The Road to Minimalism

Sometime around 1960, the painter Ad Reinhardt defined sculpture as “something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” This summed up the longstanding prejudice against sculpture, which for centuries had been considered an art that was distinctly inferior to painting. Leonardo da Vinci famously argued that the practice of sculpture required less intellectual effort than painting and that sculpture could draw on distinctly poorer means, lacking such basic elements as color, chiaroscuro, and perspective. Leonardo also asserted that the sculptor was too dependent on nature, especially because it lighted his work in the same way as it did “other man-made things that would otherwise be invisible.”

Over the next few centuries, a number of writers expressed similar attitudes, criticizing sculpture for being too closely bound to nature and unable to exercise the kind of artistic control that would make it sufficiently independent from the rest of the real world. In Baudelaire’s essay on sculpture, titled “Why Sculpture Is Boring,” he characterized sculpture as “brutal and positive like nature,” but at the same time vague and elusive: “It presents too many faces at once…. The spectator, who revolves around the figure, can choose a hundred different points of view, except the right one.” Echoing Leonardo, Baudelaire also wrote about how random lighting effects could humiliate the sculptor by revealing beauties in his work that he himself had not thought of. In a painting, by contrast, one saw only what the artist wanted one to see: “Painting has only one point of view; it is exclusive and despotic: and so the expression a painter can command is much stronger.”

The notion that sculpture was subservient to painting became so entrenched that a painter like Reinhardt could speak with the flippant assurance of someone who feels he will not be challenged. But in the 1960s, only a few years after Reinhardt made his jibe, sculpture’s place in the world changed radically. Sculpture began to look very different, rejecting even indirect resemblance to anything in the world outside itself. (“What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella remarked in 1966.) It also began to interact with the beholder in a very different way: instead of bumping into it, one would have been more likely to trip over it or bang one’s head against it. Works such as Carl Andre’s long, narrow rows of bricks hugged the floor in a way no sculpture previously had; Eva Hesse’s wiry constructions looped down from gallery ceilings with an unprecedented fluidity of movement; Richard Serra’s large steel plates broke up with powerful, even menacing effect the spaces in which they were placed, and Donald Judd’s rows of shiny metal boxes were stacked relentlessly up and across gallery walls. Sculpture had not only come off its pedestal and inhabited space in a radically new way, it was increasingly shown in galleries in which there were no paintings from which to back away. Within a few …

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