Less is More

The story of Abstract Minimalist art.

Craig Berry
6 min readNov 21, 2019

Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer

Dan Flavin – Untitled (for Frederika and Ian) (1987)

“How can it be that we, in the West–in an era in which our standard of living is higher than ever–are still constantly wanting more? Our smartphones keep us in contact with the world 24 hours a day. The result is constant overstimulation. We are always ‘on’ and we don’t quite know how to manage it. The gratification is fleeting while the emptiness endures.”

This is the question posed by Museum Voorlinden for their recent Less is More exhibition which explores the renewed interest in Minimalist art which developed as a movement in the 1960s as over 50 years later, artists are seizing on Minimalist principles and returning to the essence of things as a new starting point. The idea of less is more and minimalism is not only prevalant in the art world now; chefs advocate simple cuisine, fashion designers speak about buying less and choosing well and the Tiny House movement is growing; minimalism in general is becoming the norm.

Minimalist art was conceived in the 1960s in New York as older artists who were self-consciously renouncing recent art they thought had become stale and academic and new artists began to question conventional boundaries. An important fact of the movement was the emphasis on anonymity as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism—artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning—removing any symbolism and emotional content and instead creating attention to the materiality of the works often through the use of pre-fabricated materials and repeated geometric forms with an emphasis on the physical space occupied by an artwork.

Minimalists sought to break down traditional notions of sculpture and to erase distinctions between painting and sculpture, their democratic viewpoint was set out in writings as well as in artwork in exhibitions. Artists like Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman moved towards geometry and minimalism through painting whilst artists Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt did so through sculpture; although most of these artists experimented with both painting and sculpture.

As a graphic designer who’s interested in minimalism (and modernism) the appeal of these artist’s work is immense; its easy to make links between the simplicity of the aesthetics of their work to bold graphic shapes and block colour I use in design. Here is a small summary of three of my favourite artists who were key protagonists in the Abstract Minimalist art genre with what they did and why they did what they did: each with their own philosophy and viewpoint on visual minimalism.

Donald Judd, 1928–1994 (USA)

Donald Judd is seen as the most important artist of the Minimalist movement, despite being something he “stridently disavowed”. Through his work, Judd sought autonomy and clarity for the constructed object and the space created by it.

Unlike traditional sculpture which was placed upon a plinth in order to set it apart as a work of art as opposed to a normal object, Judd placed his work directly on the floor as a way of forcing the viewer to confront the art as well as their own material existence. Using industrial materials such as iron, steel and plastic (materials often associated with the Bauhaus) he created an impersonal, factory feeling to his work; something directly contradicting the Abstract Expressionists who put emphasis on the artist’s touch to give a personal context to their work. Judd saw no need for his personality in his work.

His work was constructed and presented in a regimented and serialised manner with many works titled Untitled (Year). He also saw this as de-subjectifying his work which was also often identical in form. These ambiguous titles and non-personal work made from available, industrial materials was Judd’s way of expressing his idea of the democratisation of art; making it more accessible to more people. Despite the simpleness in material and form, Judd’s work is highly valuable and desired.

Judd not only created art like these, he was an important theoretician who wrote many seminal writings such as Specific Objects where he describes this ‘new art’ produced in New York in the 1960s and distinguishing it from ‘old art’.

“Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colours — which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”

Donald Judd – Untitled (1991)

Dan Flavin, 1933–1996 (USA)

Dan Flavin was an American artist who spent the majority of his life working with and exploring the medium of fluorescent light tubes. Although he is seen as most definitely part of the Minimalist movement, Flavin saw himself as most definitely Maximalist; using the ready-made approach of Marcel Duchamp to exploit the possibilities of regular and un-appreciated materials to create his work.

Flavin’s work focusses on the use of electric lights. The limitations of this material dictated the work aesthetic with fluorescent light tubes, coming in a limited range of colour, sizes and shapes which Flavin saw as an advantage, allowing him to focus on the light itself rather than the form of the lighting fixture. Focusing on the light as the medium allowed Flavin to create ‘spaces’, exploring how light could transform an exhibition space through how it reacts with its surroundings: the walls, floor, ceiling and general space in a gallery capacity.

As much as people can sometimes read into Flavin’s work and its meanings, he has emphatically denied that his sculptural light installations had any kind of deep, symbolic meaning, even going as to say that “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else”. Flavin saw his sculptures as simply a response to a specific architectural setting. However it is very easy to read into his work in a symbolic manner; there are possible associations with the concept of light from a religious aspect whether intentional or not.

“I knew that the actual space of a room could be broken down and played with by planting illusions of real light (electric light) at crucial junctures in the room’s composition.”

Dan Flavin – Untitled (for Barnett Newman) (1971)

Ellsworth Kelly 1923–2015 (USA)

Ellsworth Kelly was an American Artist who gained international attention in the 1950s with his brightly coloured canvases and later, his sculptures. His focus during his career was on the relationships between shape, form and colour. Kelly did not associate himself to any one art movement but he influenced the development of Minimalism and both Hard Edge and Colour Field painting with artists such as Bridget Riley and Mark Rothko.

Kelly’s work is based on real life observations, his paintings and sculptures being replications of shapes and shadows he saw and experienced during his life; in the style of the Dada artists, Kelly worked both casually and spontaneously. He intended for his viewers to experience physical responses to his work’s colour and form, instinctively rather than needing any contextual analysis; encouraging a silent encounter between the artwork and the viewer.

Kelly’s paintings are known for both their straight lines and round forms; the overarching factor being a use of bright colour; sometimes monochromatic but also at times using multiple colours; clearly distinct from one another. His work is immediately recognisable in an art gallery for this use of flat colour.

“I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges and mass); and so that, with colour and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness.”

Ellsworth Kelly – Untitled (1996) | Spectrum IX (2014)

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Craig Berry

Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.