Reframing Minimalism looks to a group of artists working in New York City during the 1970s and 80s to highlight the breadth of artistic practices—beyond the historical canon—who shaped the discourse of this era. Early works by McArthur Binion, Ed Clark, David Hammons, Mel Kendrick, Al Loving, Judy Pfaff, Howardena Pindell, Joanna Pousette-Dart, and Stanley Whitney, whose burgeoning practices and social circles overlapped and thrived during the early 1970s, are shown alongside works by Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman.
“Everybody’s in my phonebook, from Dan Flavin, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to David Hammons, to Kerry James Marshall, to Brice Marden, Ronald Bladen, and Sol LeWitt. Every Saturday, someone had a party. And they were open parties—you’d go to a party at Gordon Matta-Clark’s studio and anyone could be there... I’m a very social person, in a quiet way, but I knew everybody. Everybody did.”
McArthur Binion -
McArthur Binion’s address book—a catalyst for the exhibition, and a record which he diligently maintained during his nearly twenty formative years in New York— points to the vibrancy of the social network in New York at this time. In Binion’s words, “you could stand on the corner of West Broadway and Spring Street for an hour or two on Saturday afternoon, and you would literally see everybody that exists in the art world.”[i] “Everybody’s in my phonebook,” the artist explains, “from Dan Flavin, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to David Hammons, to Kerry James Marshall, to Brice Marden, Ronald Bladen, and Sol LeWitt. Every Saturday, someone had a party. And they were open parties—you’d go to a party at Gordon Matta-Clark’s studio and anyone could be there... I’m a very social person, in a quiet way, but I knew everybody. Everybody did.”[ii] During this period of artistic exploration and social camaraderie, many of the artists in this exhibition were living and working in close proximity to one another. Some taught or studied together at the same art schools, worked alongside each other in museums, and socialized at the same bars and parties. Remarking on the period, Curator Katy Siegel states,“New York itself played a role, providing new artists’ neighborhoods with low rents and places to meet and gather downtown in the Lower East Side and SoHo, and what would eventually become Tribeca…”[iii]
Siegel goes on to note the civil rights movement along with feminism and the gay liberation movement of the 1960s as catalysts: “These mass political movements promised to open up the art world—even if only temporarily—along with other areas of society. Artists found opportunities to gather in new institutions like A.I.R. women’s cooperative gallery, Kenkeleba House artists’ space, the Kitchen art center… even major institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim Museum showed interest in and support for art by experimental artists, women, and African-Americans…”[iv] Storied art galleries like 112 Greene Street, A.I.R, or Artists Space provided opportunities for artists that were otherwise not possible through more conventional venues, museums and galleries. Artists Space, for example, is where both Binion and Pfaff exhibited their first shows in New York in 1973.
Even with the “opening up” of the art world, many Black artists, women, and foreigners found fewer opportunities to show work or were sparsely recognized for their contributions at the time. Artist Dawoud Bey writes:
“All of this would seem to have set the stage for black artists' heightened visibility in the American cultural landscape… Well, not quite... The multicultural era came with its own rigid proscriptions, favoring the black artist whose singular concern was the twin issues of race and representation. Although much interesting work had resulted from these investigations, one can only lament what might have resulted if the discourse were broadened to include the range of work actually being done, rather than critically ignoring that which didn't fit the prevailing notion of a correct or meaningful practice for black artists."[v]
While steadfast in developing their individual practices, many of the artists in this exhibition avoided categorization into contemporaneous movements. Artists like Hammons, Pfaff, and Loving resisted the austerity of the Minimalist dialect by embracing unconventional techniques and materials. Pfaff, for example, used inexpensive materials she could find easily, as in the drawings on view produced with adhesive and plastics, and which were made as studies for her sculptures and installations titled Prototypes. Binion, Kendrick, and Pousette-Dart employed Minimalism’s pared down visual language in a more personal way. As Binion notes “The part I took from Minimalism is that you want to do your own stuff in your own image.”[vi] Binion and Pousette-Dart used canvas and other familiar substrates for their paintings but used less exalted materials in their compositions. Pousette-Dart added sand to her paintings,making the pigments in her paint richer and adding depth and physical presence; Binion borrowed the wax-based crayons used in lumber yards and steel mills to develop his repertoire of gestural marks.
Writing on the painting practices of this time, Siegel asserts that “This was not an aimless search for novelty, but specifically an interest in bringing experiences that did not belong to the story of art history, a desire to make painting something as ordinary as laying a sidewalk or making a quilt, or something as relevant as taking a photograph.”[vii] The artists presented in Reframing Minimalism expanded the then-dominant understanding of art-making and impacted the discourse of abstraction in ways that continue to reverberate to this day.
McARTHUR BINION, ICECICLE:JUICE, 1976
In the 1970s, McArthur Binion developed a distinctive and personal approach to abstraction by building up layers of wax crayon and oil stick directly onto the aluminum surface of his paintings.
