A History of Minimalism

When we think of minimalism we think of many things — design, architecture, fashion.  The art term ‘Minimalist’ was allegedly first used in the 20th century to describe a painting by Kazimir Malevich. The painting was of a black square on a white background, and thought to be the first time that a painting wasn’t “of something”. Malevich’s art was detached from reality – art for art’s sake. 

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square


According to the Tate Modern, Minimalist art can be seen as “extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing.” Usually, we imagine art to be a representation of the real world, or of the artist’s emotions – just think of Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’, or the abstract expressionism of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’. With Minimalism, however, the artist isn’t trying to symbolise reality, whether subjective or objective. The work itself is its own reality. As Frank Stella, one of the most notable American Minimalist artists of the 20th century, said – “What you see is what you see.”

Today, the word ‘minimalist’ is often used to describe simplicity – most commonly in reference to art, architecture, and fashion. What’s less widely discussed is that minimalism exists in music, too, with artists like Terry Riley, John Adams and Philip Glass being well-known minimalist composers. The novels of Samuel Beckett and Ernest Hemingway can be described as minimalist, while the films of Robert Bresson and, more recently, Jonathan Glazer, fall under the same category.

Minimalism-with-a-little-‘m’ takes on many forms. Minimalist design, for example, is heavily influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and philosophy. ‘Zen’ is the Japanese variant of the Chinese ‘Chan’, a school of Mahayana Buddhism, originating in the 6th century.

Zen is said to give insight into the emptiness of existence, thereby opening a path to a freer way of living. This idea of strength in simplicity, and its reflection of the nature of truth, can be found in Japanese art and design, later inspiring American artists.

In his article, ‘Going with the Flow: Minimalism as Cultural Practice in Post-War America’, professor Robert Fink points to Minimalism as a “profoundly American cultural practice.” Despite its roots in other cultures, Fink points out that post-war Minimalism must have something to do with the “mainstream culture of the industrialised” and the “mass media society in which it rose to such prominence”. Artists like Frank Stella and his contemporaries were at the forefront of the American Minimalist art movement in the 1950s, when mass production, suburbia and conformity were being artistically challenged. By the 60s and 70s, artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt had Minimalism in its fullest swing.

Mary Corse was another such painter, born in 1945. She became famous for her work with glass micro-beads. Micro-beads, usually found in street signs for their reflectivity, became a main source material for Corse, who used them on her canvas surfaces. Nasreen Mohamedi, born in 1937, was also a Minimalist artist, greatly influenced by architectural sketches. There is a characteristic lack of representation in her work, distancing her creations from any personal experience. As a result, the audience’s relationship to the art became paramount. Viewing art became an active, inclusive action. In a society that was becoming increasingly materialistic, as Fink points out, works like that of Corse and Mohamedi challenged the idea that an art object had any inherent importance. For many, the importance placed on the art object was the basis of the elitist attitudes within the art world.



Object / Philippe Malouin

Object / Philippe Malouin

In her essay, ‘The Meanings of Minimalism’, Janet Wolff talks about the modernism that came before Minimalism, referencing the Dada movement, Duchamp, and Russian Constructivism. According to Wolff, the objective of Minimalist artists was to “oppose the subjectivity and expressiveness of post-war American modernism.” Instead of focusing on an object, the works “insist instead on their own ‘objecthood’.”

Where art was previously trying to represent something, no matter how abstract – such as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings – Minimalist art refused any such symbolism. As a result, Minimalism is heavily entwined with performance, most clearly seen in minimalist choreographers like Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs. Childs’ 1979 show, ‘Dance’, used the minimalist music of Philip Glass, and the film of Sol LeWitt. Her choreography has been described as ‘polished’, ‘immaculate’ and ‘empty’ by the New York Times, with her dancers’ cool, expressionless faces.


So what exactly makes something minimalist? 


Even the critics of Minimalist art have accepted the historical value of the movement, what with its challenging of mass industrialisation and elitism. But what is the relevance of minimalism today? Well, it can be argued that modern minimalist design is challenging the same decades-old issues, but in a new way. Minimalistic design insists that simplicity can be beautiful. The shift towards functionality can be seen everywhere from clothing to home décor, and is increasingly vital in a world more conscious of its own consumption. The popularity of recent documentary, ‘Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things’, reflects the traction that this ancient concept is gaining today. Created by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodermus (‘The Minimalists’), the documentary traces the way minimalism can transform and improve our day to day lives. Fields Millburn and Nicodermus spread their message through talks, a podcast, and their website, where they define minimalism as “a tool that can assist you in finding freedom.” Freedom from what, you may ask? According to these two, a freedom from fear, worry, overwhelm, guilt, depression – and more.


Millburn and Nicodermus are quick to point there’s nothing wrong with owning material objects – the important thing is that it bring value to your life. “We tend to give too much meaning to our things,” they explain, “Often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves.” According to this pair, minimalism is a path that allows us to make choices “more consciously, more deliberately.”

This move towards minimalism can perhaps also be seen in the rise of sustainable fashion. As we become more aware of the many dangers of the fast fashion industry, and its environmental impact, sustainable fashion brands have become more and more popular. The focus on quality over quantity forces us to reassess our purchases – not just what use we actually have for them, but also where they’re coming from and who they’re affecting.

The growing popularity of Scandinavian fashion and décor is perhaps another sign of this. Post-WWII Scandinavian design heavily reflects minimalistic concepts, and it is a trademark that prevails today. This can be traced all the way to the social democracy of Scandinavia in the 1950s, and the spike in mass production. The root of the idea continues today; Danish designer, Margrethe Odgaard, has often been quoted on the importance of design that “engages with society”, bringing together user and object. For Odgaard, home décor should be beautiful and functional.

These are ideas that echo Japanese design, as earlier mentioned. Naoki Takizawa is the design director of UNIQLO, a Japanese fashion brand. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Takizawa said that, in Japan, minimalism is about expressing emotion. “In Japanese aesthetics, there’s actually a vanguard without words. Unspoken. Westerners communicate by using words, for example, in ads to the audience. [The Japanese] leave space so they can make their own interpretations, so they can feel emotions.”

The line ‘less is more’ comes from ‘The Faultless Painter’, an 1855 poem by Robert Browning. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe later famously used the line in reference to minimalist architecture. As history has shown us, and as the present is reiterating: there is wisdom in simplicity.