Minimalism is a word we often hear, but what does it really mean? Depending on your point of view, minimalism can refer to many different things. For example, the micro-home trend was partly motivated by the idea of simple living. This minimalist lifestyle asks people to think about what is really essential in their lives and to reduce clutter, whether physical or spiritual.
Minimalism is also important for the visual arts and design. Although it may seem like a simple principle, achieving excellence in the minimalist style requires great skill. It requires artists, designers and architects to break things down into their essential elements, using simple forms to produce harmonious work.
Strongly influenced by Japanese culture and philosophy, Minimalism is a Western art movement that emerged after World War II. Since then, it has remained an enduring aesthetic choice that continues to appear in contemporary art and design.
How does Japanese culture influence minimalism?
While many cultures practice concepts of aesthetic simplicity, minimalism draws its greatest influence from Japan. Zen philosophy, which values simplicity as a means to achieve inner freedom, is manifested in Japanese architecture, which became increasingly influential in Western culture from the 18th century onwards.
Japanese aesthetic principles seek the innate beauty of objects, valuing their natural state. Known as wabi-sabi, finding value in the simple forms of nature has a great influence on the minimalist movement. Another principle known as ma – emptiness – calls for large open spaces to create a spatial emptiness that forces the contemplation of essential forms. This concept is the key to contemporary minimalist architecture.
Finally, the principle of seijaku – or stillness – translates the state reached by meditation in design. Here, aesthetics are used to help encourage tranquillity, harmony and balance. It is easy to see how the clean simplicity of minimalist design can achieve these same goals.
The minimalist art movement
Minimalism emerged as an important American art movement in 1960s New York. A direct reaction against Abstract Expressionism, Minimalist artists set aside ornate symbolism and focused on materials.
These young artists often worked with industrial materials such as concrete and steel, drawing attention to their forms and physical properties rather than emotion. Their elegant geometric work did not rely on elaborate metaphors for interpretation, avoiding traditional fine art values.
Instead, Minimalist artists often forced the audience to think about how physical objects affected their reactions by reflecting on principles such as weight, light and size. The American painter and sculptor Frank Stella, a leading figure in the movement, exemplified minimalist principles with his Black Paintings. The series, executed between 1958 and 1960, is a set of canvases in which black enamel paint was applied in thin strips separated by raw canvas. The repeated geometric patterns force the viewer to appreciate the value of the flat surface rather than seeing the painting as an illusionary window to another world.
“All I want anyone to take away from my [works] and all I take away from them is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion,” said Stella in 1964. “What you see is what you see.”
Sol LeWitt, with his attention to geometric shapes and towers as expressed in his sculptures and wall drawings, is another big name in the minimalist movement. Other notable minimalist artists include Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Vija Celmins, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd.
Minimalism was the dominant art movement in the United States in the late 1970s. This then led to post-minimalism, a reaction against austerity that includes body art, performance art and site-specific art. For a good overview of minimalist art, Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, has an impressive collection.