Written by Miss Rosen.
Fifteen years after rising to global prominence, the bold and brash bravado of Abstract Expressionism was losing its edge. For all its rage against the mechanization of modern life, it had become synonymous with excess and ego. By the early 1960s, a new cool had emerged, one known as Minimalism, which took Mies van der Rohe’s maxim, “Less is more,” to its logical conclusion.
Forsaking the dramatics of Abstract Expressionism, which constantly asserted the artist and their message at the very center of the work, Minimalists sought a new kind of anonymity that favored materiality over all. Preconceived notions of art were abandoned. Narratives, metaphors, and symbols were vanished. The hand of the artist vanished. In its place all that remained was the space where the object and the audience could become entangled and engaged. Perception and experience reigned supreme, as the shape, color, line, and form of the object were reduced to their purest state.
Yet Minimalism was no less a male dominated space than Abstract Expressionism had been. The movement was realized in 1966 with the landmark “Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. Of the 42 artists featured in the show, only three women were featured, among them Anne Truitt and Judy Gerowitz (later known as Judy Chicago).
Yet women were an integral part of Minimalism as it rose to prominence during the late 1960s and ‘70s — the same era that gave birth to the Women’s Movement. Despite not receiving recognition or remuneration comparable to their male peers, artists including Carmen Hererra, Agnes Martin, Beverly Pepper, Anne Truitt, Mary Corse, Eva Hesse, Vija Celmins, Noemi Escandell, Jo Baer, and Nasreen Mohamedi were committed to pursuing their destinies as leading proponents of the movement.
"The way to beat discrimination in art is by art. Excellence has no sex,” Eva Hesse (1936-1970) told Cindy Nemser for Woman's Art Journal the year of her death. Though she passed at 34 of a brain tumor, Hesse was one of the most influential figures of the era. After receiving a BA from Yale in 1959, close friend Sol LeWitt counseled Hesse, “Stop [thinking] and just DO!” And so she did. Her work, viewed through the context of the struggles of her life, including fleeing the Nazis as a child, her mother’s suicide at the tender age of 10, and a failed marriage, reveal how Hesse forged a path using willpower and determination to bolster the lack of self-esteem that plagued her brief life.
Canadian-born painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004) also lived a life of quiet suffering, being a schizophrenic who experienced aural hallucinations and states of catatonia, and was a self-described “closeted homosexual.” Yet Martin found solace in the creation of art, observing in a 1989 interview, “Beauty and perfection are the same. They never occur without happiness.”
Inspired by Mark Rothko, who "reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth,” Martin pared down her work to its core to encourage perception of perfection and emphasize the transcendent reality of the simplified form. Her combination of repetitive mark makings and vast color fields created profound sensory effects that she further underscored with titles like Happy Holiday (1999) and I Love the Whole World (2000).
American sculptor Anne Truitt (1921-2004) abandoned her career as a clinical psychologist in the 1940s in pursuit of art. A visit to the 1961 exhibition American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists became the turning point in her career as she encountered Ad Reinhardt’s black canvases and the paintings of Barnett Newman. “I looked at them, and from that point on I was home free. I had never realized you could do it in art. Have enough space. Enough color."
Unlike her contemporaries, Truitt made her own sculptures by hand, She made her first wood sculpture that same year, titled it “First” – composed of three white vertical slates rooted in a block that recalled fragments of a white picket fence of her childhood to evoke memory and nostalgia. Understanding that color contains a psychological vibration that, when isolated in a work of art, becomes the event itself, Truitt became best known for rectangular columns that she painted by hand—up to 40 layers of acrylic paint—alternating horizontal and vertical directions, sanding between layers to remove the brushstroke.
“Every woman is a rebel,” Oscar Wilde famously said, acknowledging that the revolt comes as a relentless desire to shake off the shackles of socialization. For the women of Minimalism, freedom was a vast open terrain, one made possible because the very movement went against the grain. In rejecting every pretense of Western art, they were free to create the world on their own terms.
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