A Book from My Library: Minimalism by Kenneth Baker

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Why in the Lord’s name would I want to cover a dust jacket with stickers—why, especially, a book on Minimalism? Well, it began with that yellow rectangular sticker on the bottom left, the one to the right of SpongeBob. It came with the book, which I ordered from a remainders catalogue, and reads: “As listed in our sales description and on your order form, this title is sold in less than perfect condition. There may be some minor damage or the dust jacket may be shopworn. (Removable)” The edges of it are crinkled because I tried to peel it off and it wouldn’t come off. Funny, huh? What’s funnier is that other than this unremovable sticker and the black magic-marker smudge beneath its spine (marking it as a remainder), the book came in perfect condition.

Sometime later I tore the packaging off one of those cheap picture frames you get for a couple of bucks and it too came with a sticker. The sticker displayed a Reagan-era family saying cheese—you know, the kind of snapshot you’d want to put in your new cheap-shit picture frame. What amused me was the small print just underneath the Nashville, TN address: “Made in China”. And the lovely barcode next to it. I decided it belonged on my Minimalism dust jacket. And so it began. It’s amazing how many opportunities arise for picking up free stickers.

i votedPeople in the grocery business have a phrase for those splashy displays they put up to grab your attention; they call it “visual noise”. The noise I added to my dust jacket suits me because I love contrasts, and Minimalism, if it is anything, is supposed to be clean, everything removed but the essential. It is generally thought of as an art depleted not only of composition (there is no composition to the dust jacket, either), but also of all noise, distraction or anything extraneous. Extraneous to what? To the mute presence of the thing itself. In fact, that’s why the design of Minimalism, the book, is so peculiar, for it is not put together with the standardized grids one takes for granted in most books, including art books. Julia Rauer made the bold decision to compose the page layouts the way one might organize a classical painting—by disrupting the discrete integrity of the grid. One might think that this decision works counter to the interests of Minimalism, and, when I first leafed through the book, I thought so. But as I read and my eyes became accustomed to the pages, I began to appreciate how beautiful her work is. The works of the so-called Minimalists, it turns out, are best seen, in a book context, when they are staggered on the page, and Rauer’s classical eye is a constant reminder of one of the seminal contexts that Minimalist works were produced and seen in contrast to.

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As with the book’s design, so with its text: an initial peculiarity, followed by unexpected riches. Its subtitle is Art of Circumstance. Author Kenneth Baker explains on page 20 that

The argument of this book is that Minimalist art made possible new strains of art experience, but that the Minimalists’ methods inevitably failed to fix or objectify those possibilities of experience in ways that enable us to know whether or not we can still partake of them. Those possibilities may well have been contingencies of historical circumstance that can never be reconstructed. Minimalism was the project of disclosing and exploiting the contingent, contextual aspects of making—and of instituting something—a work of art. But because contextual circumstances change, we can never be sure in what sense, if any, the Minimalist works we see today are what they were when they were first put forward. From a conservative critical viewpoint this is the crux of Minimalism’s weakness as art: its failure to seal itself or its meaning against erosion by circumstances that were certain to change.

It’s not that what Baker says here is untrue, but, quite the opposite, it is true of all art produced at all times. Minimalism is a special case, he argues, because of its

tendency to locate content outside the art object, in its physical setting or in viewer’s responses, rather than “inside” it, in the literary or psychological import of an image, for example. Minimalist art proves itself not by preserving a range of aesthetic values against the ravages of history and human forgetfulness, but by its power to keep us mindful of art and its meaning as creations of the social order, not just of gifted individuals.

I have a problem with Baker’s assumptions.

  1. That it’s possible for any art to “seal itself against” the “erosion” of time. Please give an example. This sounds to me like an allusion to the cliché of “timeless classics”—works that are seen or said to resist the vagaries of time because they are such transcendent masterpieces. These masterpieces are perpetually thrust at us by the institutions that profit from preserving them.
  2. That the Minimalists did not “preserve a range of aesthetic values against the ravages of history and human forgetfulness.” Artists as well as institutions do this, and everyone has their own agenda. This sounds to me like Baker is suggesting the Minimalist object really is not the thing itself. In other words a series of steel cubes by Donald Judd does not have a quotient of aesthetic quality equal to a Rodin.

