of industrial techniques and materials as an attempt to escape from the cultural baggage they saw weighing down traditional mediums, Koons chooses his materials precisely because of their baggage. As easily identified consumer products and instruments of mass media entertainment, his basketballs come with a host of associations that are more properly the arena of Pop Art. While Koons makes a suppressed structural commonality visible, in his eyes, Minimalism’s embrace of commercial manufacturing techniques and design rhetoric (Judd’s colorful enamels and Plexiglas, for example) is just as recognizably ‘pop’ as Andy Warhol’s interest in commonplace products or media images.
The most interesting inclusions in Beyond are by artists active in the past few decades who are not necessarily associated with Minimalism, but whose work, recontextualized here, presents us with something unexpected. Several of these take on Minimalism’s relationship with painting. Carol Bove, like Koons, introduces a bit of commercial mundanity in her Third White Sweater Painting (2016) by recasting the repetitive monochrome structure favored by Minimalist icons Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, both of whom appear here, as the design of a cheap sweater. Another: Christopher Wool contributes Untitled (1995), a piece in enamel and aluminum that speaks to Minimalism’s rejection of Abstract Expressionism by reengaging the practice of gestural painting. Wool covers a sheet of aluminum with calligraphic loops and drips that recall Jackson Pollock, but rather than testifying to the artist’s emotional immediacy, Wool’s gesture is cold and distanced. Much of the paint is applied mechanically and at some remove, with a spray can. Wool revives the look of gestural spontaneity, but stages it in a mass-produced, alienated context.
Other artists in the show step well outside of Minimalism’s predominantly formalist rhetoric and its relations with art historical forebears or peers. For example: David Hammons’ Untitled (1989), a narrow spiral constructed from discarded wine bottles, seems a socially-minded rebuke to Donald Judd’s notion of the ‘specific object.’ Judd’s influential formulation describes a work that is neither painting nor sculpture, typically intervening in three-dimensional space. Judd identified actual space as “inherently more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface,” a sentiment characteristic of Minimalist faith in the productive reality of embodied, as opposed to purely visual, experience.1 Hammons, however, combines the purified geometry of a Judd or an early Robert Morris with the cast-off traces of African-American urban life. He is committed to his position as a black artist, and addresses the experiences of black America by investing potentially unsavory materials—greasy paper bags, chicken bones, liquor bottles—with a ritualistic power. As part of Mnuchin’s broad-minded exhibition, his work serves as a potent reminder that Minimalist expansion into the real space of the gallery was only a first step. The real spaces of social, economic, and political life yet remained to be dealt with.
- Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 184.
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.