On Museums Handling History

A Minimal Future: Art as Object 1958 – 1968
MOCA at California Plaza, Los Angeles, CA.
March 14 – August 2, 2004

Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY.
March 18 – May 16, 2004

Structures and Systems: Minimal Art in the United States
Getty Research Institute Symposium, Los Angeles, CA.
May 1, 2004
Jane McFadden

The maker handles history critically, with care. He makes and remakes it and makes things with it, as if it were a tool in the hand.1

It is a great year to be an historian of 1960s art and culture, as events related to this period seem to be proliferating, anchored by a spring of Minimalism that has included exhibitions, symposia, and circulating commentary from all corners. But what is this Minimalism of which we speak? And what are we to do with the history with which we are presented?

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition A Minimal Future: Art as Object 1958-1968 takes the first half of its title from a 1967 issue of Arts Magazine. In that publication, the question of “A Minimal Future?” is taken up in two parts. The first, “Report on a Phenomenon” by John Pereault, addresses Minimal Art as it has emerged in the art world, particularly through the 1966 exhibition “Primary Structures.” The second, by Dan Graham, addresses an interest in “models and monuments” in various exhibitions of the time.2 It is Graham’s essay that suggests the com- plexity of practice that should be up for dis- cussion if we are to consider a minimal future, including but not limited to: the “directionless time-field” of Stockhausen’s scores, Nature, monuments, sculptural refiguring of the gallery, photography, fantasy, and Buckminster Fuller’s utopian architectural projects, one of which is presented on the cover of the issue. Published a few months before Michael Fried’s now canonical take on Minimalism, “Art and Objecthood,”3 these essays as a pair suggest both the institutional “phenomenon” of Minimalism in the art world and the social and cultural diversity that an experience of Minimal Art may address and imply. Understanding the links between the two would be an innovative and rigorous approach to considering what is at stake in the art of that formative decade.

However, MOCA’s exhibition adheres for the most part to the institutional form of Minimalism, although the Minimalism it presents offers some geographical (East Coast/West Coast), biological (men/women), and historical (several unusual suspects) diversity. The second half of the exhibition title, Art as Object 1958-1968, prepares us for this conservative choice even as Fuller’s utopian image once again graces the cover of its publication. That MOCA’s exhibition s also impressive in its scope and accomplishment reveals the difficulty of untangling the minimal future we have all inherited. In the theoretical gap between one minimal future and another, and in the temporal gap between the first manifestation of “A Minimal Future,” and this current one, Minimalism emerged as a ambiguous art historical category first codified by Gregory Battcock in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology published in 1968,4 then placed within an historical trajectory by various scholars associated with the journal October in the late 1970s and early 1980s,5 and most recently re-tilled as a fertile ground for a variety of scholars (including myself) who wish to investigate what role this decade played in shaping our contemporary realm of art. Minimalism, credited with drawing attention to the temporal and contextual realities of the viewer’s experience in relationship to art, has been posited within this discourse as the crucial point for a shift from the Modern to the Postmodern, from the phenomenological to the spectacular, from the industrial to the late capitalist, and so on. If so, then how and why does history continue to be presented within the museum in such neat and familiar form? I suspect it’s because the picture we have been given thus far is much too clean to begin with.

The MOCA exhibition does grant us the chance to have a phenomenological encounter with some of the work implicated in these changes – perhaps best exemplified by the dramatic first room of the exhibition which allows a significant stroll across Carl Andre’s 6 x 6 Den Haag Steel Lock (1968), while considering the complexity of several of Frank Stella’s black paintings from 1959, and also being bombarded by the high-gloss, primary-colored finishes of John McCracken’s sculptures in the next room. The placement of these sculptures between the first room and the third, which houses Robert Morris’ grey plywood sculptures from the mid-1960s, was an early indicator of the diversity the exhibition might consider. At the same time, it was a particularly contained introduction, without any sign of social and cultural context or other interests and practices of these artists–such as muscle cars (for McCracken) and magazines (for Morris). This containment of Minimalism and my experience as a viewer was felt most intensely at moments meant to expand the conversation: most notably Dan Graham’s slide-work Homes for America (1966), and Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail (1964/65). Each work hints at the diverse systems on the edge of the object in this period, from mass culture to organic systems, yet the works presented here conform to a dominant Minimal aesthetic through their hard edges – two more of many rectangles.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York also offered its rendition of the minimal future this spring in Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated). Here the history of the minimal began in similarly dramatic manner to that at MOCA in a room of white and black –Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg, Tony Smith, Ellsworth Kelly, Piero Manzoni. It continued with work of the 1960s, onward through a couple of decades of successors, to a dark end in Damien Hirst’s Armageddon (2002), a black monochrome of thousands of dead and rotting flies. This exhibition, the core of which was drawn from the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection, reiterated the sense that Minimalism, while credited for groundbreaking changes in the conditions of art and its institutions, was something to be collected. Perhaps the most telling aspect of this undertone to the exhibition was the presence of the jewel-like forms of Rachel Whiteread’s, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995), which graced the floor of the entrance rotunda. This work, that literally objectified contextual space by sculpting voids, seemed a sensual contemporary replacement for what struck me as the specter of the show the radical censorship of Daniel Buren’s and Hans Haacke’s work by the institution in 1971 during and after the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition, an exhibition that professed that the strength of the art presented was a result of Minimalism.6 Both Haacke and Buren employed “singular forms sometimes repeated” and participated in the questions of context, temporality and value that Minimalism addressed as well. Buren’s work, of striped cotton canvas bisecting the center of the museum’s rotunda, was removed before the opening of the 1971 exhibition. A one-person exhibition of Haacke’s work that was to immediately follow the Sixth International was then cancelled and the curator of both exhibitions, Edward Fry, was fired.7 These events were some of several that marked the crisis of exhibition that Minimalism and its contemporary practices engendered.8 A minimal future then might suggest a challenged, if not overthrown, museum. Not so.