  3. That the “literary or psychological import of image[s]” are not as vulnerable to the contingencies of time as the strategies of the Minimalists. I must be educated in a certain way to appreciate a Rodin, just as I must be to appreciate a Judd.What Baker characterizes as the special case of Minimalist art is really the case that all art poses, only in its purest state. In other words, Judd will never go away so long as Rodin does not go away. Ah, but you will argue, Rodin got there first! Oh no, my friend. Look again. Look back to the oldest art found. Naturalistic representations of the world have coexisted, from the very beginnings of art, with geometric shapes, patterns and repeated motifs. Judd’s pedigree is just as old as Michelangelo’s. Human beings, it would appear, have always been schizoid. In other words, what we call modern human beings really go back to the caves. The modern era is that old, and the second renaissance began with what is commonly called the Modern Art Era, when artists “rediscovered” the ancient nonrepresentational modes of art making. And I put “rediscovered” within quotation marks because this art never went away. It always existed in handcrafts and the decorative arts, and it always existed in nonwestern cultures. One might even say that, within the larger picture, the classical art of the Renaissance was a deviation from the norm.
  4. That the primary significance of Minimalist art is that it “keep[s] us mindful of art and its meaning as creations of the social order”, in contradistinction to an art that focuses on aesthetic values or the object itself. I would argue that Minimalist art does both equally, and that is indeed its strength.

Baker complains that the vitality of Minimalism was crushed by the art business (p 16), that “by the mid 1970’s, Minimal art had become the currency of lucrative careers”. This is the way of culture, from high to low. Recently the surviving members of Led Zeppelin were honored at the Kennedy Center. There they sat, grizzled and tuxedoed, next to President Obama, while they were praised, entertained and applauded for the very work that, in the early 1970’s (when the Minimalists were still considered radicals), was considered to be sleazy, hard-edged and potentially dangerous. Yesterday’s radicals are today’s classics. It’s worth noting too how close the cultural exchanges are between the U.S. and Great Britain. Baker could write in 1988 that in the first decades after WWII a European-style avant-garde could not take hold in America because of the corrupting power of the market forces: “the largest possible paying constituency is the common goal of museums, publishers, art dealers, and self-interested artists.” (p29) In the same year that these words were published, Charles Saatchi saw Damien Hirst’s work for the first time. Together, they would make Warhol’s factory look like a mom & pop store.

Strangely enough, Baker does not develop the stated argument of his book, but instead, and happily, goes on to describe the positive aspects of Minimalist art. Herein lies the richness of his text. Since I have rambled here long enough, I’ll have to save those items for another post. For now I’d like to mention that Baker’s excellent descriptions of them argue for the particular silence of Minimalism—what might be seen as the “failure” earlier alluded to by Baker—and that, ultimately, the power of these works (which they are still able to exert) is to be found in their silence, in their ability to stand as an antidote to the visual as well as the many other kinds of noise that pollute our culture.

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10 Responses to A Book from My Library: Minimalism by Kenneth Baker

  1. angela says:

    Your dust jacket is a fabulous juxtaposition to the silence I enjoy in minimalism.

    You are far better with art understanding than I, so please answer, would the early cave art (cannot remember the French locale) be an example of that “first mans attempt” at minimalism? Or is it minimalist because that was all the artistic knowledge they possessed? As I write this I couldn’t help but wonder as I typed out ‘man’ if perchance a female was allowed at the wall… Wouldn’t that make a great fiction?

    Now you have me wondering about a few names whose work I cannot visualize, shall investigate! Merci ~

    • Little is known about the cave artists. We can reach back and embrace them, but it’s a romance to imagine them reaching forward to us. Still, it’s hard to resist. I would not attach the word “Minimalism” to anything they did. I always imagine quotation marks around the word even when I refer to Judd, Andre et al since they themselves never accepted the term. We use the term for convenience sake to discuss a group of artists who shared certain characteristics in common. Today it also has the added baggage of referring, generally, to any stripped down aesthetic. But those characteristics – use of primary shapes and repetition – can be found in the caves, along with naturalistic representations of animals. Grids have been found, as well as circles arranged in lines and grids. We don’t know why these were made. Were they early attempts to count, to keep track of time? – who knows. But are we not justified in comparing ourselves to them? Do they not speak to us, even if we are unsure of the meaning? In recent years we are used to people making comparisons of the great figurative art of the caves to the great representational art in our canon (which goes back to the classical era). By the same logic, we may recognize the characteristics of geometric art – generally associated with modern art – in the caves.

      • angela says:

        Mark, you have been most generous and kind in this response, thank you! I, for the most part, do understand that minimalism is a statement of the artist for a certain type of aesthetic (or lack there of), ergo, why the cave paintings came bounding out of my brain and upon your page I shall never know (I shall chalk up to reading on my phone at 6AM!) I still find the cave paintings fascinating (of what I know of them when briefly studied in archeology), but they were more a form of communication (documentation, mapping, etc) verses what we constitute the purpose as art today. Curiously, though, as I write that statement I must identify that statements/’direction’ are certainly made via art today, no? What artist is not trying to communicate something…or am I wrong… wait, don’t answer that! All joking aside, I do wonder what school you champion the most? Moi — abstract expressionism with a dash of minimalism, unless, of course, I’m at the yellow house….cheers! ~ a

    • School of art? Hmmm. Modernism, of course (that includes post-modernism). I admire so-called “folk” artists – those who are self-taught and do their own thing. If you mean specific movements I like Dada and Minimalism. Mostly I don’t go for schools or movements, but am attracted to individual artists, regardless of style or time period. I admire El Greco as much as Judd.

