Minimalism is an extreme form of abstract art developed in the USA in the 1960s and typified by artworks composed of simple geometric shapes based on the square and the rectangle

Robert Morris, 'Untitled' 1965/71

Robert Morris
Untitled 1965/71
Mirror plate glass and wood
object: 914 x 914 x 914 mm
Purchased 1972© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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Introduction to minimalism

Minimalism or minimalist art can be seen as extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing. We usually think of art as representing an aspect of the real world (a landscape, a person, or even a tin of soup!); or reflecting an experience such as an emotion or feeling. With minimalism, no attempt is made to represent an outside reality, the artist wants the viewer to respond only to what is in front of them. The medium, (or material) from which it is made, and the form of the work is the reality. Minimalist painter Frank Stella famously said about his paintings ‘What you see is what you see’

The development of minimalism

Frank Stella, '[title not known]' 1967

Frank Stella
[title not known] 1967
Lithograph on paper
unconfirmed: 381 x 559 mm
Purchased with assistance from an anonymous donor 2000© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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Minimalism emerged in the late 1950s when artists such as Frank Stella, whose Black Paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959, began to turn away from the gestural art of the previous generation. It flourished in the 1960s and 1970s with Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin and Robert Morris becoming the movement’s most important innovators.

The development of minimalism is linked to that of conceptual art (which also flourished in the 1960s and 1970s). Both movements challenged the existing structures for making, disseminating and viewing art and argued that the importance given to the art object is misplaced and leads to a rigid and elitist art world which only the privileged few can afford to enjoy.

Qualities of minimalist art

Aesthetically, minimalist art offers a highly purified form of beauty. It can also be seen as representing such qualities as truth (because it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is), order, simplicity and harmony.

Browse the slideshow below and read the image captions to find out about some of the key qualities of minimalist art:

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  • Sol LeWitt, 'Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off' 1972

    Geometric single or repeated forms: Minimalism is characterised by single or repeated geometric forms (see Tate Glossary definition for 'modular'). It is usually three-dimensional, taking the form of sculpture or installation, though there are a number of minimalist painters as well such as Agnes Martin and Frank Stella

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  • Donald Judd, 'Untitled' 1972

    Deliberate lack of expression: With no trace of emotion or intuitive decision making, little about the artist is revealed in the work. Minimalist artists rejected the notion of the artwork as a unique creation reflecting the personal expression of a gifted individual, seeing this as a distraction from the art object itself. Instead they created objects that were as impersonal and neutral as possible.

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  • Frank Stella, 'Hyena Stomp' 1962

    Self-referential: Minimalist art does not refer to anything beyond its literal presence. The materials used are not worked to suggest something else; colour (if used) is also non-referential, i.e if a dark colour is used, this does not mean the artist is trying to suggest a sombre mood.

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  • Carl Andre, '144 Magnesium Square' 1969

    Factory-manufactured or shop-bought materials: Carl Andre frequently used bricks or tiles as the medium for his sculpture; Dan Flavin created his works from fluorescent bulbs purchased from a hardware store; Judd's sculptures are built by skilled workers following the artist's instructions

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  • Carl Andre, 'Last Ladder' 1959

    Space-aware: Carl Andre said 'I'm not a studio artist, I'm a location artist'. Minimalist art directly engages with the space it occupies. The sculpture is carefully arranged to emphasise and reveal the architecture of the gallery, often being presented on walls, in corners, or directly onto the floor, encouraging the viewer to be conscious of the space

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Minimalism and early abstraction

Although radical, and rejecting many of the concerns of the immediately preceding abstract expressionist movement, earlier abstract movements were an important influence on the ideas and techniques of minimalism. In 1962 the first English-language book about the Russian avant-garde, Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment in Art: 1863-1922, was published. With this publication, the concerns of the Russian constuctivist and suprematist movements of the 1910s and 1920s, such as the reduction of artworks to their essential structure and use of factory production techniques, became more widely understood – and clearly inspired minimalist sculptors. Dan Flavin produced a series of works entitled Homages to Vladimir Tatlin (begun in 1964); Robert Morris alluded to Tatlin and Rodchenko in his Notes on Sculpture; and Donald Judd’s essays on Malevich and his contemporaries, revealed his fascination with this avant-garde legacy.