Ann Goldstein, the curator of MOCA’s A Minimal Future? states that the exhibition asks: “What are the consequences and polemics of Minimal Art, its practioners, curators, critics, and historians?”9 However the exhibition seems less about consequences and more about re-stagings (however ambitious this procedure may be, and under her curatorial leadership it is quite so). The most obvious example of this logic is the pairing of the work of Judy Gerowitz (Chicago) and Robert Smithson in the same room – just as the two artists had been paired in the Primary Structures exhibition of 1966 (although different works by Smithson are presented in the MOCA exhibition). Perhaps no other room in the exhibition demonstrates as clearly what was at stake in Minimalism. On one hand, Smithson was developing a complex discourse on percep- tion, abstraction, experience, exhibition, and dislocation in art. On the other, Judy Gerowitz was poised to become a pioneer in the surge of feminist practice in the 1970s, and thus her presence in this mostly male terrain of Minimalism raises other crucial questions about presence and dislocation in art. What then does this room accomplish by returning us to the limited institutional conjecture about form that Primary Structures originally presented? It seems to suggest in fact, that in this future, there are no consequences for the museum.

The conformity of both of these exhibitions to an institutional version of Minimalism raises a crucial question for the exhibitions and for history. Is Minimalism to be about an historical style of purified form and limited syntax, or an historical moment in which certain forms of experience in art were questioned? The answer to this question seemed simple within the Guggenheim’s exhibition, for somewhere along the way of their trajectory into the future (about at Peter Halley), it becomes apparent that the Minimalism of the 1960s addresses a particular phenomenological condition of the viewer, and that a merely minimal style is something else. This distinction also ought to be obvious in the face of the widespread absorption of the minimal into popular culture. Yet the exhibition itself suggests otherwise in its very structure, as we are led without pause from one decade to the next by a tenuous aesthetic thread. The distinction between experience and style is also crucial to the nuances at stake in the more rigorous and tightly defined historical period of MOCA’s exhibition. For an experience of any object in this show relates to a widespread shift in spatiotemporal conditions of artistic practice at this time. At stake is nothing less than the location of art itself.

How then to determine where a minimal future has led us? Several scholars partici- pating in the Getty Research Institute’s symposium “Structures and Systems: Minimal Art in the United States,” addressed certain current conditions for art and the museum that may be traced to Minimalism.10 The afternoon panel discussion led by Pamela Lee discussed the consequences for the museum in particular, in relation to Rosalind Krauss’ 1991 essay, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum.” Krauss’ essay argues that Minimalism prepares the way for both “the object to be caught up in the logic of commodity production,” and for the reprogramming of the subject “into the utterly fragmented, postmodern subject of mass culture.”11 It is this object and subject positioning according to Krauss that deter- mines how the contemporary museum will hawk its wares. “There is now an experience that must be properly termed ‘intensity’–

a free-floating and impersonal feeling domi- nated by a peculiar kind of euphoria.” But what Minimalism is this with so much agency and power? It is a Minimalism that reflects Krauss’ own history of the subject from her seminal Passages of Modern Sculpture (1977), through the expanded field of sculpture, presented in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” (1979), to her own re-visitation of the category through an exhibition of the Panza collection at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville Paris in 1990, the occasion for the essay in question. What Krauss does not consider is what role her particular history has played in creating the cultural logic that she disdains. In other words, is she, as historian, complicit in creating and supporting the conditions that she critiques? Early on, Krauss connected Minimalism to a decentered subject with no claims to a private psychological self.12 Did she then make our minimal future? For as Minimalism challenged the museum, it also challenged history itself, through the proliferation of critical voices, shifting conditions of fabrication, and expanding sites of practice. In the face of such challenges, we still have a pretty clean, dare I say pure, picture of this moment. Perhaps the minimal future we have been given is the one that we deserve.