      When you say “abstract expressionism with a dash of minimalism” I think of Franz Kline or certain paintings by Motherwell – am I on the right track?

      I like geometric artists who have what might be called a “human” touch: Ellsworth Kelly and Sean Scully (esp his paintings from the 80’s) are 2 of my favorites.

      • angela says:

        Yes on both artists. I shall not keep bothering you, but cannot help but think of our dialogue here after just reading this http://htmlgiant.com/craft-notes/how-to-be-a-critic-pt-1/(disregard the first youtube unless you are so compelled, btw) – crux of what was a lightbulb for me was the idea that the communication per se is via the artwork not the artist. What does it do, what does it say — not what does it mean. I know we spoke of this in ModPo, but here it clicked for I wonder how my approach to my unfinished canvas would be if I created with an intention for the viewer to interact not understand… Wow, wonder what would happen to a poem if I wrote with that thought, hmmm

    • Angela, ‘How to be a Critic’ is a very interesting article. Not only do I agree with it, but it was Rauschenberg (looking at what he does, thinking about it) that first taught me to think this way. Rauschenberg doesn’t tell you what to see or think. He invites you to open your eyes and interact with what you’re seeing.

      ‘Creat[ing] with an intention for the viewer to interact not understand’

      This is what I try to do: To make something that is not so obscure as to be meaningless, but not so precise as to dictate how it is to be seen and read and understood. Rather, to facilitate a cleansing of vision, to engage the viewer/reader, stimulate or provoke.

  2. Not qualified at all to discuss the ideas presented here, but I do find the correlation between “Minimalist” art (which I appreciate more now that you’ve uncovered its ethos for me) and Lascaux extremely fascinating. Your visual noise pollution of the book cover is probably the classic definition of irony.

  3. Susan Scheid says:

    Though I feel I somehow lack the irony gene, I whole-heartedly agree with hedgewitch. Your dust-jacket decorations make for a splendid irony against the content of the book.

    While this is not precisely on point to your post, ironically enough, I recently have had two non-conversations on the subject of Minimalism. The first was over a dinner table at which I and my mate were guests. The subject was the Dia:Beacon, home of Minimalist art and quite close to where we live. Our host and another guest dismissed the art in Dia:Beacon as ridiculous, with a sweep of the hand. I tried once to venture an alternative view, to no avail. It wasn’t worth pursuing; there was no discussion to be had.

    The second non-conversation was while walking with a neighbor I’d run into on the subway. I’d just come from the opera, and we fell into a brief non-conversation about music, in which she immediately mimicked Minimalist music and dismissed it as idiotic. In this case, I made the effort to put Minimalist music in its historical context, as a critical breaking-away from over-complication in composition that had (I agree with Taruskin here) led music into a cul-de sac. In the United States, at least, I believe Minimalism in music can be credited with opening the path to a resurgence of experimentation and variety in musical composition. That conversation, at least, met with slight success, but I am sure that it will be ephemeral.

    I am struck particularly, thinking about these two non-conversations, with your closing point: “For now I’d like to mention that Baker’s excellent descriptions of them argue for the particular silence of Minimalism—what might be seen as the “failure” earlier alluded to by Baker—and that, ultimately, the power of these works (which they are still able to exert) is to be found in their silence, in their ability to stand as an antidote to the visual as well as the many other kinds of noise that pollute our culture.” Particularly as to Minimalist art, had I thought there was any possibility of turning a non-conversation into a conversation, I would have pointed to Agnes Martin, before whose paintings I can stand, still, and simply be.

    • I would love to see the Dia:Beacon collection. Serra, Judd… they’re some of my favorite artists. Some day I’m going to make the trip to Marfa Texas just to see the Judd studio.

      I’ve seen people make those absolute rejections of what they probably perceive to be extreme art many times. Whether ‘minimalist’ music or ‘free’ music – the one is monotony and the other is noise. I think the Minimalists in visual art are just as important as the ones in music. I don’t know if the visual artists led to more experimentation, but they exist as a kind of touchstone for being in a space and perceiving it on a basic level.

      Last time I was at MOMA I came across an Ad Reinhardt about the same size and proportions as a door. Unfortunately it was crowded in with a bunch of other paintings, terribly lit, and stuck in a kind of complex of galleries with many people going back and forth. Fortunately I was with another painter and we agreed this painting was sublime – there was no other word. A black field and two bars crossing of a purple so dark as to be almost black – that was all. You had to focus. Sometimes you lost sight of the cross, then it would appear, and it would seem to fill your consciousness. I could spend a very long time alone in a room with that painting.

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