Postminimalism was ushered in by a show titled Eccentric Abstraction,
curated by Lucy Lippard in the fall of 1966. She decided to organize the show because the rigors of minimalism, of which she had been an early champion, had made her aware of what was precluded, namely "any aberrations toward the exotic." She also recognized that a significant number of artists had "evolved a . . . style that has a good deal in common with the primary [or minimal] structure as well as, surprisingly, with aspects of Surrealism. [These artists] refuse to eschew . . . sensuous experience while they also refuse to sacrifice the solid formal basis demanded of the best in current non-objective art."1
Eccentric abstractions were composed of unexpected, often soft materials, arranged in modular or serial structures. The funky materials seemed to refer to the artists private, frequently erotic experiences. Indeed, eccentric abstraction was also aptly characterized as minimalism with an eccentric, Dada, surrealist, or expressionist edge; or as purist funk; or as sexy, absurdist, or perverse minimalism. On the day of the opening of Lippard's show, and in the same building, there also opened an exhibition of minimal art organized by Ad Reinhardt, with the help of Robert Smithson. Robert Pincus-Witten commented that these two shows "represented the apogee of Minimalism and the beginning of 'post' or 'counter' Minimalism."2
Lippard soon came to believe that the eccentric abstractionists were intent on the dissolution of the minimal object, as she and John Chandler wrote in a 1968 article titled "The Dematerialization of Art," which was also the subject of a book of hers published in 1973.3
Robert Morris, an originator of minimal sculpture, chronicled the transition-in-progress from minimalism to postminimalism. Like Lippard, he had written extensively on minimal art, his "Notes on Sculpture" providing the theoretical underpinning of the "unitary object," as he termed it. But he had turned against the aesthetic of minimal sculpture in two articles, "Anti-Form" (1968) and "Beyond Objects" (1969), in which he formulated a rationale for the postminimal tendency labeled process art.4
Morris had come to believe that minimal sculpture was not as physical as art could or should be because the formation and arrangement of its rigid modular or serial units was not inherent in their material. To make a work more physical, the process of the work's "making itself had to be emphasized, Morris called for a literal art whose focus was on matter—more specifically, on malleable materials—and the action of gravity on matter. Such an art, whose ordering was "casual and imprecise and unemphasized," could not be predetermined. "Random piling, loose stacking, hanging, give passing form to the material."5
To demonstrate what process art was, Morris organized 9 in a Warehouse
at the beginning of 1969. He included not only Americans—Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Bruce Nauman—but also Europeans—the Italian arte povera artists Giovanni Anselmo and Gilberto Zorio (and he should have invited Joseph Beuys)—indicating the international character of the new three-dimensional art.
In the essay "Beyond Objects," published soon after 9 in a Warehouse,
Morris asserted that the unitary object, like any object, was connected to its surroundings in a kind of figure-ground relationship. To Morris the equation of the object with the figure revealed that minimal sculpture was "terminally diseased." The cure was to base three-dimensional art on "the conditions of the visual field itself." The discrete, homogeneous object had to be replaced by "accumulations of things or stuff, sometimes very heterogenous. . . . In another era, one might have said that the difference was between a figurative and a landscape mode."6
Morris treated process art in formal terms, but viewed from another perspective, sculpture made of inchoate, mutable "stuff" had an unconventional edge, exemplifying a countercultural attitude to art.
In 1971 Morris again claimed that "the static, portable, indoor art object can do no more than carry a decorative load that becomes increasingly uninteresting." He proposed "a couple of routes away from this studio and factory generated commodity art." One was outdoor earth art, for example, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty
(1970) and Michael Heizer's Double Negative
(1969-70), which made of landscape the very substance of art. The other was indoor installation, "an art of location," in which artists created "visually pared down" environments, for example, the dimly lit room of Larry Bell, in which those who entered became acutely aware of the time it took to get used to the darkness and make out what little there was to see. Still, Smithson's Spiral Jetty
and Heizer's Double Negative,
which were elementary geometric figures, and the room- and corridorlike installations of a Bell or Bruce Nauman emphatically declared their source in minimal art. But their departures were equally significant. Both earth art and installation art depended on real time, requiring the viewer to participate, to "be there and to walk around the work."7
Because they involved the viewer as a kind of actor, earth art and
installation art were essentially theatrical. Another form of postminimal art, called body art, carried theatricality to an extreme in "sculpture." Its major practitioners, Vito Acconci and Nauman, used their own bodies as the material of their art, performing elementary movements whose simplicity was inspired by minimal art.
