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Minimalism
It would come as no surprise to professionals and layman alike that artists are often misunderstood. In fact, many artists seem to thrive on this very fact. In some case, one might even suspect they go out of their way to be misunderstood. Without a doubt, the group of artists that would seem to be most guilty of this would be the Abstract Expressionists. Often there is little in the way of representational subject matter to offer the viewer a clue as to what's going on, and in many cases, the artist strives to be deliberately obscure, insisting that the viewer "imagine" with him what the painting is all about. Actually however, there is one type of art that went even beyond this. It developed as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. We're often tempted to think that Abstract Expressionism was the only thing happening on the modern art scene during the 50s when the New York School held sway in the international art world. That wasn't quite the case. There was a small band of New York artists that sought to counter the extreme emotionalism they found in Abstract Expressionism, in effect, wishing to shear from it the expressionism in favour of the abstract. They were called the Colourfield and eventually Hardedge Colourfield painters.

Much of this movement was an outgrowth of the soak and stain methods of Helen Frankenthaler. Artists such as Morris Lewis, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Elsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella began with her colours and, in effect, masculinized her art, giving their work hard edges, geometric shapes, and studied compositional arrangements which gradually evolved toward ever simpler designs until, by the late 60s, what they did became known as Minimalism, which was actually a much more descriptive term for the whole movement. If Abstract Expressionism had been obscure, Minimalism breathed such a rarefied air few aside from artists could appreciate intellectually what its creators were striving to accomplish. While the Abstract Expressionists had been creating art for art's sake, the Minimalists had refined this trend to the far more esoteric, colour for colourís sake. The result was it left many artists and nearly all the general public blinking their eyes in astonishment.

Part of the astonishment was disbelief, that art had ascended (or descended, depending upon your point of view) to such a level. The other element was the sheer, overpowering beauty these experiments fostered. Inasmuch as it was impossible to get involved emotionally in any subjective content (there simply was none) and very nearly as impossible to see much in the way of design or composition, the only thing left was to envelop one's self in the enormous blanket of colour subtleties employed. Even here, artists such as Ad Reinhardt with his series of black paintings (gridded squares using subtle shades of black), or Joseph Albers with his concentric squares employing extremely subtle shades of a single colour, didn't make the task of enjoying or understanding these works easy. Later artists such as Kelly, Noland, and Stella made it a little easier, allowing extremely simple compositional elements to vie with their colour studies for viewer interest, but all in all, the entire movement far outstripped the Abstract Expressionists in the race to be the most misunderstood art of all time.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 October 1999

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