Contemporary movements extend the limits of what can be considered art by pushing the boundaries of canonically accepted forms. Minimalist art, also known as literal art, fought to create a more theatrical stage, one that puts both art and viewer on the same level, as both become actors in the grand stage that is the art world. Art under this movement is made to be an inconvenience for viewers, as it forces people to accept the work (regardless of what it may be) and take it seriously. Minimalist art shows the way that presence and the idea of importance are some of the most fundamental ways in which contemporary artists have been able to expand borders.
By fighting for legitimization, contemporary art struggles to be taken seriously and accepted in the art historical canon. It is this struggle for legitimization that minimalist art tried to solve. Art at the time of minimalism was made to be a nuisance to spectators, which would result in the art being taken seriously.
Works such as Donald Judd’s multiple Untitled, which remain untitled because of Judd’s belief that his art is simply what it appears to be and nothing more, are brought onto the same level as spectators in an attempt to create a theatrical atmosphere in the viewing process. In other words, artists began to display their sculptures without the confines of pedestals or display markers that were thought to separate the art from the viewer. By taking away these dividers, artists believed that art and viewers would be able to coexist in the same dimension, living in cohesion with one another.
Minimalist art attempted to give the status of “art” to everyday objects and shapes, to expand the label, in part by including more mundane elements. It was this, then, that was believed to be able to expand the art field and make it overall more accessible, as art was no longer restrained to academic “fine art.” Works such as Tony Smith’s Die (1962) exemplify this concept. A black cube that stretches six feet in height, width, and length, the artwork dominates its environment, forcing viewers to interact with it when in its presence. The cube’s presence is a nuisance to viewers, who must visually and physically interact with it regardless of whether or not they want to. It is this nuisance that heightened the work’s importance and, by extension, helped legitimize it.
The scale of artworks is, at the end of the day, one of the most impactful features of them. As showcased by Robert Smithson in his Smithsonian Spiral Jetty (1970), it is the scale of an object that determines art. Smithson’s spiral jetties are massive works of art that fully incorporate the viewer as they walk around (and within) them while viewing the work. As a minimalist work, Smithson’s Jetty creates importance for itself through its inconvenience. People are forced to accept the importance of the work because why else would there be a giant spiral jetty in the middle of the Great Salt Lake if it weren’t important? The combination of the randomness of the work’s placement and the aura of importance surrounding it forces people to see it as something more than a jetty, forcing people to accept it as art.
This demarcation of importance to things that normally would not be considered special or noteworthy is common to the contemporary art world. Artists such as Yves Klein, who released a film in which he walks around an empty gallery exclaiming and acting in awe at the emptiness surrounding him, represent the importance of presence in legitimizing art. The areas he emphasized, although empty space, became important, as his emphasis on them demarcated them as important areas of “invisible art.” Artists such as Klein made a theater out of a gallery, which allowed the presence (or lack thereof) of the art to take center stage. His emphasis on the empty areas of the gallery made them exponentially more important to viewers, who in turn legitimized and accepted the art forms.
Presence, then, is the main factor in canonizing minimalist art. By creating works that are larger than life that dominate space, people are forced to interact with the works and to understand the works at a higher level. By legitimizing minimalist art, people have the ability to expand their ideas 0f what art truly is, a limit that contemporary artists push in their works. Importance can be placed on anything, especially when the presence of the object in the surrounding area is emphasized, as well as when the object imposes its position on the viewer and surrounding area. Minimalist art, with its emphasis on presence and scale, makes use of this artificial importance on non-canonical art to canonize itself.