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"Less is more," said the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, echoing the words of Robert Browning in Andrea del Sarto (1855) and the gist of Hesiod (c. 700 B.C.), who advised "how much more is the half than the whole." In its broadest sense minimalism refers to any form of human expression whose elements have been reduced, simplified, or even eliminated altogether. More specifically, the term has come to denote movements in painting, sculpture, architecture, and music—largely American—which flowered in the 1960s and were still influential at the close of the twentieth century. While many of its best examples have provided viewers or listeners with genuinely moving aesthetic experiences, minimalism is also notable for the degree to which it has tested both artistic limits and the patience of audiences. In twentieth-century popular culture minimal forms from the highway billboard to the 60-second sound bite have exemplified Mies's dictum.

The quintessential minimalist painting of the 1960s was a monochrome square and its sculptural counterpart a simple geometric solid. Kasimir Malevich's Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918) and Aleksandr Rodchenko's Black on Black of the same year prepared the way for Robert Rauschenberg's all-white paintings of the early 1950s and Ad Reinhardt's all-black paintings of the 1960s. Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Brice Marden, and Agnes Martin are other names associated with minimalist painting of the 1960s. Influential early-twentieth-century precursors of 1960s minimalist sculpture include Marcel Duchamp's found objects or "readymades" and Constantin Brancusi's elegant and highly simplified forms such as "Bird in Space." Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Tony Smith are among the leading figures of 1960s sculptural minimalism. Much minimalist art shares an anonymous impersonality and formal simplicity, but motives behind the pieces have undoubtedly ranged from the purely aesthetic to dadaist playfulness, from expressionism to reactionism and philosophical pointmaking.

Minimal music (also called system or repetitive music) downplays or eliminates certain elements such as melody or harmony while emphasizing others, especially repetition and gradual change, sometimes to the point of alienating new audiences, but sometimes with beautiful and hypnotic effects. Best known of the minimal composer/performers who came of age in the 1960s are La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, all classically trained but variously influenced by eclectic sources including the music of non-Western cultures, jazz, and ambient sounds. Glass, who has composed the music for operas such as Einstein on the Beach (1976) and films such as Koyaanisqatsi (1983), has enjoyed the most commercial success of this group. Brian Eno, David Byrne, Kraftwerk, and a variety of new age musicians have been influenced by minimal music.

Among the most interesting examples of minimalism are those which have severely tested its limits. John Cage's "4 [.minute] 33 [.second]," a 1952 composition in which the musician performs nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, is capable of uniquely attuning the listener to ambient audience sounds. Cage was greatly entertained and impressed with the dramatic interplay of dust particles in Nam June Paik's otherwise imageless 60 minute film Zen for Film (1964). Andy Warhol produced a number of intentionally boring films including Sleep (1964), in which a man is seen sleeping for six hours. At another extreme are certain truly massive, though formally minimal, works of architecture and sculpture. In 1998 Richard Serra oversaw the temporary installation of his nine steel sculptures weighing a total of 750 tons at a Los Angeles museum.

While the lines of influence are not always clear, minimalism in its broadest sense has been at work or play in an intriguing range of twentieth-century contexts: the unadorned, rectilinear glass and steel architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson; the sound bite, the short attention span, and the 15 minutes of fame predicted for all by Andy Warhol; billboards, television commercials, and advertisements in general; the message of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" and the cover of the Beatles' "White Album"; the smiley face, the peace sign, and the corporate logo; the Hula Hoop and the Pet Rock; the miniskirt and the Volkswagen Bug; E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful; and the comic strip and the cartoon. Seinfeld, the enormously popular television series of the 1990s and sometimes said erroneously to be "a show about nothing," often had much to say about the minutiae of daily life. Art, Yasmina Reza's drama featuring an all-white painting, won the 1998 Tony Award for best play. Whatever its motives, minimalism has played a role in late-twentieth-century America that is far from minimal.

—Craig Bunch

Further Reading:

Baker, Kenneth. Minimalism. New York, Abbeville Press, 1988.Battcock, Gregory, editor. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1968.

Cage, John, in conversation with Joan Retallack. Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. Hanover, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Colpitt, Frances. Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1993.

Mertens, Wim. American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass Trans. J. Hautekiet. London, Kahn & Averill, 1983.

Strickland, Edward. Minimalism: Origins. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Zelevansky, Lynn. Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1994.

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minimalism, schools of contemporary art and music, with their origins in the 1960s, that have emphasized simplicity and objectivity.

Minimalism in the Visual Arts

Reacting against the formal excesses and raw emotionalism of abstract expressionism, the practitioners of minimal art (also sometimes called ABC art) strove to focus attention on the object as an object, reducing its historical and expressive content to the bare minimum. Many minimalist artists were sculptors concerned with reducing form to its utmost simplicity. They used flat surface colors, factory finishes, and industrial materials. The use of serial repetitions contributed to their goal. Artists such as Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin were associated with the movement. The exhibition "Primary Structures," held in New York in 1966, spotlighted works of this school. Minimalism gave rise to process art, land art, performance art, conceptual art, and installation art.

Minimalism in Music

In music, the minimalist movement was, like minimal art, a reaction against a then-current form, with composers rejecting many of the dry intellectual complexities and the emotional sterility of serial music and other modern forms. Generally, minimalist compositions tend to emphasize simplicity in melodic line and harmonic progression, to stress repetition and rhythmic patterns, and to reduce historical or expressive reference. The use of electronic instruments is common in minimalist music, as are influences from Asia and Africa. Among prominent minimalist composers are Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and John Adams.

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Minimalism. Style inspired by severe Modern architecture (such as the purest of Mies van der Rohe's work or the bare images of Barragán's designs), traditional Japanese architecture, and Zen Buddhist gardens. Minimalism seeks to avoid clutter, ornament, and even colour, while possessions were stored away. It has sometimes been adopted to suggest exclusiveness and luxury. A feature of the Modern Movement since the 1920s, it re-emerged in the 1960s and 1980s (e.g. the works of Herzog & De Meuron, Holl, Isozaki, Maki, Siza, and Ungers, among others).


Pawson (1996);
A. Tate & and C. R. Smith (1986);
Toy (ed.) (1994)

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minimalism. Term applied to style of mus. which began in 1960s involving repetition of short musical motifs in a simple harmonic idiom. The minimum of material is repeated to maximum hypnotic effect, much like some oriental mus. Its practitioners are called minimalists, prominent among whom are Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. The case of John Adams is more complex.

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minimalism Trend in musical composition, beginning in the 1960s, in which short melodic or rhythmic fragments are repeated in gradually shifting patterns, usually in a simple harmonic context. The repetitive patterns of Indian and other non-Western music influenced many minimalist composers, such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.