Two exhibitions— Monumental Minimal at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Pantin (until 23 March 2019) and Michel Heizer at Gagosian Le Bourget (until 2 February 2019)—enable fundamental principles of minimalist and land art to be redefined, particularly in relation to space and the visitor.
Monumental Minimal: the apparent oxymoron is enticing. This is the title judiciously chosen by Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac for an ambitious and very successful exhibition of large-scale works by the major artists of the iconic generation that drove minimal art. Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre and Robert Morris, as well as Robert Mangold, are represented with numerous outstanding works in this top-level summit. Beyond the indisputable visual quality of the works brought together here and the aesthetic abundance that reigns in all the adjoining galleries—which open to each other so that you have the impression of seeing the works, if not together, then in a continuity that is both logical and harmonious—the project’s theoretical dimension and architec- tural quality are immediately clear. All the selected works, their size, their placement, and of course the architecture of their composition—shown to great effect—are in perfect alignment with the various spaces they occupy. The works’ internal structures, no matter how diverse they are from one work to another, depending on their purpose, are striking to both the eye and the mind with the spontaneous consciousness they provoke of what constitutes the shared theoretical basis of the minimalist adventure: a conception of the work that precedes and is distinct from its realization, no matter how faithful it is. A carefully conceived design whose work in volume is the rigorous application in its installation, subject to the particularities of each artist.The work is finalized structurally beforehand, and its actual realization is the only part made visible. From the beginning this visibility is conditioned by the visibility of the process conceived by the artist.
‘LIVE’ A SHARED SPACE
The critic and art historian Michael Fried created a word to explain this bias towards a system of variations based on a simple structuralist and mathematic logic and the relationship to the result: objecthood. This word definitively differentiates between minimalist creations and the pictorial or sculptural works that came before, particularly the paintings of the abstract expressionists, but also those of pop art with which they are contemporaneous. One of the objectives of the minimal ‘object’ is less to occupy space, which traditionally would be allocated to it in relation to the viewer, than to induce the viewer to experience it instantly, naturally, as everyday. Fried quoted Robert Morris expressing it clearly: ‘Whereas in previous art “what is to be had from the work is located strictly with [it]”, the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation— one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.’ Rather than undermining this concept the ‘giant’ exhibition at Galerie Ropac makes it all the more perceptible, all the more obvious. The almost-architectural dimension of many of the works, far from weakening their internal organization, makes them more explicit, accentuating the sense of cohesion, of adequacy, between what is looked at, who looks and the place where the interaction takes place.The intellectual perception of the internal history of the works is spontan-
eously revisited in the visitor’s perception in relation not only to their visual capacity, but also to their physical experience of the space where the encounter happens. For the artists of the so-called minimalist movement, the theoretical stakes remain high, particularly for those present in the exhibition.The placement of all the works is well considered. Carl Andre’s sculpture-progressions on the floor reflect Donald Judd’s verti- cal and horizontal progressions on the wall, and develop the various spatial and ground deployments of Sol LeWitt’s white cubic constructions, and vice versa. All of them anchor and punctuate the distinct spaces while visually invoking shared volume, giving the entire space a particular density and rhythm while also opening it up. Sol LeWitt’s sumptuous double room of transversal wall drawings brings together subtle and multiple permutations of colours in eleven by eleven ‘squares on squares’. A masterful ode to Josef Albers’s
Homage to the Square. The proposed visual and spatial rhapsody makes it possible to understand, through simply walking, the sophisticated relationship between the works maintain while each preserves its own identity both in its formal presence and in the connection established with space. Robert Morris’s grey felt tips with yawning horizonal lacerations initiate a dialogue with the geometric refinement of Robert Mangold’s paintings. These connections subtly clarify the specificity of their internal organization. Thus the neon works of Dan Flavin tend to delicately disintegrate the space containing them without disrupting the neighbouring works.
SIZE AND SCALE
The very large aspect, which is not systematic in the minimal works, is nevertheless the logical inclinationse of these artists. This is even more true among their contemporaries and direct interlocutors, the Land artists—of which Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer are the main representatives—who co-opt major spaces and planetary reliefs as sculptural material. Gagosian presents, at the same time as Galerie Ropac’s exhibition, a solo show by Michael Heizer. The most obvious affinities between the two exhibitions include their shared preferences for simple geometric forms, the relationship built in the communal space, and the connection reflected in the concept of ‘monument’, in both its dimensional and semantic meanings. Michael Heizer, however, dismisses the notion of scale per se, stating ‘it is only an imaginary size’. This elliptical declaration is effectively felt in the Gagosian exhibition. The Nevada earthworks, defying the enormous American landscape from the Grand Canyon to the giant mounds of Mounument Valley: the incomparable Double Negative of course, but also the clinical incisions made with Dissipate on the Rock Mountain Desert, find their peers in the works that occupy the gallery’s very urban setting. The perceptual energy Heizer put in place is evident: the dialectic of the mass, real or suggested, by the void and the solid, the dialectic of the negative and the positive. With their precise chalk lines these ‘incisions’ or ‘occupations’ in the very vast space of the gallery project the visitor into a universe of varied sensations on the awareness of their own physical relation to the space around them, the understanding these chalk-line works give them of the minute disturbances that could significantly overturn an initial overall perception. The artist’s intervention in the gallery’s architectural whole (walls, floor, etc.) preserves, in the rigour of its internal dialectic, the romantic power vested in the specific experience of our being-in-the-world in all its dimensional—and vital—relativity. According to the artist: ‘You don’t place a work somewhere. It is the place.’(1)
Translation: Bronwyn Mahoney
(1) Cited in G. Thibergien, Land Art (Paris: Ed. Carré, 1993). Ann Hindry, a critic and art historian, is curator of the Renault Collection.