Abstract Critical

Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism – the Gap Between?

Written by Andrew A Stonyer

Artist Andrew Stonyer also took a long look at Timothy Taylor Gallery’s ‘The Minimal Gesture’ exhibition and came to some rather different conclusions about its implications.

The purpose of this exhibition is to explore the gap between – and improbable proximity of – abstract expressionism and minimalism. It consists of single paintings from Markus Amm, Hans Hartung, Jonathan Lasker, Agnes Martin, Peter Peri, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Rudolf Stingel, Terry Winters and Christopher Wool. In all of their work there is a commitment to drawing and in particular, its exploration of geometry. Of the 10 artists in this exhibition it is the work of Hans Hartung, Agnes Martin and Sean Scully that most effectively explores the gap and the improbable proximity.

What is so ironic about this exploration is that, if minimalism as defined by Donald Judd in his Specific Objects essay is credible, then painting as an activity and as an object is not only questionable, but is/was in danger of displacement by work in two and a half and three dimensions. Though Judd was certainly committed to this point of view, it is often forgotten that this essay was a commissioned paper on the state of modern painting, intended to make a significant contribution to discourse concerning the state of modern art in the United States. For this reason it is deliberately polemical and not as dogmatic as it might seem. This is evident from Judd’s criterion of specificity, which he exemplified through reference to artists such as Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Johns and Rauschenberg. In 1964 when he wrote this paper there was a growing reaction to abstract expressionism and therefore several eminent writers and curators had similar views   For instance, the curator Samuel Wagstaff referred to minimal art as pared down to a minimum. (1) Concurrent with the publication of Specific Objects was Richard Wollheim’s Minimal Art. Not only did Wollheim bring rigour to the discussion, but he was first in applying the term minimal art to modern art, and also the first to focus on the question what are the minimum criteria by which we are able to identify a ‘work of art’? (2) Unlike Judd, neither Wagstaff nor Wollheim presaged a concentration on sculpture, but rather the contribution that minimalism might make to all of the arts. It is now 45 years since the publication of Specific Objects, sufficient time to assess what became the core of minimalism. This might be summed up as the use of a deliberately restricted visual vocabulary that is reliant on the horizontal and vertical, the distancing of the artist from the making of the work, and the denial of illusion as an aesthetic quality. Authorship relating to a surface or texture that is created by the artist and bears their mark, was therefore subordinated.

Abstract expressionism at its most intense is the opposite of the above. Writing in the 1950’s Harold Rosenberg (3) described abstract expressionism as an act and the painting itself as a moment, for him the painting was inseparable from the life of the artist. Its vocabulary therefore, and the process of its creation were biographical – a moment or period in the artist’s life. The syntax of abstract expressionism is almost always explicit, and therefore clues to the first traces of an idea are apparent in the finished work. Through this the viewer is witness to the methods that brought the painting into existence, this might include the over-painting of a pencil or charcoal line, the erasure and replacement of a colour or texture or the blurring of a line that was once precise. Unlike minimalism, abstract expressionism was not subject to a pre-emptive paper or manifesto. Instead it was defined largely through its own practice and therefore the theories and the accompanying discourse was more or less retrospective. As a movement it has a breadth that stretches from the action painting of Jackson Pollock, the innate subtlety of Cy Twombly, through to the figuration of de Kooning and the disarming simplicity of Rothko.

Though not directly associated with abstract expressionism, Han’s Hartung’s  life witnessed the development of the movement from beginning to end. Though his painting in this exhibition might seem to relate directly to abstract expressionism, it is the result of an extensive period of experimentation involving both drawing and print as the necessary preparation for a painting. Therefore, unlike abstract expressionism, no physical trace of this activity exists in the painting. In this painting the vocabularies that approximate to minimalism and abstract expressionism are brought into sharp contrast, the former to the right of the painting, the latter to the left. The result is not so much a gap between the two, but more a collision in which the two opposing forces become locked together. The tone of the black figures and the blue of their ground add further poignancy to the painting, the black obtruding slightly from the picture plane, the blue receding into its luminosity. Hartung’s use of blue is masterful and utterly human. Could this be the antidote to his imprisonment in a ‘red cell’ in France during the second world war, that was intended to nullify his colour sensibility?

Scully’s painting ‘Overlay n# 4, consists of a square divided into 21 rectangles by vertical and horizontal lines. The geometry is precise in that the rectangles are all of an identical size and therefore the vertical and horizontal lines that divide them occur at equal intervals respectively. Though this arrangement of lines fit into the square with a seemingly passive regularity, the perceptual consequences conflate this passivity. This is because the 6 horizontal lines dominate the lesser number of the two verticals, leading to tensions with the edges of the square they are on. The rectangles are painted in a very narrow tonal range of blue, and although their tonality is restricted, the lines that divide one rectangle from another accentuate these subtle tonal differences.  What is particularly interesting about this painting is that it was painted at a time when the influence of minimalism was still strong and though the influence of this does not in any way compromise its originality, it is nevertheless evident in its geometry. Where it does diverge from minimalism is in its painterly surface, which seems suspended between anonymity on the one hand and the explicit intervention of the artist on the other; a circumstance that is surely indicative of an improbable, yet successful proximity between minimalism and abstract expressionism?. Each rectangle, though seeming to be similar to its neighbour, has its own tonal arrangement of blue and therefore its own illusion and potential recession into the picture plane.

