A Fresh Vision of Minimalism Foregrounds Female Artists

Sophie Haigney
Oct 28, 2020 5:14PM
Lydia Okumura
Cube 1,2,3, 1984
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Marlow Moss
Untitled, ca. 1940-1947
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

The sculptures are black and white, angular, almost mesmerizing in the repetition of their rigid lines and angles. They immediately call to mind architectural forms and deconstructed building materials. Their visual language reads, at first, as Minimalist, something like Walter De Maria’s or Donald Judd’s pared-down installations.

But this work, Folding Structures (2016) by artist Carmen Argote, can be read in other ways, too. The piece was inspired by a simple laundry-folding tool she used in the laundromat—and in one installation, pastel-colored cloths are neatly folded on top of the black-and-white structures. At second or third glance, the work’s connotations appear domestic, a surprising softness layered atop rigid monochromatic edges. There is both a kind of tension and symmetry between the neatly folded pink and blue cloths and these hard, architectural forms.

Carmen Argote
Folding Structures II, 2017
Instituto de Visión

This was one of the works in “Escape Attempts,” a 2017 show at Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Los Angeles, one of a spate of shows in recent years that have sought to recast Minimalism—or at least complicate the legacy of minimal art and what might exist within its boundaries. The story about Minimalism—the capital-M artistic movement that emerged in the late 1950s—has long been a story about white men working with industrial materials and hard edges. From a historical perspective, this is partly accurate, if the movement is defined in terms of a group of artists who worked closely together or shared some similar concerns: Judd, Dan Flavin, and Carl Andre among them. But more recently, scholars and curators have been asking: what if instead we told a different story about Minimalism, one that doesn’t begin or end with that movement? What if we take a broader approach to what minimal art can be? Many of these attempts are explicitly and particularly concerned with gender—reapproaching the minimal from a feminist perspective and looking both backward and forward from Minimalism the movement.

Some of these shows, like “Escape Attempts,” look at a newer generation of artists. “Escape Attempts” was built around ideas that curator Kathy Battista further developed in her 2019 book New York New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, particularly a concept she dubbed “Feminin/alism”: a new generation of female artists that was using the formal language associated with Minimalism but injecting it with subjectivity and, often, feminist politics. Argote’s work is one example.

Installation view of “Escape Attempts” at Shulamit Nazarian, 2017. Courtesy of Shulamit Nazarian

“Argote is really interested in the architectural and formal side of the minimal, but she injects in it her family history about being a Mexican immigrant in America, and brings in all these different things about her upbringing, class, the domestic, her parents, immigration,” said Battista, a tutor in histories and theories at the Architectural Association in London.

The idea of the female minimal is not new: A show at MoMA in 1994 curated by Lynn Zelevansky foregrounded female artists working in minimal or post-Minimal styles. But it remains contested territory, particularly given Minimalism’s long association with the men; some have argued that many Minimalist works even formally reproduce a particular brand of masculine power. In a wonderful 1990 essay, Anna C. Chave explored the complicated expressions of masculinity and dominance in a number of Minimalist works. Of Richard Serra’s sculpture, for instance, Chave wrote: “The paradigmatic relation between work and spectator in Serra’s art is that between bully and victim, as his work tends to treat the viewer’s welfare with contempt.” If many of the Minimalists eschewed or evaded overt politics in their works, it is certainly still possible to read patriarchal ones in them.

Richard Serra
Cycle, 2011

Anke Kempkes, a curator and art historian, began thinking about decoupling minimal art from Minimalism around 2013.

“There was a big new wave in museums, and among feminist curators at museums, to bring back women artists, but it was almost entirely to read the female avant-garde through figurative and representative art forms,” Kempkes said in a recent phone interview. “After a while, I felt this was almost too narrow a framework to look at the contributions of female avant-garde artists. So I chose to look at the notion of minimal not strictly as Minimal art but as an aesthetic.” Kempkes organized a 2020 show with Pierre-Henri Foulon at Thaddaeus Ropac’s Pantin gallery in Paris called “Dimensions of Reality: Female Minimal.” A new iteration of the show will open at the gallery’s London space on October 29th and was born out of Kempkes’s research into female avant-garde artists.

