It may be Frank Stella who’s known for making the first push towards minimalism, with his radical black stripe paintings of the late 1950s—in which he replaced gestural brushwork with systematically rendered bands of black house paint. But by that point Carmen Herrera was already creating compositions in a minimalist style of her own.
As a movement, however, Minimalism was undeniably dominated by men, with even fewer women in its orbit than Abstract Expressionism—the style whose highly personal, dramatic, and angst-ridden ethos was everything that Minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Robert Morris sought to upend. It was those two artists, Morris and Judd, who formulated in writing many of the ideas behind what we now know as Minimalism. Though they never named it as such or proclaimed it a movement, they were clear about their intentions. They called for simple, three-dimensional, geometric forms that were stripped of any illusionism, iconography, or personal expression and made using industrial processes and materials like plywood, aluminum, and plastic.
While a growing number of artists were making Minimalist work through the ’60s, it wasn’t until the 1966 “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that this style was identified as a more widespread American phenomenon. Only three women were included in that show (and only one of those artists, Anne Truitt, continued working in a minimalist mode). When the Jewish Museum revisited the exhibition in 2014 with “Other Primary Structures,” more women were brought into the fold, as were artists from outside the United States. Below, we take a look at 11 women artists who have made pioneering contributions to the pared-down geometric abstractions of Minimalism over the past 50 years.
Although Corse, who is still making work today, is often lumped together with artists of the 1960s Light and Space movement—Larry Bell, Doug Wheeler, John McCracken—she didn’t know those artists at the time, and wasn’t even aware of their work. But it’s easy to see why she’d be associated with that Southern California movement. To start, Corse was born in Berkeley, California, and lived in Los Angeles after studying at UC Santa Barbara and the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). She first gained attention in the mid-’60s with white, shaped-canvas monochromes and light box-like constructions made from Plexiglas and fluorescent lights.
In 1968, she discovered glass microbeads, the tiny prismatic spheres often embedded in roads or street signs for nighttime reflectivity. She began to attach the beads to the painted surfaces of her canvases, satisfying her desire to create different sensory effects with light. While these shimmering surfaces may suggest excess more than minimalism, they are in fact quite restrained, usually composed of pared-down geometric patterns, like broad stripes. When viewing these works from certain angles, light shifts across them and their surfaces seem to dissolve. It’s a curious effect considering that the physical presence of her paintings is often so strong.
Mohamedi’s work demonstrates the far reaches of minimalist practices, despite the movement’s association with American modernism. Known in this country largely through her recent retrospective at the Met Breuer, Mohamedi, who the Met called “one of the most important artists to emerge in post-independence India,” made delicate, abstract drawings that experiment with intersecting lines, grids, and planes.
Raised in India, Mohamedi studied art at the prestigious St. Martin’s School of the Arts in London, where she was based for some 10 years. After moving to Paris, she returned to India to teach fine art at the university level. What surprises many curators is that while many of her 20th-century contemporaries in South Asia were making brightly colored, figurative paintings, Mohamedi was intensely focused on abstract, monochrome line drawings rendered in combinations of ink, graphite, gouache, and/or watercolor. At times, they bring to mind architectural sketches or abstract landscapes, but they are clearly non-representational, playing with perspective, depth, and three-dimensionality with a tremendous economy of means.
One of the leading figures of the German art scene in the 1960s, Posenenske saw art as a tool of social transformation and institutional critique. She’s best known for her series “Square Tubes,” structures resembling parts of industrial air ducts. Her choice of materials—galvanized sheet metal, corrugated cardboard—and her embrace of modular geometric forms align her with Minimalist practices of the 1960s, but Posenenske grounded her work in her own sophisticated theories about artmaking and the art market. She wrote a manifesto in 1968 that outlined her beliefs, calling on the viewer to rearrange the components of sculptures as they saw fit.
More importantly, Posenenske insisted on working in unlimited series, subverting the notion that a work of art is a singular, static, and precious object. “I make series because I do not want to make single pieces for individuals, in order to have elements combinable within a system, in order to make something which is repeatable, objective, and because it’s economical,” she wrote. While museums like MoMA and the Tate acquired her works, she insisted on selling them at cost. Recognizing the limits of art’s ability to affect socio-political change, Posenenske stopped making art entirely in 1968 and became a sociologist.
