Barest essentials

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Now you see it ... but do you?

There’s a painting on the wall – at least it’s shaped like a painting and placed where a painting ought to be. The perfectly smooth white surface of the "image area" is blank, yet we have the impression of a distinct purpose to this work, an unmistakable care in its execution (oil paint on fiberglass with redwood, four sandblasted aluminum fasteners and octagonal bolts), as well as an intense combination of rigor and thoughtfulness behind it all. Titled Distributor (1985), this is one of two seminal pieces by Robert Ryman in "Painting Zero Degree," the minisurvey of minimalist art currently on view at the Cranbrook Art Museum.

Now it takes no great clairvoyance to predict that this sample of ornery, iconoclastic artifaction will inspire the local philistine choir to a performance of the "My-Kid-Could-Do-That" cantata. But the fact is that few artists have ever attained the level of hard-won concentration and severe inventiveness demonstrated by Ryman, Daniel Buren, John McCracken and Niele Toroni, four mainstays of minimalism’s older generation represented here.

The historical precedents for such work go back variously to the Egyptian pyramids, Zen rock gardens, Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made sculptures and Russian formalist experiments, among others. In each of those visual expressions, a simplicity of means carried along a massive weight of intellectual and cultural experience. Sometimes the intent behind a particular essentialized object was spiritual, sometimes it was humorous, political or philosophical.

But what are the essentials of art, at least as far as popular notions are concerned? Well, it seems like common sense to start with self-expression as one of its indispensable characteristics – the artist’s psycho-signature, the sign of the maker’s presence, the "I did this, and no one else" aspect. But does self-expression always have to show up in the same ways and places for us to recognize it? And what about expression without the focus on self?

Buren has made a career of installing identical, alternating white and colored stripes wherever he’s been invited to exhibit. The stripes, which at first seem to be no more than anonymous industrial products, are always the same (wouldn’t that make them his signature?), alternating white with one other color, depending on the site. They’ve shown up on the facades of museums and other public buildings, in city plazas, and on the walls and floors of art galleries. At Cranbrook, the floor outside the museum store is covered with a giddy stretch of "Buren linoleum," white and gray stripes in a perfect pattern. Is Buren mocking us or daring us to re-examine our place in the art-spectator relationship? After all, he’s forcing viewers to walk on art (my god!) and thus to think about the sanctity of the "original" (where is the original of a Buren?).

In general, minimalism challenged our tendency to use art as a mere annex to interior design, since a Ryman, a Buren or a McCracken seems too "empty" to satisfy most decorating schemes. But, more importantly, it cleared the air in the ‘70s of pop art excesses – and in 2000, of neo-expressionist fondlings of the self.

McCracken’s monoliths, for example, take the idea of art’s function (classically conceived as companion to our private dramas and reveries of self-importance) and deflate it, then reroute it toward active thinking about the object itself. Toroni’s repetitive, isolated brush strokes and multiple canvases on easels deny the painter’s involvement in favor of the inventor’s.

Of the younger minimalists in Painting Zero Degree, few demonstrate the combination of chutzpah, concentrated intellect and sublime indifference to bullshit that the originators did. But Karin Sander’s Brushstroke, White (1995) is a wonderful exception – as are her other works here – proposing a kind of Zen engagement with space that recognizes (paradoxically for a minimalist) the inclusive nature of human experience and its fragility.

Other fascinating guides through the less is more include Clay Ketter, Felipe Mujica, Adrian Schiess and Rudolf Stingel. After you’ve finished interacting with them all, zero-degree innovators and disciples alike, you’ll feel used by art (instead of using it) but only in a good way.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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