Minimalism, or minimalist art, is an art movement that appeared in the early 1960s in the United States, that has had a huge influence on contemporary design. A reaction to both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, it advocates simplicity and is found in sculpture and music as well as painting.

#1 The art of “Less is more”

Malevitch, Carré Noir sur Fond Blanc, 1915, Galerie Tretiakov (Russie)
Malevitch, Black Square, 1915, Tretyakov Gallery (Russia)

This abstract movement came in part from Modernism and was also inspired by the Bauhaus movement, whose leading artists include architect Mies Van der Rohe, who was famous for the motto “less is more”. Minimalist artists opts for pared-down, basic geometric shapes (circles, squares, lines) and limited color palettes (works are almost monochromatic).

Minimalism promotes extreme simplicity and very limited use of resources. Artists avoid flourishes and illusions at all costs. The term ‘minimalist art’ was first coined in 1965 by English philosopher Richard Wollheim in Arts Magazine. Many artists from within the movement rejected the name, however, feeling it was too reductive.

#2 Simple but not simplistic painting

Frank Stella, Mas o Menos, 1964, Centre Pompidou
Frank Stella, Mas o Menos, 1964, Centre Pompidou

The purity of Malevitch’s abstract paintings and Ad Reinhardt’s monochromes can be seen as major muses for minimalist painters, who chose to bring an end to the era of excessive egos—as in the case of Andy Warhol—and tortured souls—as in the case of Jackson Pollock. Some of the greatest representatives of pictorial minimalism include Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella. Stella’s abstract object-paintings set in unconventional frames primarilu depict straight, diagonal or zig-zagging lines.

The painter’s brushstroke was almost completely cast aside and no symbolic meaning was suggested. In contrast to classic painting, these artworks initially seemed to be free of any emotion. As Stella himself once put it in an interview, “What you see is what you see.” Any attempts at interpretation seem suddenly futile.

#3 Disconcerting sculptures

Dan Flavin, Untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964, Guggenheim
Dan Flavin, Untitled (to Henri Matisse), 1964, Guggenheim

When it comes to sculpture, Minimalist artists opt for rudimentary shapes created most frequently from raw materials like steel, cement and felt. Carl Andre presented metal squares, Richard Serra designed folded or rolled up metal sheets that spectators could walk through, Donald Judd produced three-dimensional volumes attached to walls, and Dan Flavin assembled collections of white and colored neon tubes.

The artists’ desire to free themselves from showy artifice forced them to focus on the shapes for what they were. The sculpture’s meaning is derived from our perception and the role it plays in the setting. This return to basics may seem cold and neutral, but it has similarities with the strong and profound philosophical concept of minimalist thought.

#4 Hypnotic music

The minimalist movement found strong resonance in the field of music. Artists like Philip Glass even worked with minimalist artists from other disciplines, such as Richard Serra. Emerging in the United States in the 1960s and inspired partly by avant-garde music (John Cage, jazz, serialism), minimalist music covers the repertoires of sound explorers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Arvo Pärt.

These musical sounds were also termed “repetitive” due to the patterns and phrases that continually returned as each piece developed. Like painters, the composers used very raw “materials”—such as “drones” in the case of La Monte Young, an American musician raised in a log cabin in a Mormon commune.

#5 Minimalism’s strong influence on design

Shiro Kuramata, The Bent Glass table, 1988
Shiro Kuramata, The Bent Glass table, 1988

The minimalist movement has had a major influence on 20th century design and furnishings. Frank Stella and Donal Judd (a furniture designer) influenced the work of designers like Shiro Kuramata, Jean-Marie Massaud, Jasper Morrison, and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. A large part of contemporary design (including that found at Ikea and Habitat), and even our desire to detox and “get away from it all”, is inspired by the movement.

This leading aesthetic—which is now found in everything from our interior design to our states of mind and aims to remove anything superfluous—is nonetheless increasingly being countered by a trend for maximalism.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1980, Tate Gallery
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1980, Tate Gallery

Similar artists at KAZoART

The geometric, pared-back style of this chromatic vibration from Laurent Prudot echoes the stylings of the Minimalist movement while adding a touch of modernity and color.

Vibration multichromatique,Laurent Prudot
Vibration Multichromatique 31-3 – Laurent Prudot