Cuban artist Herrera showed in Paris in the 1940s, alongside artists like Piet Mondrian, before studying at the Art Students League in New York and permanently settling in Manhattan in 1954. She has been painting and sculpting crisp geometric abstractions ever since, often bringing a sense of physicality to her canvases. While her work is closely associated with the Neo-Concrete artists who emerged in Latin America after the war, her clean, flat forms in a limited palette of bright colors share much with the New York Minimalists. Unlike those artists, however, Herrera flew beneath the radar of the mainstream art world. She was once even told by a female dealer in the 1950s, “You are a wonderful painter, but I will not give you a show because you are a woman.” This month, her first museum show in New York in two decades opens at the Whitney.
Although Martin’s ghostly grids have placed her in the pantheon of Minimalist masters, she considered her work to be Abstract Expressionist in style. The child of wheat farmers on the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Martin became an American citizen in 1950. She experimented for some time with paintings of biomorphic forms and landscapes, and even sculpture, before hitting her stride. In 1957, she moved to Coenties Slip—lower Manhattan’s hotbed of artistic exchange—where the waterfront neighborhood’s deserted industrial loft spaces (in which sails were once made) drew such renegade artists as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and James Rosenquist. There, Martin began incorporating nautical objects and motifs into her work. But she also began developing her highly influential signature style: pale, square-format grids of repeating lines.
Betty Parsons gave Martin her first solo show in 1958, and her work was included in the Guggenheim’s landmark “Systematic Painting” exhibition in 1966. That show, which included work by Stella, Kelly, and Robert Ryman, among others, drew attention to art in which “the end-state of the painting is known prior to completion (unlike the theory of Abstract Expressionism),” according to the show’s curator, Lawrence Alloway. While the exhibition aligned her work with Minimalism, she did not embrace the technical precision that obsessed other Minimalists, and she painted everything herself. That said, some contend that her schizophrenia caused her to hear voices that influenced what she painted. Having endured multiple shock treatments at Bellevue hospital in New York, Martin left the city in 1967 and eventually landed in New Mexico. She lived a reclusive life there, although she continued to paint increasingly refined, ethereal grids and stripes until her death. A traveling retrospective of her work that opened at London’s Tate Modern last year closes at LACMA this month, and opens at New York’s Guggenheim in October.
Escandell’s cool, geometric forms are not just abstractions: they’re politically charged. Coming of age as an artist in the mid-to-late 1960s in Argentina, during the notoriously oppressive and violent dictatorship of Juan Carlos Ongania, Escandell joined the radical, political collective known as the Grupo de Arte Vanguardia in Rosario, after graduating from university there. Taking a stand against the dictator’s fierce censorship, oppression of intellectuals, and mistreatment of rural workers, those artists joined forces with artists and activists in Buenos Aires to stage the now-famous collaborative protest “Tucuman Arde” (Tucuman Is Burning).
Escandell’s work—abstract geometric forms on paper or built from wood—was censored. She couldn’t publicly exhibit her art from 1968 to 1983, until Argentina became democratic again. For the Jewish Museum’s “Other Primary Structures” exhibition, she created a giant painted wood version of her 1967 sketch Displacement, an X form stretching from floor to ceiling. The elongated limbs of the X are vaguely suggestive of a human form, but could also symbolize “a canceling out of the hegemonic narrative we’ve been fed about art history and Minimalism, specifically,” as the show’s curator, Jens Hoffmann, told Art in America in 2014.
Baer studied psychology at the New School for Social Research before turning to artmaking full-time. She started off working in a painterly Abstract Expressionist mode in the ’50s, then spent seven years in L.A. before returning to New York, where she quickly hit her stride with a style of abstraction that emphasized hard edges and the emptiness of the canvas. Her precisely painted canvases from the ’60s remain her most recognizable, largely consisting of a central blank space framed by a band-like painted perimeter. Baer would often show them as duplicate diptychs, or hang them near the floor, emphasizing their physicality. Her works are considered minimalist not only for their emptiness, but also for the way they draw attention to spatial relationships—positive/negative and absence/presence—above subject matter.
It’s not surprising that her paintings caught the attention of Minimalists looking to take down pictorial illusionism and all the mystical mumbo jumbo of certain Ab Ex-ers. The light artist Dan Flavin included her in an exhibition in 1964, as did the artist Dan Graham while directing a New York gallery where Sol LeWitt, Judd, and Robert Smithson all showed. A mid-career retrospective at the Whitney in 1975 placed the spotlight on her Minimalist work, but Baer had begun resisting such categorization nearly a decade earlier. In 1967, she went so far as to write a letter to Artforum, challenging Judd and Morris for asserting that sculpture was the preferred art form for resisting illusionism and the “death of painting.” By 1975, Baer had moved to Ireland and abandoned abstraction, opting instead for what she called “radical figuration”—a dreamy, surrealistic mode of painting.
