10/13/2014 02:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Minimalist Voices of the Past and Present

A new exhibition that opened last Saturday at the University of Michigan Museum of Art revisits the Minimalist movement, viewed from a fresh perspective. Reductive Minimalism: Women Artists in Dialogue, 1960-2014 examines the movement under a well-focused lens, bringing together female artists from two eras working in the genre. This exhibition explores the restrained approach of female Minimalist painters in a cross-generational survey that creates a dialogue between artists working under the duress of gender politics in the 1960s with a younger group that came up in a digital world of global exposure.
The Minimalist movement took shape in the 1960s and 1970s, largely in reaction to spontaneous and subconscious furls and splashes of Abstract Expressionism, making waves with its paired down vocabulary, and a focus on color, geometry and line. Fifty years later, artists are still aligning themselves with the movement, continuing the evolution with experimentation in surface, color and texture. Big names from the early days of Minimalism - Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt - remain the key artists identified with the movement, and are predominantly males that work in a larger than life size. In contrast, their female counterparts tended to express themselves with a more personal approach, practicing the same principles, only with a restrained and reductive hand. The works are more intimate in both scale and personal narrative, inviting viewers into the artists' conceived worlds, rather than trying to make big splashy statements with an amped up scale.
Many of this first generation of female Minimalist painters worked in art world isolation, creating pieces outside of the confines of the New York art world, but also without the support that that community provides. This self-imposed separation allowed these women to develop their own oeuvre without the judgmental attentions of the New York art critic, but it may also have had an adverse affect in that many were not given the recognition they were due, simply because of a lack of opportunities to mix and mingle with their peers.
Although some of these women may have worked on the periphery of art world, their influence on the next wave has been resounding. This correlation and influence across time was the inspiration behind organizing Reductive Minimalism, the mounting of which showcases this legacy of a female voice in the male-dominated Minimalist tradition. In the exhibition, a dialogue is created between the generations, with the pairing of nine historic female painters with their modern day counterparts. Hung side-by-side, the contemporary pieces speak to their formative partners, in a symbiotic call-and-response relationship that connects them.
Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1974, Acrylic, pencil and Shiva gesso on canvas, Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of Rose M. Shuey from the Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey Collection, CAM 2002.22, Photographer: R. H. Hensleigh, ©2014 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Perhaps the most well-known female Minimalist painter is Agnes Martin, who considered herself an Abstract Expressionist despite her exclusive usage of line, grids and colors that reflect the tones of the landscape of her chosen home of Taos, New Mexico. In her 1974 piece, Untitled, Martin displays these signature colors, in gentle washes of pink and blue that adhere to precise pencil lines laid out in a series of stripes, which suggest the expanse of a horizon. Echoing this nod to pattern that can be read as spatial expanse is contemporary artist Tauba Auerbach’s Bitmap Gradient Ray II, a work rich with geometric texture and detail. Derived using a mathematical digital matrix, Auerbach’s interrupted grid, which forgoes the use of paint altogether, is woven from the same canvas normally used as a support.  The geometric topography created from the alternating warp and weft leads the viewer to the edges of the picture plane creating a feeling of endless space.
Anne Truitt, Sandcastle, 1963, Acrylic on wood, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. H. Gates Lloyd, 1984/2.57, © / Bridgeman Art Library.
Anne Truitt was known for taking her works to the third dimension, with a body of work that reflected Minimalism under a set of self-imposed rules that infused sculpture-like objects with a painterly sensibility. Like many of her works, Sandcastle, from 1963, appears as a Minimalist object, painted heavily with layers that create an even surface that appears devoid of the artist’s touch. The sculpture, made from wood, is hung low, just above the gallery floor, making her blocks of color seem as if they are floating on a thin line of shadow. Through her choice of title, shape of the object, and paint color, Truitt implies a symbolic personal narrative into the work that is supposed to evoke a seaside scene. Ann Pibal also uses color and shape to suggest an environment. Her piece FXMT, an intersection of angular lines on an even tan background, is an interpretation of the artist’s visit to a beach in Mexico. The details of her narrative, the landscape of the beach, light, and her daughter’s fascination with the area’s moths, are reduced to color and line. Like Truitt, Pibal tells her story by rendering the humanistic details of her life into geometry.
