Curated by Spanish-born, now New York-based writer and scholar Joan Robledo-Palop (also the founder of Zeit Contemporary Art), “Minimal Means: Concrete Inventions in the US, Brazil and Spain” shows thirty works by seventeen artists. In this outstanding show, on view at 111 E 70 St, we come across well-known luminaries such as Josef and Anni Albers, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica. The exhibition ties together works made primarily in the 1950s and ‘60s, when influences such as the Bauhaus and Constructivism gathered in different places to reassert their vision of geometric abstraction. The show, which occurs on two floors of the gallery space, consists of mostly small works of art, but the ambition of the pieces belies their size. The kind of vision holding this show together is historically aware but somehow devoted to the present moment, but must be seen historically as well. The artworks, which are of very high accomplishment, indicate to what extent a language of this sort might be developed, as well as the inherent internationalism of its reasoning. Regional geographical differences don’t really appear in these nonobjective works, but connections between individuals living and working far apart from each other were achieved–for example, the influence of Josef Albers in Brazil, has been documented in the exhibition, and can be seen in works from that country.
These shared perceptions have resulted in a show that is startlingly lacking in national specificity. Work from person to person, from country to country, cannot be easily differentiated in a formal sense. The common language shared is an alliance of linear thought and a directness of language that consistently evades simplicity. Curator Robledo-Palop is very aware of the similarities of perception and structure in the works he has chosen; they resonate as a group in ways that show how modernist internationalism was already a commonplace in the middle of the last century. As good as the works are, as the show clearly demonstrates, they also underscore the problem of geographical anonymity, which has resulted from broad-based communication across national boundaries, as well as the historical development of an idiom based not on the characteristics of a country but an immediacy that owes its attributes to the present moment, free of regional expression. One wonders whether modern and contemporary art suffer from this formal homogeneity; it is possible that our gains in a shared medium are matched by a loss of territorial specificity, that is, a set of characteristics that would place the city or region where the art came from.
But the above concerns are to some extent moot. The artists’ works are uniformly strong, demonstrating a vigorous sense of composition, as well as an awareness of abstract design’s innate ability to demonstrate visual intelligence. Josef Albers’ Interlinear N 32 bi (1962) differs from his long sequence of superimposed colored squares; it is a white geometric line lithograph, highly angled and precise, that depicts parallelograms on black paper. Beautifully composed, the work moves beyond design into a place where an original idiom is formed out of the simplest of linear elements. The design seems to float in the air; Its outlines contain open spaces that function as visual weights in support of the thin lines they are defined by. As occurs in this work, and in many of the other pieces in the show, we find a reductive simplicity that comes not from the artist being at a loss, visually speaking, but rather from a very high sophistication. The formal question facing us is whether this kind of simplification is able to sustain the ambition that originated it.
Much of this kind of minimalism has been accompanied by writing of remarkable quality; the tag “less is more” is supported by articles of insight and acumen. Oiticica’s Metaesquema 189 (1958), a gouache work on cardboard, consists of two sets of horizontal lines in white, against a black backing, with ladder-like insets, also achieved with white gouache lines of varying thickness. It is an image of unusual interest, created by the interplay between the horizontal stripes. The overall design is handled with precision and creative flair–qualities one expects from so gifted an artist as Oiticica. Sol LeWitt’s untitled column from 1966 is a simple assertion by a wooden rectangle some 14 inches into the air. It sits on the pedestal; both the column and its support are white. The absolute absence of decorative or structural characteristics, combined with an equal lack of contributory cultural details, puts the work into a category of such obviousness as to render it artistically neutral. But maybe such a neutrality is key to the way many of the artists in the show think. In LeWitt’s case, the obviousness of the sculpture forces his audience to look hard at its meaning, which may well be associated more with the wish to equalize dimensions–14 inches in each direction of pedestal and sculpture–than the desire to make something culturally persuasive. While there is a great deal of theoretical interest in this kind of imagination, this piece in particular, and minimalism in general, may be too limited to generate long interest (but this is for art historians to decide).
