The Monumental Minimal exhibition which is being held at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Pantin until March 23 showcases 20 pieces from major American minimalist artists such as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold and Robert Morris.
The pieces selected for the show exemplify the formal consistency of this movement which started in the 1960s. Each one is made up of combinations of simple geometric shapes designed using industrial materials in the way that Dan Flavin used neon fluorescent lights or how Carl André worked with square panels of copper and limestone. The first structure is hung on the wall, the second is placed on the ground; together they challenge classic concepts of painting and sculpture. Similarly, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1176 destabilizes the concept of framing art by completely covering the wall with his sculpture made of empty cubes directly installed on the ground thereby eliminating the need for a plinth. If pieces that are intended to be murals reject the flatness of wall surfaces (a fundamental concept in American modernist painting) and if those meant to be installed on the ground (as traditional sculptors do) break free of their verticality, it’s because they oppose the confines of abstract expressionism in American art of the 1950s as the narrative purpose of classical art. These 3D paintings and 2D sculptures are referred to as specific objects in Donald Judd’s essay of the same name published in 1865 where he declares the end of an academic vision of art by eradicating the distinction between sculpture and painting. Works of art were to be considered objects whose purpose is to reveal their surrounding space. For example, if Carl Andre’s installation exposes the space on the ground, then the lighting produced by Dan Flavin’s piece lends consistency to the wall surface. These two pieces describe how objects relate to their space; they require participation from the viewer who can now walk on André’s piece in order to reach Flavin’s. The pieces are all-encompassing because, as Judd states, “the three dimensions are the real space”, which is why the number of elements piled vertically on the wall for his installation entitled Stacks varies according to the height of the ceiling. In this piece the space between each element must be the same height as the element itself because that distance is an integral part of the structure. Following the same principle, the number of works shown in this exhibition have already been shown elsewhere in different sizes.
As the title of the exhibition indicates, minimalism becomes monumental because all the pieces are adapted to the layout of the space, an old boilermaker factory that Austrian Thaddaeus Ropac turned into an art gallery. The 2,000 square feet of exhibition space is ideal for showing large-sized pieces but the term monumental does not only refer to the gallery’s size and the pieces shown there. It also invokes the idea of commemoration and questions the relationship of minimalism’s artists to other works iconic of art history. If the pioneers of this movement wanted to ensure their relevance in the present by working with industrial materials and by using modern architectural designs (following the famous aphorism of “less is more” of architect Mies Van der Rohe), they also face comparison to their predecessors. Consequently, Ad Reinhardt, although a painter, is considered to be a forerunner of minimalism. His Ultimate Paintings which, in his own words, are “the last paintings that could be painted”, experimented with the limits of what constitutes a piece’s visibility. These paintings, made between 1960 and his death, are almost entirely black except for barely discernible cross shapes in the centre of the canvas. They also introduced painting as a series, a notion cherished by minimalists. The exhibition explores this relationship to works of the past by showing pieces like Dan Flavin’s, Monument for V. Tatlin, produced in 1967 which is a tribute to Russian constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin’s Monumental to the Third International designed in 1920. In the same way, Carl Andre’s modular pieces are inspired by a sculpture from Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși. As Andre declares, “I’m merely putting Brâncuși’s Endless Column on the ground instead of raising it to the sky”. And finally there are Robert Mangold’s paintings Red/green X within X #2 which are consistent with the work of Piet Mondrian by virtue of the attention paid to strict relationships inside the canvas.
If the term “monumental” in the exhibition’s title refers to the position that minimalists hold in relation to the artists who preceded them, it could also be read as an homage to their own contribution to art history. This idea is supported by the very solemn look of the exhibition where the purity of form is echoed in the spotlessness of the gallery space. It creates an atmosphere that invites contemplation and prompts viewers to ponder the legacy left by the artists of this radical movement. While the materials and the shapes used here are not obsolete (some are still part of daily life), it is amazing to consider that these images and this subject matter has largely disappeared from the field of art. In much the same way, the title of the exposition, a juxtaposition of two terms, is very disconnected with the current nascent sentimentality of young artists whose exhibition titles often sound like poetic phrases. In this sense, the absence of Franck Stella, who coined the symbolic expression, “What you see is what you see” is quite meaningful as is the inclusion of work by Robert Mangold, another artist of the same generation, in the final exhibition hall. His pieces, painted by hand and produced on canvases, display rounder and less regular shapes than are customary for minimalists. They open a gateway for future generations.