SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Less is More: Minimalism and Post-minimalism in Australia
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Victoria, until November 4
IT is a half-century since Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, unless you subscribe to some alternative hypothesis about what happened on August 5, 1962. Next year will be the semi-centenary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and all too soon it will be five decades since the momentous events in the northern spring of 1968, in Paris and in Prague, which in their different ways represented the beginning of the end for the communist model — the end of an intellectual fantasy of revolution in France and of the reality of dictatorship in Czechoslovakia.
Each new generation is disconcerted to find their vivid present settling into the sediment of history. Incorrigibly, we keep believing it will be different this time; how can erstwhile avantgardists turn into rich old men and women, tenured academics, trustees of art galleries — or indeed forgotten have-beens?
It is already a long time since lecturers could observe to students that they were too young to remember May 1968; now some of their parents are too young. And all the provocative gestures of late modernism in the 1960s and incipient postmodernism in the 70s are now as distant from us as the Edwardian period was for the post-World War II generation.
At the same time, those decades are still too close to us to see them with adequate clarity and detachment. And the art of the post-war decades was packaged in an unprecedented volume of pseudo-theoretical promotional writing. Tom Wolfe was the first to lampoon the abuse of criticism for the purposes of marketing, in The Painted Word (1975), but things have got much worse since, fuelled, like everything else, by the amount of money that is at stake. All this verbiage, unfortunately popular with academics who earn their living by recycling it, eventually will have to be unwrapped so that the work itself can be seen in relation to the history of art, the realities of its time and the ultimate context of human relevance.
The years immediately after World War II were those of the sudden and unexpected American ascendancy in art. It’s hard today for many people to realise that American art was hardly more significant on the international scene than Australian until the war. Paris and London, as it has often been noted, were shocked to find themselves elbowed aside by New York as the new capital of world art. The movement that arose there turned out to be the last spectacular phase of modernism. Abstract expressionism was more extreme than any previous style in its attempts to wipe the slate clean, erase memory and start again.
Absolute originality, spontaneity, immediacy and authenticity were what Jackson Pollock’s style of painting stood for. That ideal tended to be presented by the supporters of the movement as a kind of millennial consummation of the destiny of the art of painting, whereas it was at least in part, as was recognised by the more clear-sighted, a retreat from the rising tide of kitsch that dominated commercial culture.
But abstract expressionism could not quite live up to these high ideals. All too often, as we can see in the current retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Canberra, the work was as vacuous as it was pretentious; content-free paintings that became the perfect market commodity.
The response of pop, of course, was to embrace the world of kitsch and commercialism with both hands — it was a large part of Andy Warhol’s peculiar genius that, making no claims to high-mindedness at all, and in fact strenuously denying any higher objectives, he never had to apologise for loving the gaudy and the trashy. Days after Monroe died he went out and bought a studio photograph of her, enlarged it and screenprinted it on canvas. The work became the centrepiece of his first one-man show in New York in later 1962 and established his reputation.
The minimalists, the subject of an exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, accompanied by a valuable catalogue, took an entirely different approach. While turning away from action painting and the cult of the artist as heroic creator, they continued to avoid kitsch and to pursue the modernist aims of immediacy and authenticity. Their work became more austere by sacrificing the personal and the expressive and concentrating on making the object itself in the simplest possible form.
One can see a certain natural progression from hard-edge abstraction to minimalism, although as Sue Cramer, editor of the exhibition catalogue, points out, this continuity is actually more characteristic of the Australian followers of the style than of its New York originators, who tended to work in sculpture. But many things remain imperfectly clear about the history of this movement — as Cramer acknowledges, most of the artists we now think of as minimalists didn’t care for the reductivist implications of the term.
There are also important differences between the flat abstraction represented in Australia by The Field exhibition in 1968 and the flat paintings of the minimalist style. A large black picture by Peter Booth, for example, represents the earlier style and it is determinedly self-contained. The viewer sinks into its mute darkness in the same way that the