One of the few devoted sculptors on this list, Truitt was one of only three women included in the landmark “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. Raised on the eastern shore of Maryland, Truitt got her BA in psychology and worked as a Red Cross nurse’s aid before attending art school for a short time. With little formal training, she began experimenting with clay, plaster, and steel after seeing Barnett Newman’s work and Ad Reinhardt’s all-black paintings at the Guggenheim in 1961. That experimentation would lead to her signature style: square-edged wood columns or panels painted with smooth acrylic, often applied in neat bands.
Two years later she was given her first solo show at André Emmerich Gallery in New York. By the mid-1970s, both the Whitney and the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. had organized mini-retrospectives. While Truitt’s smooth surfaces might at first bring to mind the work of Finish Fetish artists like McCracken, Truitt had no interest in industrial techniques such as the use of sprayed lacquer. Rather, her plywood plinths are laboriously hand-painted with many coats of acrylic. Merging painting and sculpture, she used color not only to create form and space, but also to coax something more visceral from the act of looking at art.
One of the few female sculptors of her generation to have created the kind of monumental steel, bronze, and stone works more often associated with men, Pepper has been making site-specific, freestanding abstract pieces around the world for more than five decades, including numerous public commissions. The Brooklyn-born Pepper attended the Pratt Institute before heading to Paris in 1949, where she studied with Fernand Léger and Cubist painter André Lhote.
She abandoned the brush, however, after a trip to Cambodia in 1960. “I walked into Angkor Wat a painter and I left a sculptor,” she once said. She went on to experiment with three-dimensional, abstract forms in wood and metal. Considered one of the earliest artists to use Cor-Ten steel (Richard Serra’s material of choice), Pepper first exhibited welded pieces in Italy alongside sculptures by David Smith, Alexander Calder, and Lynn Chadwick. Sometimes left raw, other times painted bright colors, her sculptures touch on Minimalism’s concern with ideas of mass and void, absence and presence.
British artist Leapman is one of the many painters who were influenced by Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, but one of the few that have managed to strike a balance between that painterly movement and the kind of minimalism that arose in the 1960s and ’70s. Since the ’60s, she has been covering her canvases with horizontal markings that sometimes evoke woven textiles or paper, or even abstracted or blurred writing. In her more recent work, repeated dashes of color streak horizontally across the surface as though she has rolled a paint-covered object over the canvas. On the contrary, she meditatively hand-paints each composition, and the laborious process of applying dense layers of paint is an important part of her practice.
Despite the hard-edge abstraction of Obering’s meticulously painted squares and rectangles, the rich, layered pigments, egg tempera, gessoed panels, and gold leaf she uses are inspired by the Old Masters of Italy, where she has spent much time. That influence goes against the more austere tenets of Minimalism, but in the 1970s, Obering operated within a circle at the forefront of the movement.
Originally from Louisiana, Obering was traveling in Italy in the early ’70s—after receiving her MFA from the University of Denver—when she met Carl Andre. The two became friends, and when Obering moved to New York in 1972, Andre introduced her to his core group, which included Judd. In 1974, when the city began allowing artists to move into former industrial lofts around SoHo, Obering bought one for a reported $10,000, firmly entrenching herself in the downtown art scene. She still lives there today. Taking a cue, perhaps, from Stella, Obering went on to paint on shaped panels and to combine painting and sculpture. She’s always maintained her strong sense of opulent color, which some might describe more as maximalist than minimalist.
Portrait of Nasreen Mohamedi by Jyoti Bhatt, courtesy of Talwar Gallery; Portrait of Agnes Martin with level and ladder by Alexander Liberman, 1960. Alexander Liberman Photography Archive, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Photo © J. Paul Getty Trust, courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Portrait of Noemi Escandell by Daniel Griot, courtesy of the Noemi Escandell Archive; Portrait of Charlotte Posenenske at Kleinen Galerie in Schwenningen, 1967, courtesy of Peter Freeman, Inc.; Portrait of Beverly Pepper courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Portrait of Edwina Leapman courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London.