Minimalist artists in focus

Carl Andre

In this video, filmed in the artist’s New York apartment, Carl Andre provides us with some insights into his processes and the materials he uses…and looks back at when his work hit the headlines.

Carl Andre: The Complete Poems
Although best known for his sculptures, language and poetry have formed an important part of Carl Andre’s practice. Find out more about his poems…and the project to publish them.

Audio Arts: Volume 2 No 2: Carl Andre
Listen to the artist describing his exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in 1975.

Carl Andre in Tate’s Collection
See sculptures and drawings by Carl Andre in Tate’s collection.

Donald Judd

Watch this video for an introduction to Donald Judd through artworks included in the 2004 exhibition at Tate Modern.

Donald Judd in Tate’s Collection
Browse artworks by Donald Judd in Tate’s collection.

Donald Judd: Exhibition Guide
Read the online exhibition guide to the 2004 exhibition at Tate Modern of this important minimalist artist.

Donald Judd  – A sense of space
One of the qualities of minimalist art is its interaction with the space in which it is installed and viewed: In this video Tate director Nick Serota discusses Judd’s use of space.

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, 'Happy Holiday' 1999

Agnes Martin
Happy Holiday 1999
Acrylic and graphite on canvas
support: 1525 x 1525 x 40 mm frame: 1545 x 1545 x 50 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© Estate of Agnes Martin / DACS, 2009

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Agnes Martin in Tate’s collection
Happy HolidayFaraway Love…explore these and more paintings by Agnes Martin in Tate’s collection.

Who is Agnes Martin?
Read an introduction to this important minimalist painter.

Agnes Martin exhibition
Explore more Agnes Martin in this 2015 major restrospective of her work at Tate Modern.

Agnes Martin: Arne Glimcher in conversation with Frances Morris
Discover further insights into the life and work of Agnes Martin in this video of Arne Glimcher, author of Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (Phaidon, 2012), talking to Tate curator Frances Morris.

Minimalism in context

If you take minimalist art out of a gallery…does it still look like art? Watch this video to discover what happened when Carl Andre’s 144 Magnesium Square was installed in a hardware shop.

Architecture and the Sixties: still radical after all these years
Find out what was happening in architecture in the 1960s and the influence minimalist ideas had on architectural design and form, in this interview with seminal sixties architect Rem Koolhaus.

Open systems: Rethinking art c. 1970
Explore this online exhibition guide to discover how minimalism as well as conceptual art paved the way for artists who wanted to bypass traditional art world structures and instead adopt their own aesthetic systems in response to the politics of the decade.

Other perspectives

Minimalist art and music meet, by way of Africa
In this exclusive video, classical conductor André de Ridder reimagines composer Terry Riley’s famous minimalist composition In C Mali with help from members of Africa Express, including innovative African artists Bijou and Adama Koita and Blur frontman Damon Albarn.

Minimalism with a human face
Eva Hesse once referred to her art as ‘nothings’…but in this article Darien Leader discusses the surprising humanity that her minimalist works in fact convey.

Set in Stonehenge
In this Tate Etc. article, Carl Andre’s uncle reveals how a trip to the English countryside to visit his relatives in the 1950s inspired Carl Andre’s lifelong interest in man-made forms in the landscape.

3 Minute Wonder: Dan Flavin Untitled
Find out what schoolchildren made of Dan Flavin’s untitled, when film director Mike Figgis placed it in a school and filmed teh students’ responses to it.

Minimalism in detail

Sol LeWitt, 'Six Geometric Figures (+ Two) (Wall Drawings)' 1980-81

Sol LeWitt
Six Geometric Figures (+ Two) (Wall Drawings) 1980-81
Drawing
Purchased 1980© The estate of Sol LeWitt

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Encountering Eva Hesse Symposium video recordings
Watch video coverage of this past conference at Tate Modern focusing on the life and work of Eva Hesse.

Audio Arts: Volume 7 No 4: Frank Stella
Listen to Frank Stella discussing his 1985 exhibition at the ICA in London.

Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium
Research article exploring Sol LeWitt’s site specific wall drawings as artworks poised on the cusp of the ‘post-medium condition’ of installation art, and how they relate to the practice of drawing at a time when conventional, medium-based categories were under attack.

Related glossary terms

Conceptual artabstract art,  modularconstructivismsuprematism