So what now? On one hand, a careful unpacking of some of the central figures of the era seems necessary. For example, the “object” of Minimalism that MOCA presents should remind us of Donald Judd’s “specific object,” presented in an eponymous essay of 1965.13 One room of the MOCA exhibition presents certain “specific objects” that Judd named in concert with his own work, including works by Claes Oldenberg and John Chamberlain. Neither painting nor sculpture, the “specific object” (which although long associated with Minimalism references a broader band of practice) would move into three dimensions that Judd relates to “real space.” Here, Judd proposes, a work would aspire to being “interesting.” This “interest” was, for Judd, an interest formulated out of an empiricist position, which leads to proliferating complexities – what David Raskin has recently argued as: “idea and feeling and value all at once.”14 The implications of “interest” for Judd’s Minimalist objects then are both specific and profound. These distinctions, when con- sidered, provide a different understanding of the possibilities of art than an accumulation of various historical examples. Indeed, Judd figures a distinct place in the history of Minimalism, through his work, his writing, and his eventual consideration of the place of art in Marfa, Texas. One could also push the associations of Minimalism well beyond that of what MOCA and the Guggenheim provide. For example, Judd’s consideration of “specific objects” resonates, however distantly, with the mid 1960s call for intermedia by Dick Higgins. In “Intermedia” (1965) and his later “Statement on Intermedia” (1966), Higgins theorizes a breakdown of artists’ media in the preceding decade due to shifting technologies and new sensitivities. “… Artists have changed their media to suit this situation, to the point where media have broken down in their traditional forms and have become merely puristic references” and “only useful as critical tools.”15 Higgins notes of this era: “The very complexity of this impact gives us a taste for simplicity, for an art which is based on the underlying images that an artist has always used to make his point… We do not ask any more to speak magnificently of taking oars against a sea of troubles. We want to see it done.”16 Higgins’ understanding of the interactions of media and a larger social realm suggests another impetus for the minimal aesthetic that would provide a certain immediacy of experience in response to changing cultural conditions. Within this context of intermedia, a wide variety of activity takes place in the intersecting realms of performance, music, poetry, dance, and film, including work by artists such as George Brecht, Tony Conrad, Yoko Ono, LaMonte Young, and many others that suggests a rich realm of consideration. These practices, along with and at times integrated with the objects of Minimalism, raise questions about the nature of the object itself, its viewer, and the place of art in the world.17 Here, prior to and contemporary with a consideration of context and duration in the experience of art in Minimalism, are the seeds of the complexities of practice in the late twentieth century, which would include issues of process and place in a variety of forms variously configured by history under such terms as site, performance, installation, appropriation, institutional critique, identity politics, and so on. I’d like to see that exhibition.


At moments over the course of this spring and summer of 2004, one could indeed engage with more possibilities of the Minimal era than are often available (both within and outside of the museum galleries) and for this we should be grateful. Primary among these possibilities was the series of dance performances presented by the Getty Research Institute and MOCA that provided the extraordinary opportunity to see works by Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer from the early 1960s, as well as talk with the artists themselves. The diverse programs of the Getty Research Institute and the Guggenheim’s lecture series also promise that the future of Minimalism will remain under discussion. Indeed as this essay goes to press, the upcoming exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s–1970s, is about to open and will certainly complicate our experience of the minimal further by providing an extended international and historical context for the aesthetic.

The 1960s are under intense scrutiny within the academy and the art world, and this should be no surprise, for the questions of that period define our own. The concerns and questions from that time that have been historicized are those that we inherit. If they are limited by a desire for historical clarity or eloquence rather than an interest in the complexity of how art functions in the world, then we within the art world of the emerging twenty-first century inherit those limitations. Thus, if we are to sort out the possibilities and impossibilities of art and its institutions in the twenty-first century, we are going to have to handle history with a certain care, with an awareness of the potential of a tool in the hand.

Jane McFadden is an art historian in Los Angeles and an Instructor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, MA, and MFA programs at Art Center College of Design.


