Minimalist Art: Definition, Characteristics & Famous Painters

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  • 0:04 Minimalism
  • 1:17 Characteristics
  • 2:31 Minimalist Painters
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen paintings with simple precise lines of solid color or repeating geometric shapes? You may have been looking at Minimalist Art. In this lesson, you'll explore the characteristics of Minimalist Art and the movement's famous painters.

Minimalism

Minimalism was an art movement that developed in the United States in the late 1950s and that reached its peak in the mid to late 1960s. It's also called Minimalist Art or ABC Art because it focuses on basic elements. It grew out of the ideas expressed in the early 20th century by people like the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, who pioneered Abstract Art by painting nonrepresentational pictures without a reference to the landscapes, people, and still-life scenes found in the real world.

Minimalism was also a reaction to the most prominent style of art pursued in the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism, in which the art conveyed multiple meanings of intense emotions and ideas, sometimes created in spontaneous or unplanned ways. Abstract Expressionists often used thick brushstrokes that were clearly done by hand. An example of Abstract Expressionism is Willem de Kooning's work Woman V, done in the early 1950s. It's aggressive, emotional, and almost violent in its brushstrokes and lines.

Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1952-1953
Woman V

By the late 1950s, some artists began rebelling against what they considered Abstract Expressionism's excesses. They headed in a completely opposite direction toward Minimalist Art.

Characteristics

Several important characteristics identify Minimalist Art. One of the most common is repetition, or creating multiple images of the same shape, especially simple geometric forms like lines and squares. Artists repeat shapes and produce paintings composed of vertical color blocks. Many works are extremely simple, pared down to the fewest possible lines or forms needed to paint the image. Areas are smooth and finished, devoid of obvious brushstrokes or hint of the artist's hand. Minimalist art focuses on things like geometry, line, and color. Early works tended to be monochromatic, limited to one color and related hues (like black, grey, and white). Another way to identify a Minimalist painting is by looking for hard-edged, precise borders between areas of color. There's no shading or subtle transition.

Several important characteristics also identify what we won't find in Minimalism. For example, it is not expressive. Instead, the artist removes all elements of biography or emotion. When you stand in front of a Minimalist painting, you won't see big ideas, complex subjects, or social agendas. The paintings are about geometry and color. Minimalist art is art for art's sake minus the emotion.

Minimalist Painters

Some of the most prominent Minimalist artists were sculptors, people like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. The latter began his art career as a painter and art critic in the 1940s. His work is important because it helped to define minimalism, especially his essay ''Specific Objects'', which advocated for art made from everyday materials. Judd eventually transitioned into woodcuts and then focused the rest of his career on sculpture.

Among prominent Minimalist painters, one of the earliest was Ellsworth Kelly (1923 - 2015), whose works featured hard-edged precise borders between blocks of color. First active in the mid-1950s, he predates the clear establishment of Minimalism, but in paintings like Red Yellow Blue White and Black from 1953, he clearly displays the characteristics later connected to Minimalist Art, especially hard-edged flat areas of color. He later moved on to more sculptural works.

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Yellow Blue White and Black, 1953
Kelly Red Yellow Blue White and Black

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