Back to BasicsAbstract Expressionism pushed and pulled art in every direction, twisting it, turning it, tugging it, and taunting it almost to the breaking point. The work of de Kooning, Pollock, Kline, Gorky and the others took art to the edge of nothingness. By the end of the 1950's the movement was becoming a bit decrepit with age. The young punks of Pop Art openly questioned their elders regarding the relevance of an art that spoke to so narrow a constituency as to become meaningless in any real sense insofar as the most of the world was concerned. But before a movement can end it must show signs of exhaustion. And this last gasp of the Modernist Era was called Minimalism.
The Russian abstractionist, Kasimir Malevich, had foreseen this end as early as 1918 in his vision, White on White. Frank Stella, an American born in 1936, fired the final, suicidal shot that brought Abstraction and the Modernist Era to a not-untimely end. In his 1959 black painting, Die Fahne Hoch!, he claimed to have painted a work no one could write about. Almost the exact opposite of Malevich's White on White, this painting was all black in its careful application of very wide, black, enamel lines leaving a pinstriping of raw grey canvas in a geometrically regular cross pattern.
Minimalism was a back-to-basics movement, an admission that everything worth doing in art had been done, and that all that was to follow was endless repetition and variations on past accomplishments remodelled and rehabilitated to have a "new" look but basically "old wine in new bottles". Decades of relentless "newness" had led to a virtual vacuum. Minimalism shut the door on Modernist optimism in its sterile painted constructions and raised the question of, "What next?" If the art world's very existence is predicated on innovation, then this apparent end begets a crisis of enormous proportions. In this so-called Post-Modernist era in which we find ourselves, we struggle to make some kind of sense out of what art now is; and if it is now progressing in any real sense, or merely floundering in the sea of nothingness bequeathed us by the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 February 1998