[[1]]This title refers to Richard Shiff’s “On Criticism Handling History,” from which the epigram is also taken (History of the Human Sciences 2, no. 1 [February 1989] pp. 63-87). Shiff writes of the “maker”: “A history… adjusting the competing perspec- tives as they interact, might be regarded as a history written from the position of the maker rather than a (passive) viewer. To write or figure such a history is to make it as a product of purposefully assembled parts. The position of the maker becomes more critical than that of the viewer; to assume this position is to acknowledge that one forms an object of attention in describing an object, perhaps transform- ing it” (p. 83)[[1]]

[[2]]See John Perrault “Union-Made: Report on a Phenomenon,” Arts Magazine 41, no. 5 (March 1967), pp. 26-31; and Dan Graham, “Models and Monuments,” Arts Magazine 41, no. 5 (March 1967), pp. 32-35[[2]]

[[3]]Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” in Artforum 5, no.10 (June 1967), pp. 12-23[[3]]

[[4]]Gregory Battcock, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968; Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1995). Certainly other exhibitions and publica- tions helped form the category as well, but this anthology that was collected at an early point in the history of Minimalism serves as a foundation for scholarship on the topic[[4]]

[[5]]See, for example, Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977); Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (1979), pp. 30- 44; Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” Individuals, ed. Howard Singerman (Los
Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986), pp. 162-83; Craig Owens: “Earthwords,” October 18 (Fall 1979), pp. 120-30; and Douglas Crimp, who published a series of essays in the 1980s in the journal October that later became his book On the Museums Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992)[[5]]

[[6]]In his excellent account of these events, Alexander Alberro cites the press release from this exhibition: “The overwhelming artistic development of the last five years which the exhibition serves to establish … [is] rooted in the premises established in the middle of the 1960s by the minimalist sculptors…” See Alberro, “The Turn of the Screw: Daniel Buren, Dan Flavin, and the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition,” October 80 (Spring 1997), p. 65, footnote 36[[6]]

[[7]]Ibid., p. 84, footnote 94[[7]]

[[8]]Artists were challenging the boundaries of
exhibiting institutions on many levels during this period. For example, in 1969, an exhibition of Walter de Maria’s sculpture at Dwan Gallery required that visitors sign releases recognizing imminent danger and possible death. In 1971, the Robert Morris retrospective at the Tate Museum had an entire section deemed too dangerous for viewers and closed down. For a discussion of both of these works, see my unpublished disserta- tion, Practices of Site: Walter de Maria and Robert Morris, 1960-1977 (Ph.D. diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2004). Or for example, in 1969, for an exhibition in Loveladies, NJ, Dennis Oppenheim proposed Infected Zone, calling for hundreds of pounds of chemicals and poison to be deposited in the land; Robert Smithson proposed a “urination map;” and Morris suggested “lovely ladies.” Each questions the bounds of practice and exhibition–as toxic, pissed, and prostituted. See Ann Reynolds, Robert Smithson: Learning From New Jersey and Elsewhere (Cambridge: Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2003), pp. 215-16[[8]]

[[9]]Ann Goldstein, “Introduction: A Minimal Future,” A Minimal Future: Art as Object 1958-1968 (Los Angeles: The Museum of. Contemporary Art, 2004), p. 17[[9]]

[[10]]For example, see the published version of James Meyer’s talk, “No More Scale” Artforum 42, no. 10 (Summer 2004)[[10]]

[[11]]Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” October 54 (Fall 1990), p.12[[11]]
[[12]]Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, p. 270[[12]

[[13]]Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8 (1965). Reprinted in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design; and New York: New York University Press, 1975), pp. 181-89[[13]]

[[14]]For a thorough explication of Judd’s rela- tionship to empiricist behaviorism, see David Raskin, “Judd’s Moral Art,” Donald Judd (London: Tate Enterprises, Ltd., 2004). Interestingly, Raskin concludes: “Judd’s greatest accomplishment was keeping people sovereign, whether in politics or art. But Krauss, Judd’s most important critic, saw things differently. Instead of trusting people to make their own decisions, she subordinated agency to the prevailing conditions, which perpetually construct the borders of our lives. What Judd found interesting, then, was precisely the value that Krauss found objectionable. The individual, above all else.” Raskin’s essay accompanies the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Judd’s work–another node in this year of the Minimal[[14]]

[[15]]Dick Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia” (1966). First published in Dé-Coll/age 6 (July 1967). Reprinted in In the Spirit of Fluxus (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), pp. 172-73; and “Intermedia” (1965), Something Else Newsletter 1 (February 1966). Reprinted in A Dick Higgins Sampler (Chicago: Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, 2000), pp. 4-7. See also: Dick Higgins, Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University
Press, 1984)[[15]]

[[16]]Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia”(1965), n.p.[[16]]

[[17]]Diedrich Diedrichsen’s essay, “The Primary: Political and Anti-political Continuities between Minimal Music and Minimal Art,” published in the MOCA exhibition catalogue does give us a more complex image of the practices at stake here, although none of the artists he discusses are visually present in MOCA’s exhibition. Diedrich Diedrichsen, “The Primary: Political and Anti-political Continuities between Minimal Music and Minimal Art,” A Minimal Future: Art as Object 1958-1968, pp. 110-31[[17]]