What the World Is Like
We should be deliberate just now. Another misreading of minimalism can only be profitless. As its history takes a final form in the museums and its particulars are detailed by collegiate theorists in their books and classrooms, minimalism is rapidly being groomed to play the role of modernism’s endgame. Its predicament is sad and unmistakably familiar: the style is being victimized by its own culture. It is being rounded off to conform to a pretense of history agreed upon years ago. It may seem freakish to say, but minimalism seems a sure casualty of modern positivism.
Minimalism’s subtle complexities and democratic idealism could only overload a culture of undifferentiated experience, a culture in which regressive nostalgia is always preferred over history and history has become a recitation of catch phrases and flashbacks, an endlessly looped monotone in which memory is just another way of saying instant replay. Prescriptive judgements of minimalism are being cultivated and quietly endorsed as history by the official culture. In 1984, Edward LucieSmith credited minimalism with being a version of “anti-art.” By equating the style with that emblematic term for pseudo-radicality, LucieSmith curtly degraded minimalism; ghettoized its meaning into something described by a workhorse terminology reserved for academic pronouncements. We find ourselves in a period in which it has been good enough to generalize and encapsulate. It has been rewarding to efface difference and eclipse history with an agreeable continuum, to react rather than regard. That tactic was good enough for Clement Greenberg twenty years ago when he wrote “Minimal Art remains too much a feat of ideation, and not enough of anything else. Its idea remains an idea, something deduced instead of felt and discovered.” It is easier to picture minimalism as the ideational style based on an extreme and doctrinaire reductivism, rather than face up to the task of estimating its history free of hollow caricatures. At the moment, deliberation is required if only to avoid the betrayal of history.
The growing enthusiasm for geometric abstraction is unmistakable these days. Cadres within the artworld are diligently orchestrating the revival of abstraction by fashioning a passion for its cool detachment and hard edges: its high modern gorgeousness. Easy to comprehend is that geometric abstraction is a kind of “antiart,” the resurrected avant-garde with the look of sophistication. Can the same compulsion for nostalgic regression, which inflated the revival of expressionism a few years ago, be repeated as a credible explanation of our current circumstances? Perhaps, but at a certain point minimalism itself will be asked to step in and corroborate its apparent legacy; sooner or later it will have to be heard from.
Actually its voice has already sounded. In 1984, Donald Judd began his straight-faced essay on the dearth of “modern masterpieces” writing: “The quality of new art has been declining for fifteen years.” As disagreeable as Judd’s critical estimations can be, there is rarely doubt about where he stands on things. Consistently he means precisely what he says. It’s not that Judd speaks for minimalism, it’s just that he is the only minimalist who has something to say. Consequently, Judd’s tenacity is easily grasped as a version of minimalism’s suave resistance to nostalgia and its refusal of self-indulgent sentimentality. Through the years, Judd’s unforgiving prose has been of the same candid spice that detailed minimalism’s original posture.
Couched between high modernism’s uninflected, industrial precision and the charged immediacy of mass replication, minimalism’s cultural reach was extraordinary. Its position was both culturally lucrative and starkly selfevident: extreme anti-illusionism could evacuate representation to make unmediated, original experience primary to the art. Within a kind of phenomenological free fall, minimalism would naturally resist referents, nostalgic or otherwise. In a manner of speaking, minimalism abruptly shifted experience from the first to the third person. Rosalind Krauss and others interpreted all of this as an expression of democratic aspirations. About the minimalists at large she wrote: “They are asking that meaning be seen as arising from … a public, rather that a private space.” It is in this light, disclosing a preference for public consciousness rather than a privileged look, that Judd’s sculpture is its most convincing and eloquent.
That his art is a public expression is factual and implicit. Judd’s materials are exquisitely crafted but plainly banal: metal, wood and plexiglas. And while their appearance is not the product of an innocent eye, their mystification is industrial, not aesthetic. Judd exploits that obvious reading in a sudden double-cross. He recasts what was once the ruthless agent of industrial replication and lost difference as a test site for original experience. Judd has blackmailed mass reproduction, the natural enemy of individualism, into hosting first hand experience. Understood like his materials, Judd’s compositions are discreetly anonymous. They seem slight and reserved but are empowered to implode the privileged gaze. Carter Radcliff recently observed that “Composition helps in organizing the sensibility’s endless surge of experience into something governable.” Judd’s earliest thoughts about minimalist composition was as a zone free of hierarchy: an invitation to unmediated experience. It is after all, Jackson Pollack’s non-relational compositions, which Judd has always admired.
Judd’s stealthy use of industrial fabrication, ordinary materials and unaffected compositions are expressions of a mistrust of those things definitive, those cultural baffles that preclude original experience by venting it off. In 1964, Bruce Glaser asked Judd: “And you mean to say that your work is apart from rationalism?” Judd replied: “Yes. All that art is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world is like.” For Judd, and others including Frank Stella, the heart of the matter was whether art could any longer inaugurate original experience or if the mannered predictability of postwar painting and sculpture had demoted it to serve as the ambassador of a set of rehearsed gestures, mere referents. Understandably, the possibility of creating something unconditional out of the tradition of European art seemed highly unlikely.
Stella: If something’s used up, something’s done, something’s over with, what’s the point of getting involved with it? Judd: Root, hog, or die.
Judd dismissed what he characterized as the European program of relational compositions as premeditated arrangements that ingratiate themselves to the privileged eye trained to recognize overdone aesthetics. In their place he sought a specifically neutral field, a whole image presumably free of preconceptions and repressive hierarchies. Judd conceives of his sculpture as the venue where one can begin to find out what the world is like. His desire to initiate experience unencumbered by prearranged orders of logic or thematic implications was the theatricality Michael Fried hysterically feared. Relentlessly, Judd’s compositions offer back to each of us only blank, silent, stares. Theirs is a plain geometry which will never reproach our next reaction for it is precisely that which they steadfastly await.
It seems slightly confused and sadly misguided to cast this art off as merely ideational, as though its pristine identity can only mean that it is emotionally absent. At the same time, Judd’s is hardly an art conjured up out of an exclusive and guarded knowledge. It would be an askewed imagination that pictures his sculptures as precise altars honoring secret teachings of some aesthetic cult. Rather, his art may be represented as unspecious and democratic; an open ended series of speculations over recovering literal experience.
Neither mass produced illustration for the aerated rhetoric of high modernism, nor the impromptu dare of experiential anarchy, Judd’s sculptures propose grasping artistic experience in a public way. Their position between the single-mindedness of high art and the replication of mass culture is accessible. And yet the extreme irony is that accessibility has made his art vulnerable to clumsy misreadings and sly misrepresentations. That is nowhere more evident than in the current market inspired revival of reductive abstraction where minimalism will inevitably serve as the repressive a priori model Judd and others have so consistently and frankly refuted.
It is the way of the world, the means of our culture, to detect and extinguish difference, to absorb and reform experience existing beyond the habitual as if it were pathetically inadequate. Judd’s art belligerently contradicts the epic effect of cultural coherence by turning it in on itself. His is an aspiration for the rare occasion of unembellished and unscripted experience, an aspiration we should carefully deliberate.