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Art world reactions to Minimalism and Conceptual Art

It was not just the public that was shocked by the Minimalist and conceptual artists' approach to making art. Many people within the art world also questioned the validity of their work. There seem to have been two main criticisms levelled at Minimalism by the dominant art critics of the day. Firstly, that it was somehow lacking in the aesthetic qualities that art was normally expected to reveal, thus lessening the experience of the viewer, and secondly, that it blurred the boundaries between art and the every day, and so undervalued the art object.

A basic cube, a pile of bricks or a white monochrome canvas offered too little to look at and seemed too easy to make.

James Meyer, Minimalism Phaidon Press Ltd, NY, 2000
Equivalent VIII
Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966
© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York
and DACS, London 2002

In his essay Recentness of Sculpture (1967), critic Clement Greenberg, champion of the Modernist art of the previous decades, dismisses Minimalism as a 'Novelty' art. He suggests that the 'aesthetic surprise' a viewer experiences on looking at 'true' works of art, for example paintings by Raphael or Jackson Pollock, is long lasting and important, while the novelty item provokes no more than a momentary surprise that is 'superfluous'. For Greenberg a 'true' work of art is a handmade expression of the artist's feelings and thoughts. Minimalist art with its deliberate production of artworks devoid of feeling, such as Judd's factory produced objects, was in fact closer to furniture than to art, and should be viewed as nothing more than 'Good Design'.

New York times art critic Hilton Kramer, in a review of the 1966 exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum (which included work by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris), also bemoaned the lack of feeling in Minimalist sculpture and suggested that the visitor to the exhibition was 'rarely moved' by what they saw.

Another important Modernist critic, Michael Fried in his essay, Art and Objecthood 1967, suggests a disparity between the Minimalists' claims about their work and the actual experience of the viewer in looking at it. Unlike Greenberg who sees Minimal art as merely novelty, Fried sees Minimalism as Modernism gone wrong. Fried suggests that if the aim of Modernist work is to explore its medium, be it paintings, sculpture or poetry, Minimalist art has taken this investigation too far, and by referring only to itself undermines the distinction between art and non-art.

Like Fried, critic David Bourden questions the value of Flavins work. In a review of an early exhibition of Dan Flavin's fluorescent lights (Village Voice, 26 Nov 1964), he suggests that there is no difference between the art in the gallery and a display in the nearby window of a local lighting company.

The effect of the critics' assault on their work can be seen in letters written by artists to Barbara Reise. In the letter illustrated above, Sol LeWitt complains that he always becomes '...defensive, argumentative and otherwise objectionable' when discussing his work, feeling as if he is always having to justify it.

Museums and galleries were also not always open to the work of these artists. Carl Andre, in a talk at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1969, recounts the attitude of one museum director to his work:

I had a show in the Hague this summer...and the Curator of Contemporary Art was the one who arranged my exhibition in the Hague Museum, sent the normal from to the Director of the Museum asking for authorization of transportation of the work from the Hague in Holland to Düsseldorf where I had a gallery...and the Director of the Museum refused to ship the work because he said this is rubbish this is not art.

Carl Andre, NSCAD talk, Art Now Class, Dec.12, 1969

It was not just the physical nature of the work that caused ruptures in the art world. The political nature of some Conceptual art also was contentious. In 1971 The Guggenheim Museum in New York cancelled an exhibition of the work of German artist Hans Haacke. Haacke's work explored the social systems that govern the way we live, and his proposal for the Guggenheim exhibition was to present two works based on an investigation into the real estate holdings of two Manhattan companies. The Guggenheim felt that Haacke's reference to specific individuals was inappropriate and was also worried about the legal implications of exhibiting the work. In a later work, Solomon R. Guggenheim Board of Trustees, (1971) Haacke made clear the link between politics, economics and the art-world by detailing the political and financial interests of Guggenheim Trustees.

Barbara Reise did much in her writing to champion the art of the Minimalist and Conceptual artists, and criticized the dogmatic theories of critics such as Greenberg. As editor of Studio International, she encouraged artists to write for the journal. In a letter to Sol LeWitt regarding an essay she had commissioned him to write, she comments:

For a while only 1 (critic) was writing about art, while artists were writing about critics. Which is fair...'
Letter from Barbara Reise  to Sol LeWitt
Letter from Barbara Reise to Sol LeWitt about his essay for Studio International, 17 Mar 1969

© Tate Archive 2003