Born as one of eleven children in a working-class family that moved from the agricultural South to industrial Detroit, Binion explains: “When I went to art school, I used oil paints like everyone else, but I didn’t get the results I wanted, because oil paintings were made by people in museums. I came from somewhere else.” He expands: “I used wax-based crayons on aluminum. That’s what I innovated. The crayons were marking pens used in lumber yards and steel mills, and I’m the first person to ever use them for art. I wanted to break the tradition.”[viii]
McArthur Binion studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where his work gained early attention; the Detroit Institute of Art acquired Circuit Landscape no. 4, a large crayon on canvas painting, from the 1972 Annual Exhibition for Michigan Artists.
In 1973 he became the first African-American to receive an MFA from Cranbrook and moved to New York City. Binion’s 1976 painting, Icecicle:Juice, is characterized by the artist’s labor-intensive process of “pressing wax crayons onto aluminum sheets, to which the artist returned day after day to slowly build new layers onto the artwork’s surface.”[ix] In discussing these works, art historian Lowery Stokes Sims writes: “the resulting forms reflect the reductive approach to form in Minimalism, but the surface itself is decidedly textured, inviting the kind of narrative nuance that was disparaged by minimalists and their theorists.” [x]
SOL LEWITT, ALTERNATE PARALLEL STRAIGHT BLACK, YELLOW, RED AND BLUE LINES OF RANDOM LENGTH, NOT TOUCHING THE SIDES OF THE PAGE, 1972
Best known as a pioneer of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, Sol LeWitt sought to liberate the artist’s intentions as art independent of, or in light of, the final physical product. LeWitt worked as a graphic designer for I.M. Pei and then took a job at The Museum of Modern Art in the 1960s, where his co-workers included Robert Ryman, Dan Flavin, and later Howardena Pindell. LeWitt’s Wall Drawings debuted at Paula Cooper’s inaugural 1968 exhibition, and consisted of a certificate by the artist with instructions for assistants to execute the drawing or painting itself. In his seminal 1967 essay "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," LeWitt wrote: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”[xi]
Beginning in the mid-1960s, LeWitt began executing works based on basic geometric forms of squares, cubes, and vertical and horizontal lines. Featured in this exhibition, Alternate parallel straight black, yellow, red, and blue lines of random length, not touching the sides of the page exemplifies the artist's works of the early 1970s.
Like LeWitt’s other early works, the titles describe exactly how they were made, or with his larger installations, how they are to be made, perhaps one of defining innovations of his work as a conceptual artist. While conceptual art had many forebears in the early 20th century, and would later become a more politicised critique of art-making, in LeWitt’s work, the concept is the engine that creates it.
HOWARDENA PINDELL, AUTOBIOGRAPHY: INDIA (CALICUT), 1985
Over her nearly 60-year career, Howardena Pindell has created a richly textured abstract body of work while engaging with politics and the social issues of her time. After studying at Boston University and completing her MFA at Yale, Pindell moved to New York and maintained a studio practice while also working as a curator in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art. During the 1960s and 1970s Pindell "was making abstract paintings that were often based on a grid structure and emphasized process to explore nuanced color, light, and movement."[xiii] Yet, her version of the grid intentionally diverted away from that of her Minimalist contemporaries. Discussing this moment in Pindell's career on the occasion of the artist's 2018 retrospective, curator Valerie Cassel Oliver remarked, "It is in a time of Minimalism, so she's beginning to take these precepts that she's being taught and really disrupt them, creating moments where she can insert herself into this conversation around abstraction."[xiv]
The present mixed-media collage is from the artist's 1980-95 Autobiography series, which veered away from pure abstraction, implementing Pindell's personal postcards and photographs as source material. This series was made during a difficult but formative period for the artist, following a near-fatal 1979 car accident that left her with severe injuries and acute memory loss. Curator and scholar Susan Harris writes of this critical moment in Pindell's life and career: "Early works from this series... bear witness to the artist literally and figuratively piecing together fragments of her past. They testify to the pivotal roles travel [to Japan, India, and Africa], as well as her investigations into alternative philosophies and religions, played in helping heal her internal and external wounds... After the accident, she made a conscious decision to create work that was more 'viscerally' personal, and felt an urgency to address in her art the appalling omission and underrepresentation of women of color that she had experienced firsthand during the '60s and '70s. Having survived the accident, she developed a dictum for the series, 'You never know. You may wake up dead.'"[xv] The accident and Pindell's subsequent rehabilitation literalized a metaphorical personal, aesthetic, and political process of destruction and reconstruction.
DAVID HAMMONS, UNTITLED, 1976-77
The work of David Hammons exudes an elusiveness of material, content, and influence. His medium of choice is as much about the body— and in particular, his, a Black body in America—as it is about the found fragments culled from the streets and gutters. After beginning his career in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Hammons moved to New York in the mid-70s with a mind devoted entirely toward three-dimensional work. Constructing deeply personal responses to his lived experience, and drawing on the enigmatic accumulations of Dada with the humility of materials found in Arte Povera, Hammons created a defiantly independent oeuvre that has influenced generations of artists.
