less: minimalism in the 1960s
On ViewAcquavella Galleries
February 1–March 10, 2023
The Minimalists are the Calvinists of art: instead of simply preaching predestination, the Minimalists produce structures that so exclude the intervention of chance they can simply hand the plans to a fabricator and walk away. The Calvinists considered themselves the elect—those chosen by God to be saved—and the Minimalists thought of themselves along the same lines, often expressing contempt for any art unlike their own. Donald Judd’s dismissal of Cy Twombly in 1964 says it all: “There are a few drips and spatters and an occasional pencil line: There isn’t anything to the paintings.” Such an attitude bespeaks arrogance and pompous gravity. There would seem to be little room for wit or irony in this stance, and to some extent that is the case. Until we look more closely.
We get that chance in the show currently on view at Acquavella Galleries, which was guided into existence by Michael Findlay and enables us to see another side of Minimalism. The exhibition assembles some nineteen pieces by nineteen different artists, all working on a scale which, if not exactly domestic, enables us to appreciate individual works in all their playfulness and humor.
Jackie Winsor’s Rope Trick (1967–68) is a column of hemp rope wound around a steel rod 74 inches high. It is indeed a Minimalist piece, standing in splendid phallic isolation, but it alludes to the ancient Indian rope trick (visible on YouTube) magic act. Here, the magician shows off a thick hemp rope like Winsor’s, places it inside a basket, and then conjures the rope out of the bag until it assumes a posture as erect as Winsor’s assemblage. Winsor’s magic rope is a simultaneously clever and serious redeployment of an industrial product, the rope, twisted into a Solomonic column. The height of wit here, however, belongs to Robert Grosvenor. His Untitled (sculpture with wheels) (1969) is nothing less than a tiny (2 by 7 by 3 inch) metal sculpture that is also a wind-up toy. The bright yellow piece is a send-up of the vogue for ambulatory (sometimes self-destroying, in the case of Jean Tinguely) sculpture during the sixties. The conceit here is brilliant: the high seriousness of Minimalism compressed down to the level of a child’s toy.
Eva Hesse’s (test piece) (1967) is another example of doing a lot with a little. The tiny piece, made of latex, cotton, and rubber is only 3 by 3 by 3 inches in size. Its identity is anyone’s guess: all we are given is a short candle-like tube with a wire coming out of it and winding around its base. A firecracker? A model still? Just as the yellow of Grosvenor’s car is a matter for consideration independent of the object, the curious mottled orange of Hesse’s work fascinates simply because we realize that whatever it expresses has little direct reference to the truncated column with its winding wire. Richard Artschwager’s matter-of-factly titled Small Construction with Indentation (1966) is equally enigmatic. Made of Formica on wood, the object imitates tawny marble, as if it were a wall decoration ripped out of some Renaissance studiolo. It isn’t, and though it may allude to the non-opening solid stone windows Michelangelo fixed to the walls of the entry hall in the Laurentian Library, the work simply teases with the unfulfilled possibility of allusion.
Naturally, most of the works included in less are more orthodox expressions of Minimalism. Sol LeWitt’s #8 (1966) an 84 by 84 by 84 inch cage within a cage dramatically defies the concept of the domestically-sized work of art. Here is a sculpture that both defines and occupies space. Paradoxically, by not being monumental it achieves a strange monumentality, demanding we examine how it coordinates metal and air to allow us to see geometry itself. You can’t walk through it, and you can’t walk around it without reacting to it. The whiteness of the LeWitt work renders it abstract, almost a drawing in air, and contrasts vividly with John McCracken’s brilliant Red Plank (1966). The 144 by 24 inch fiberglass and polyurethane board seems casually abandoned against the wall, like a piece of siding or flooring. We might wonder who left it there, but of course that is the point: we don’t live in nature but in the artificial, geometric space of buildings, and McCracken’s lush color humanizes our constructed environment. Of course, the grand master of color here is Donald Judd, with his Untitled (DSS #108 - first version) (1967). This wall piece in scarlet lacquer on galvanized iron presents color as a thing in itself. The horizontal object (14 by 76 by 25 inches) might be a non-functional shelf, but it is more truly an opportunity for us to delight in the sensual delight of experiencing color for its own sake.
This exhibition is a unique opportunity because it enables us to have an intimate relationship with superb examples of Minimalist art—perhaps in defiance of Minimalism’s own rhetoric of austerity. Here we are able to really approach Robert Smithson’s Untitled (1967), stacked panes of glass that take us by means of geometry from transparency to color, or Fred Sandback’s Untitled (RLL of a Series of Eight Sculptures, Closed Series) (1969), a coy corner work whose appeal derives from a play between deviation and series. These are experiences only possible in a gallery space that, like Acquavella’s, prioritizes proximity and meditation.