Minimalism and conceptual art

Minimalism and the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s completely transformed our understanding of space and materials. Based primarily in New York, the artists involved started creating objects out of raw materials that consisted of basic geometric forms. The goal was to eliminate any kind of reference to the outside world in order to create works that referred only to themselves. For the conceptual artists, this meant that the idea itself could be the work of art. It’s easy to imagine how radical these new pared-back artworks would have been against the background of abstract expressionism – the dominant art movement of the 1940s and 1950s – which prized self-expression and European traditions.

Although Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt fiercely denied labels such as ‘minimalist art’, they are all considered major figures within this movement.

Judd’s Untitled 1975 and Andre’s Steel-copper plain 1969 – both on display in the new contemporary galleries – demonstrate the minimalists’ focus on raw materials and uniform geometric shapes, or ‘primary structures’, while the goal to eliminate external references can be see in Stella’s Untitled 1965, which uses the canvas’s own stretcher bar as the scale for the repeating squares.

LeWitt, who coined the term ‘conceptual art’, revolutionised our perception of the art object in works such as Wall drawing #337 1971, Wall drawing #338 1971 and Wall drawing #1091: arcs, circles and bands (room) 2003. These drawings on the walls of the Gallery have been physically produced by someone else; according to LeWitt, it is his idea and written instructions that constitute the artwork.

If you compare these artworks to later ones in the exhibition, you’ll see the influence these early artists had on later generations.