Less is More: Min­i­mal­ism and Post-min­i­mal­ism in Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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