Dorothea Rockburne, Fire Engine Red, 1967, Wrinkle finish painting on aluminum, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of the Lannan Foundation in Honor of the Pelham Family, 1997/1.136.1-2, ©2014 Dorothea Rockburne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Kate Shepherd, Orange and Blue, Big Room View, Some Molding, 2001, Oil and enamel on panels, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Robert L. Beal, Enid L. Beal and Bruce A. Beal Acquisition Fund, 2002.41, ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, ©Kate Shepherd, courtesy of Barbara Krakow Gallery.
Also included in the exhibition are two artists who have experimented with texture by painting on materials other than canvas. Dorothea Rockburne’s work has combined her interest in mathematics and astronomy with fields of color and line. Her piece Fire Engine Red plays with texture via the uneven application of paint, which reveals the characteristics and natural patterns of the aluminum sheeting Rockburne has used as her picture surface. The simple composition of the work demystifies the picture plane by allowing the viewer to see the flaws in the support material, while paying tribute to its architectural origins (defined as a fire station door). In juxtaposition, contemporary artist Kate Shepherd has defined herself by more directly fusing her experiences with art and architecture. Orange and Blue, Big Room View, Some Molding conveys Shepherd’s brand of Minimalist language utilizing monochrome blocks of solid color as backgrounds for thread-like lines of oil paint that map architecturally derived drawings onto layers of highly saturated enamel, giving the feeling of a stage set. 
Svenja Deininger, Untitled, 2014, Oil on canvas, Private Collection, Image courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, ©Svenja Deininger 2014.
Over the past four decades Suzan Frecon’s reductive abstract oil paintings have been said to reach a level of expressive spirituality with her ability to render color as a physical property. Through the layering of color, Frecon creates forms that are read as landscape, as in from the series of red earth and red earth (ercolano). The simple purple curvatures rise in the red vista, suggesting a southwest mountain range. Svenja Deininger has continued Frecon’s layering technique to build up form and weight. Deininger’s use of geometry updates Frecon’s freehanded forms, playing not only with color, but transparency and opacity.
R. H. Quaytman, Evas Arche April 3, 2011, 2011, Diamond dust, silkscreen ink, gesso on wood, Rubell Family Collection, Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.
Another contemporary painter, R.H. Quaytman, has created several bodies of work over her career that are grouped together in what the artist refers to as “chapters.” Quaytman’s works layer silkscreened photographs and hand painted trompe l’oeil elements to create works that weave personal, art historical and formal narratives into paintings that toe the line between Minimalist compositions and more pop-based work like the silkscreens of artist Andy Warhol. In her piece Evas Arche April 3, Quaytman evokes Warhol’s works with her usage of diamond dust elevating the dark monochrome plane to a mostly textural, if not luxe, experience that evokes a starry sky. In dialogue with Quaytman is Mary Corse’s Untitled (Shadow Painting, Black Beveled Series), another monochrome made from glass microspheres mixed with acrylic paint that leaves the viewer unsettled with a dizzying texture that draws the viewer in for a closer look. Both women’s application of three-dimensional materials to the surface of their canvases pushes these mainly black paintings into a new visual space that changes as the environment of the work changes, including something as simple as the position of the viewer.
Although this exhibition includes only 18 paintings, it creates a powerful and important dialogue between a woman-centric Minimalism of the past through to the present, which can be read as a conversational retrospective between two generations of practitioners of the genre. Reductive Minimalism creates a link between seminal female painters who were working under a very different set of art world guidelines, blazing a trail for the next generation of artists who by having them as influential examples are lifted up, painting with louder and more accepted voices.