There is a bigger question minimalism suggests: To what extent can we limit expression without losing our ability to enjoy it? The work in “Minimal Means” is for sophisticated viewers, those who can appreciate the art for what it is, without adding arguments that are culturally driven. These works are examples of inexorable clarity in regard to the viewing process. Because their interest is so austere (nearly Shaker-like), they must be approached with a high degree of sensitivity on our part. The reductionism that permeates this show reiterates our awareness that abstraction limits itself to the basic terms of visual expression: line, color, composition. This takes us very far toward the approval of art on its own terms, rather than assertions that deliver cultural values. Thus, the work becomes impersonal even if or because it succeeds (as it regularly does) in providing us with pleasure. You can see this in the marvelous small, metal, box construction by Jorge Oteiza, the outstanding Basque sculptor. This work, , Caja metafísica (1972-74), is small, consisting of metal sheets, painted black, that comprise two halves of a cube that have opened to reveal the space within. It is a marvelous structure, at once self-enclosed and available from within. Its achievement comes out of constructivism, which we remember occurred three generations before this piece was made. Even so, the box resonates with new energies, proving that some achievements in art are so well established, they are able to sustain further original development decades after the advances have been made.
Elena Asins, an artist from Spain, is represented with 12 E 59 KV S75 (1975), which presents a group of equally spaced, white vertical lines drawn in the middle on a piece of black cardboard, with a horizontal white line cutting across the verticals. An artist known for her merger of computer graphics with the constructivism of the 1960s, Asins here makes it clear that a simple drawing can possess a resonance far beyond its description. Its row of thin, thread-like extensions can be likened to repetition occurring in the work of the American artist Agnes Martin, but likely this work by Asins has a stronger structural element than the intuitive repetitions of Martins. Again, its simplicity demands sophistication for understanding. The final piece to be discussed is untitled (to V. Mayakovsky) 1 (1987), a work by Dan Flavin in red fluorescent lights–six four-foot rods, alternating in greater and lesser placement of their equal lengths, set against the lower part of the wall. The piece is angled upward, in a way that suggests spiritual ascent, but the homage to the Russian revolutionary poet, Mayakovsky, argues for a political reading, however nonobjective the sculpture may be. It is of course very hard to tie the work with the expansive visionary poetry of the writer, but Flavin’s title asserts a real bridge between radical authorship and a sculpture that was put together decades after Mayakovsky died.
As big as the gap in time may be between poet and sculptor, it should be recognized that Flavin was yearning for a genuinely social voice–and that his reference to Mayakovsky did that for him, even if there was no direct contact between the two men. In his sculpture, Flavin was memorializing a great poet, just as “Minimal Means” memorializes a group of artists, spread across three continents, who nevertheless found ways to maintain a conversation. Flavin belonged to the founders of minimalism, a movement that took place in the 1960s and ‘70s, during near-revolutionary times in America, so it makes sense that he would take to Mayakovsky as a hero of action and words. It makes sense that the piece, whose red color inevitably suggests the red of revolutionary fervor, would push upward–toward an idealism that we seem to have left far behind. But the context of the work, like that of the other pieces in this show, seems to intimate a politics of less than polite resistance. While the simplicity of the drawings and other pieces mentioned in this review argue for a rearrangement of formal perception–and perhaps a reworking of social resolve–this is done without the direct referencing we find in Flavin’s work. It may not be possible to attach social change to most of the works we see, but generally there is a real rejection of anything visually complex and baroque. Thus, the art’s formal properties can be seen as more complex than they are, communicating a via negativa meant to convey much more than the sum of their parts.
Minimal Means: Concrete Inventions in the US, Brazil and Spain
Curated by Joan Robledo-Palop
Organized by Zeit Contemporary Art (link to www.zeitcontemporaryart.com)
111 E 70th St, New York, NY 10021
January 24 – March 16, 2019