Agnes Martin’s ‘Untitled No2 is remarkable for the restraint of its intensity. Consistent with minimalist theory and in common with Scully’s painting, it is pared down to a minimum where the composition of horizontal lines reinforces the square that is the periphery of the painting. This is a painting that needs to be looked at ‘slowly’ so that one can see how the thin graphite lines that appear at first sight to be even, are the result of an almost infinite variety of uneven gradations of graphite that, through the pressure of the hand; at one time become dense, at another almost transparent and sometimes even broken. Living in New Mexico for most of her life  the pale ochres and tans in Martin’s work may well reflect this environment. She nevertheless grew up in Saskatchewan, a very different landscape to New Mexico. In the wide open spaces of Saskatchewan one is always aware of the ever pervasive line of the horizon, which is frequently accentuated by contrasts between the opacity and density of the land and the ever expansive sky. There are on occasions exceptions to this horizontal linearity; this is when the horizon line becomes an atmospheric band that reflects a multitude of the palest tints in which yellow, pink and white are predominant. Such tints bear a remarkable resemblance to those in her paintings.

At this point in the London exhibition calendar this is a timely exhibition; with Max Bill at Annely Juda’s, paintings by Malcolm Hughes in Osborne Samuel’s as well as retrospective of Enrique Brinkman’s work at Rosenfeld Porcini, this is a good time to look again at the legacy of abstraction and its two main post world war two movements; abstract expressionism and minimalism. In doing this it might be more fruitful to place emphasis on the inevitability of the improbable and recognise that it is this very concept that is at the centre of artistic development and invention. As the late Kirk Varnedoe has written in his ‘Pictures of Nothing’ – Abstraction is to be seen more as a history of denials, of self imposed rigours and purposely narrowed concentration. Thus its history is not as often represented, a line of cumulative gains or cumulative reductions (….) A better model for abstraction is perhaps the hypertext, where the line between A and B goes out in a million possible and ever more complex directions, where artists along the line from A to B find that A’ or A’’ is a window opening an entire universe. (4)

1.Rosenberg, Harold in Tuchman, Maurice The New York School p.18.

2 Wollheim, Richard. Minimal Art Arts Magazine 39.4, Jan 1965, pp.26-32.

3. Meyer, James, Minimalism, art and polemics of the sixties, Yale U P, 2001, p142.

4. Varnedoe, Kirk. Pictures of Nothing, abstract art since Pollock Princeton U P, 2006, p.240.

Images courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery




  1. Stu said…

    The show didn’t really work for me. Some good work but the whole premise seems so irrelevant.

  2. Simon Deakin said…

    What is it that could make the ‘and’ between the minimalism and abstract expressionism meaningful as a gap? Expressionism is already an abstraction, it doesn’t refer to a specific thing as a description, rather it refers to a state. Perhaps Roman Opalka’s work was an example? Maybe time could occupy the gap between minimalism and expressionism. Wasn’t there some idea that his work was about a process of gradual disappearance? This disappearance being marked numerically, allowing the disappearance to appear as that which is disappearing: expression, abstraction, time…

  3. BW Tomlin said…

    Abstract Minimalism? Critical Realism? Well, it’s obvious that Post Modernism is history. And that leaves contemporary painters doing what? For those of us who still put brush to canvas or pick up a camera, it means a trip down memory lane–to the gritty realism and the high-minded conceptualism of the ’70s. The socially progressive “Me Decade” has yet to catch up with the extravagant behavior of 21st Century bankers–but it’s getting there. Perhaps Minimalism isn’t quite the ticket but, then, the conceptualism that informs it will most certainly launch us into the next revolution.

  4. GB said…

    What is the gap that is elluded to between Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism but a game of historical references and antecedents? Andrew seems to explain Minimilism as a sort of anti-art but surely the artists wanted to gleen a truth and Minimilists are simply artistic purists. Abstract Expressionist’s are also purists. So, each are looking for a truth justifying their existence through academic or evolutionary discourse. Opposites to each other yet they co-exist because they both are part of an intelligent evolutionary process.

    Each have there historical relevance fixed and although they are persuasive arguments, the argument that existed at the time regarding the diminshing quality of execution in the work, is now at a pivotal point for Post Modernist artists. When Kirk Varnedoe discusses abstraction as a universe of many windows what he does not say is that ideas are easy, everyone has ideas and many windows through which to see these ideas. The post-modernist artists merely need to illustrate them by whatever means. The making of art is therefore unimportant, because it has become secondary to the idea.

    This leaves us with the notion that art is merely an illustration of the idea and conceptually not really that important. We see this in Post Modernism, which has at its heart token art, trendy ideas, and a general decay in the worthiness and standards of artistic outcomes, you can even book a market stall to sell your art wares. An artist’s bric a brac stall situated in a collaborative market, what a come down from those lofty heights of the Minimilist or Abstract Expressionist artist.

    Therefore, it is those open discussions, which spring up when revaluating the gap between Minimilism and Abstract Expressionism that is interesting. Rather than a closed dialogue adopted by post Modernists’ promoting branded products aimed at the budget buyer or the investor. There is not a real care for the art here but this is not the case for either Minimilism or Abstract Expressionism.