Installation view of “Female Minimal: Abstraction in the Expanded Field,” at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 2020. © the artists. Photo by Eva Herzog. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London • Paris • Salzburg.

“Dimensions of Reality: Female Minimal” features works dated between the 1920s and 1980s, and is rooted in formal similarities between art across time periods and geographies. “The notion of the female minimal was really for us stretching through time as an aesthetic formula,” Kempkes said. The show also tries to move away from a U.S.-centric conception of minimal art, featuring an array of international women artists, including Lydia Okumura, Verena Loewensberg, Lucia Moholy, and Marlow Moss.

Starting with aesthetic or formal properties was also key for Battistia, though unlike Kempkes, she was looking forward from the Minimalist movement to a new generation of artists, whom she saw experimenting with minimal aesthetics and gender in interesting ways. These included Naama Tsabar, Virginia Overton, and Carmen Herrera. “This new generation seems to engage with more minimal formal works, and to intersect with it, their personal politics,” Battista said.

In some ways, what these contemporary artists are doing runs contrary to the conceptual principles of certain Minimalists, who were interested in objects and materials largely divorced from subjectivity. “What I think is so interesting is that there was no tension there,” Battista said. “They had had enough exposure to feminism and to Minimalism, and they were happy to pick and choose what they liked of movements and ideologies.”

It’s also true that many of the so-called Minimalists rejected or were ambivalent about the label. And there were not totally clearly defined boundaries of the movement even while it was taking place. Art historian Pepe Karmel, author of the forthcoming book Abstract Art: A Global History (2020), said, “The study of movements is a little ill-informed. We need to be more cynical about movements.” Even during Minimalism’s heyday, Karmel noted, there was lively debate about what kinds of works might qualify; critic Clement Greenberg wrote an article in which he noted that sculptor Anne Truitt had been on the forefront of experimenting with minimal forms, writing: “But if any one artist started or anticipated Minimal Art, it was she, in the fence-like and then box-like objects of wood or aluminum she began making, the former in 1961 and the latter in 1962.” (Judd, in his screed “Complaints: Part I,” 1969, said that the last sentence of this review might be summed up as “if the queen had balls, she might be the king.”)

Carmen Herrera
Island, 2020
Universal Limited Art Editions

In his book, Karmel lays out a history of abstraction based in five categories of subject matter—an explicit attempt to get beyond the idea of movements. “We can imagine this global group of artists as being in a kind of dialogue with one another, even in some cases where they weren’t aware of each other, but reacting to similar earlier works and to global events,” Karmel said.

In a way, this is what curator Jenelle Porter was doing in a show called “Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art and Design” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, last year. Organized by Porter with ICA assistant curator Jeffrey De Blois, the show told a kind of counter-narrative to Minimalism that focused on excess rather than reduction. “Less Is a Bore” highlighted the Pattern & Decoration Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as more contemporary artists working in the visual language of decadence, color, pattern, and all around too-much-ness. But the exhibition opened provocatively, with a Sol LeWitt wall drawing—a work that in other contexts would almost have certainly been categorized as Minimalist. “I was looking for formal echoes among categories, and within categories, and ones that might dissolve categories,” Porter said.

In the show, Wall Drawing 280 (1976)—one of LeWitt’s first to adopt color—was placed alongside a wallpaper by Nathalie du Pasquier, and a video of a dance choreographed by Lucinda Childs and Babette Mangolte. Together, this visual selection reframed the concept of the grid from Minimalist to maximalist. Porter said she didn’t conceive of the narratives of Minimalism and maximalism as necessarily in opposition to each other, but that looking at works that had traditionally been categorized in one way through another lens could be refreshing.

“It was exciting even to remind myself, ‘I’ve always looked at this work this way but in fact there are other ways those artists might be seen,’” Porter said. “As art historians and curators, we have pushed it into these limited categories.”

Sophie Haigney