While Mininalism’s resolute and pronounced response to Abstract Expressionism is widely familiar—musings typically conjure visions of geometric shapes exhibited separately and in arrays set out in matrices and linear progressions—what is its legacy? How do younger artists react to these austere compositions, which tend to be achromatic and convey stasis, and how do they articulate fresh viewpoints through their works? Have they found ways of working within the movement’s tenets, or do they skew or disregard them altogether? Fondation CAB, which aims to preserve the history of Minimalism, also concerns itself with such questions. Its recent exhibition “Figures on a Ground: Perspectives on Minimal Art” could be considered an illuminated attempt at answers. Though the matter-of-fact tone of the title correlates with Minimalism’s cool presence, this survey thwarted such stolid frankness by presenting content as unanticipated as it was exemplary.
Although Minimalism is commonly acknowledged to have been initiated by male artists, curators Eléonore de Sadeleer and Evelyn Simons proposed an alternate and parallel course of development that brings other stakeholders to the fore. Not only did they update the story, they also chose to highlight artists who are breaking away from increasingly time-worn conventions. The diverse and multi-generational set of featured female artists ranged from the pioneering Carmen Herrera and Anne Truitt to Tauba Auerbach, Anna-Maria Bogner, Claudia Comte, Sonia Kacem, Ariane Loze, and Jessica Sanders, all of whom were born in the 1980s. Works by these younger artists, which accounted for about a third of the show, revealed energetic and edgy takes on Minimalism, demonstrating how key attributes of the movement might be revisited and used as future points of departure.
Bogner’s Untitled (2020) proved the point at the outset. Lodged in a tunnel-like, cobblestone-paved passageway linking the street to the exhibition space, it recalled Fred Sandback’s yarn sculptures, but not their shape-defining configurations. Instead, using black elastic bands, Bogner created two square Cs that stretched across the floor, up to the ceiling, and back again along the overhead plane. The forms, which mirrored each other, crossed into each other’s spaces. Given the uneven light in the corridor, the work had the ability to startle visitors and thus prompt them to notice how it subtended the location in an engagingly aggressive and off-kilter way.
Kacem’s Bruxelles (2020), produced during a Fondation CAB residency in early 2020, was equally gripping. By stretching brightly colored fabric over wooden frames, she produced a pair of tent-like, domed structures that alluded to shaped abstract paintings, sculpture, and architecture, while dramatically linking two different spaces. While one dome graced the floor inside, its counterpart clung to the wall of a courtyard, where the transforming effects of the weather caused drip marks to accumulate on its surface. A doorway and a large window granted physical and visual access to both spaces. The ensuing play of correlations and disparities in structure, color, and placement generated multiple ideas and sensations, all of which seemed speculative and in accordance with the work’s dynamic and inherently provisional nature.
The precise repetitiveness of Comte’s monumental intervention 69 Roller stripes form a big zigzag (greyscale gradient) (2020) generated a commanding visual cadence that not only grated against the jagged symmetry of Ann Edholm’s orange and black canvas situated directly over some of the zigzag’s darkest strokes, but also, as it faded, subtly contrasted with the delicate tones of MW34, ST (1993), Marthe Wéry’s sculpture of panels leaning up against the wall. Charlotte Posenenske’s spirited Series DW provided another point of reference. Made of cardboard, the twisted contour of this reconfigurable and ductwork-like tube sculpture—much like the transitions embodied in Comte’s strokes—belied the monotonous aspects of Minimalism.
Sculptures by Julia Mangold and Meg Webster broke with the notion that Minimalist art refers only to itself. The trio of columns in Mangold’s Untitled 001, 002, 003 (2012), for instance, clearly evoked the staggered height and arrangements of Mies van der Rohe’s tower projects in Chicago and Toronto. Less evident, however, was the fact that the columns were assembled using the same four non-identical shapes. Though they had been scaled proportionally and stacked in the same order, the shuffled placement obscured this aspect. The work thus offered viewers a puzzle with the potential to convert perusal into an unexpectedly enjoyable process. In Webster’s Copper Holding Form (1991), rounded edges and an understated, richly varied, and light-dependent surface similarly engaged the body and eyes through an inviting sense of tactility. Learning that Webster calibrated the size of this compact copper monolith to her own body not only confirmed why its upper corners conveyed a vague impression of human shoulders, but also gave the sculpture a hypothetical purpose.
Compared to the verve of other works, the restrained character of Auerbach’s T Oscillator, Fret/Extrusion/Hole (2015) and Sanders’s Crumple ABK1 (2015) initially seemed more in line with Minimalism’s defining precepts. But as one came to appreciate their heightened awareness of structure, process, and nuance, such impressions withered. Demonstrating deftness with materials, these monochromatic and low-relief topographies evidenced each artist’s distinctive and clear-sighted approach.
During a 2019 Fondation CAB residency, Loze produced the atmospheric video/performance Minimal Art (2019), which highlights the inherent complexity of perception and points to the inscrutability of Minimalism. Loze juxtaposed excerpts from 1970s interviews with Larry Bell, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Tony Smith with footage of her, as two personae, probing aspects of Fondation CAB’s spaces. At one point, the view of an uninflected, bicolored plane is suddenly disrupted when the artist enters the middle of the scene. In addition to proving that the camera had been focused on part of a three-dimensional space, the abrupt transformation illustrates how multiple factors influence vision. In bringing the artists’ words to life, the video also generates a host of considerations and questions, underscoring how, while Minimal art strives to convey a sense of invariable constancy, it really creates highly subjective and transitory experiences.
The three discerning essays in the catalogue form an additional and important component of the exhibition. The first, written by curator Evelyn Simons, recounts the history of Minimalism and critical responses to it in order to illustrate how the selected artworks extricate themselves from the movement’s dictates. Dorothée Dupuis’s provocatively titled “Witches of Geometry” explores gender boundaries within art practice and the influence of deep-seated, persistent assumptions. In “On Common Ground,” Matilde Guidelli-Guidi considers contemporary social history and three of the exhibited pieces, interweaving aspects of labor, modes of art production and distribution, context, movements of the body, perception, scale, notions of purpose and/or value, invocations of space, and formal concerns into a succinct and enlightening text. The writers’ viewpoints, like the works in this exhibition, remind us that good art should be recognized as good art—not disparaged by distinctions that minimize achievement. Though “Figures on a Ground: Perspectives on Minimal Art” presented works by female artists, the exhibition title neither exploits nor denies that fact. Rather, it treats it as a matter of consequence. About that, there is no doubt.