As art historian Manthia Diawara writes, "For [Hammons], black artistic confidence means a willingness to transform blackness into a higher level of abstraction... Black art should be black only in the thrust of the idea; blackness should be decentered as completely as possible without losing its edge. Confidence comes with the creative ability to make one's culture 'abstract.' It is a gift that can be seen in the outer appearance of the work. In other words, it is an aura.”[xvi]
This auratic sense of Blackness cultivated by Hammons runs in parallel with the artist's deeply conceptual practice. A subtle trace of the human body persists throughout his works, less as a direct index of his form and instead as a spectral presence emanating from his assemblages. In the sculpture presented in Reframing Minimalism, tufts of human hair ring a hemisphere of rubber placed atop wire mesh and sand paper, with wire and gold pipe cleaners radiating out.
As Diawara notes, “Hammons makes art by rearranging the order of familiar objects, by changing the rhythm or temporal sequence and speed of movement… His work is so simple, delicate, yet precise that if you remove a hair from an arrangement, the magic that makes it art is undone and the objects return to their banal, nonart existences."[xvii]
JOANNA POUSETTE-DART, UNTITLED, 1973-74
Joanna Pousette-Dart’s painting practice emerges from a lifelong immersion in abstraction and a devotion to evoking light from color. Born in New York in 1947, the artist was well-steeped in the New York School of painting before she went on to study the medium at Bennington College in Vermont with notable classmates such as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Even with such an art historically-saturated awareness, Pousette-Dart’s range of influences extends far beyond traditional confines. While drawing on Islamic, Mayan, and American Indian art, as well as Chinese landscape paintings, she also came to respond to quality of light and the landscape of New Mexico when she began to live and work there intermittently in the early 1970s. The dramatic horizons and angular terrain of New Mexico provided her with a fertile source for experimentation with form and color. As critic Ken Johnson writes in the New York Times, “Pousette-Dart is serious about Modernist abstraction, but there is nothing too sober or sanctimonious about what she does… they don’t feel cramped; they convey a buoyant, free feeling. There is a mutually responsive relationship between the container and the contained—or between body and soul—that is a pleasure to behold.”[xviii]
An intimately-scaled painting on paper presented in the exhibition draws into focus the multiple registers of size across which Pousette-Dart works. At each of these scales, she infuses a sense of natural grandeur translated into subtle blocks of color.
In an interview for the Brooklyn Rail, art historian and curator Barbara Rose questioned Pousette-Dart about the visual power of even her smallest works, asking “How do you create a sense of monumentality in small paintings?” The artist replied, “What gives something scale is a mystery. You know when something has it but there’s no formula for achieving it. People always wonder if the small paintings are studies. If anything, I would say they’re exploratory because I have never made a larger painting based on a smaller one. If they work, their rightness and their scale seem inseparable.”[xix]
David Hammons: Courtesy Salon94; Mel Kendrick: Courtesy the artist and David Nolan Gallery, New York; Sol LeWitt: Courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; Al Loving: Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York; Judy Pfaff: Courtesy the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York; Howardena Pindell: Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York; and Joanna Pousette-Dart and Stanley Whitney, Courtesy the artists and Lisson Gallery, New York.
i. McArthur Binion, interviewed by Loney Abrams, "'I Made Myself Up!': Painter McArthur Binion on Forging His Own Path in a White Art World," Artspace, November 4, 2016. Link.
iii. Katy Siegel, in High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975 (New York: Independent Curators International D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2006), 31.
iv. Ibid, 30.
v. Ibid, 107.
vi. John Yau, “Recovering Abstraction: McArthur Binion’s Intimate Grids,” Hyperallergic, October 4, 2015. Link.
vii. Siegel, 30.
viii. Binion, in Abrams.
ix. "Freeze Frame: McArthur Binion" wall didactic, in Shapeshifters: Transformations in Contemporary Art at the Cranbrook Art Museum, Michigan (2020).
x. Lowery Stokes Sims in McArthur Binion: Re:Mine (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2015).
xi. Sol LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967), 80. Link.
xii. Gary Garrels, "Sol LeWitt: An Introduction," in Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), 29.
xiii. Susan Harris, "Howardena Pindell: Autobiography," in The Brooklyn Rail (November 2019). Link.
xiv. Valerie Cassel Oliver, "Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen," Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2018). Link.
xv. Harris, "Howardena Pindell: Autobiography" (2019).
xvi. Manthia Diawara, "Make it Funky: The Art of David Hammons," in Artforum 36, no. 9 (May 1998), 125.
xviii. Ken Johnson, "Art in Review: Joanna Pousette-Dart," New York Times, June 18, 2004. Link.
xix. Barbara Rose, "Joanna Pousette-Dart with Barbara Rose," The Brooklyn Rail, June, 2019. Link.