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, reconstructed 1971
Robert Morris
Untitled 1965, reconstructed 1971
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021

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

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 AndreDan FlavinDonald JuddSol LeWittAgnes 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.

Read the image captions of the artworks below to find out about some of the key qualities of minimalist art:

Sol LeWitt, ‘Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off’ 1972
Sol LeWitt
Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off 1972
© The estate of Sol LeWitt
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
Donald Judd, ‘Untitled’ 1972
Donald Judd
Untitled 1972
© Donald Judd Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2021
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.
Frank Stella, ‘Hyena Stomp’ 1962
Frank Stella
Hyena Stomp 1962
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021
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.
Carl Andre, ‘144 Magnesium Square’ 1969
Carl Andre
144 Magnesium Square 1969
© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2021
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
Carl Andre, ‘Last Ladder’ 1959
Carl Andre
Last Ladder 1959
© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2021
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

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 Kazimir Malevich and his contemporaries, revealed his fascination with this avant-garde legacy.