Earth art, installation art, and body art, like minimal art, were based on preconceived ideas. Such artists as Sol LeWitt "abstracted" the ideas themselves and formulated a purely conceptual art. Conceptual art totally "dematerialized" the discrete art object, whose objecthood had been valued above all else by minimal artists. So also in one way or another did earth art, installation art, and body art deny the object. Indeed, all postminimalist tendencies were linked by their urge to avoid objecthood.
In 1969, at roughly the same time as 9 in a Warehouse, James Monte and Marcia Tucker curated the first museum show of postminimal art, Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, at the Whitney Museum. Monte wrote in the exhibition catalog:
The radical nature of many works in this exhibition depends . . . on the fact that the acts of conceiving and placing the pieces takes precedence over the object quality of the works. [The] very nature of [a] piece may be determined by its location in a particular place. [The location functions] not merely as a site for the work, but as an integral, inextricable armature, necessary for the existence of the work.8
In emphasizing the "situation" of artworks, Monte took his cues from Morris, who was included in the show. Indeed, he had in mind the argument over "theatricality," waged by Morris on behalf of minimalism and Michael Fried in the cause of formalism.9
Appropriately Tucker and Monte included in their show composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and filmmaker Michael Snow, because they conceived of music and film as physical and literal, making viewers acutely aware of "real time"—that is, the passage of time. Tucker wrote that Glass and Reich employ "a deliberate and unrelenting use of repetition [which] focuses attention . . . on the material of sounds and on their performance."10
In Snow's film Wave Length,
a camera moves down the length of a room with excruciating slowness; time seemed to have become a palpable substance. The same applied to films by Nauman in which he repeated single physical gestures, such as bouncing a ball.
Monte and Tucker might have included documentation of an earlier conceptual performance by John Latham (1966), which provided a telling commentary on the Fried-Morris argument over theatricality. Latham, an English artist who built assemblages of books sprayed with black paint or partly burnt, and who was an instructor at London's St. Martins School of Art, a bastion of formalism, took Greenberg's Art and Culture
school library and used the book as the focus of a conceptual performance piece. He and a group of his students, fellow artists, and critics did not incinerate but chewed a large part of this formalist gospel, and immersed another part in acid, turning it into a liquid. Thus Latham had a modernist object of sorts theatrically transmuted into a postmodernist antiform substance. When the library urgently requested the return of this much-in-demand volume, Latham brought in the jar of liquid. On the following day he was informed that he would not be invited back to teach.
Because postminimal works were not objects, they were generally ephemeral. To preserve their memory or to provide them with an afterlife, and to disseminate information about them, artists recorded them in photographs, films, videos, notes, and other documentation. There were debates over the purpose of such information. Was it simply a nonart record of an artistic event or an artwork in its own right, to be marketed as such? Postminimalists whose sympathies were countercultural believed that the documentation of a work was not art and thus not salable. They had turned to process art, earth art, installation art, body art, and conceptual art because they did not want to create art commodities. Many also believed, as Lucy Lippard observed, that their refusal to produce salable objects would subvert the art market (although she later acknowledged that this attempt had failed). In the end the documentation was accorded the status of art object. Indeed, much of impermanent postminimal art seemed to have been made because of the documentation it yielded: It was made to be photographed. As Nancy Foote wrote: "It's ironic that an art whose generating impulse was the urge to break away from the collectible object (and hence the gallery/collector/artbook syndrome) might through an obsession with the extent and quality of its documentation, have come full circle."11
Consequently photography assumed a new importance in avant-garde art.
Declaring the radicality of their work, postminimal artists and their supporters announced that painting was not only outmoded but had reached its terminal c...