Minimalism emerged in New York in the early 1960s among artists who were self-consciously renouncing recent art they thought had become stale and academic. A wave of new influences and rediscovered styles led younger artists to question conventional boundaries between various media. The new art favored the cool over the “dramatic”: their sculptures were frequently fabricated from industrial materials and emphasized anonymity over the expressive excess of Abstract Expressionism. Painters and sculptors avoided overt symbolism and emotional content, but instead called attention to the materiality of the works. By the end of the 1970s, Minimalism had triumphed in America and Europe through a combination of forces including museum curators, art dealers, and publications, plus new systems of private and government patronage. And members of a new movement, Post-Minimalism, were already challenging its authority and were thus a testament to how important Minimalism itself became.
Minimalists distanced themselves from the Abstract Expressionists by removing suggestions of biography from their art or, indeed, metaphors of any kind. This denial of expression coupled with an interest in making objects that avoided the appearance of fine art led to the creation of sleek, geometric works that purposefully and radically eschew conventional aesthetic appeal.
The post-Sputnik era revived active interest in Russian Constructivism. The Constructivist approach led to the use of modular fabrication and industrial materials in preference to the craft techniques of traditional sculpture. The readymades of Marcel Duchamp were also inspirational examples of the employment of prefabricated materials. Based on these sources, Minimalists created works that resembled factory-built commodities and upended traditional definitions of art whose meaning was tied to a narrative or to the artist.
The use of prefabricated industrial materials and simple, often repeated geometric forms together with the emphasis placed on the physical space occupied by the artwork led to some works that forced the viewer to confront the arrangement and scale of the forms. Viewers also were led to experience qualities of weight, height, gravity, agility or even the appearance of light as a material presence. They were often faced with artworks that demanded a physical as well as a visual response.
Minimalists sought to breakdown traditional notions of sculpture and to erase distinctions between painting and sculpture. In particular, they rejected the formalist dogma espoused by the critic Clement Greenberg that placed limitations on the art of painting and privileged artists who seemed to paint under his direction. The Minimalists’ more democratic point of view was set out in writings as well as exhibitions by their leaders Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris.