Illusions of the Modern: why we shouldn't overlook the seemingly simple

Yves Gaucher in his studio, 1968

Yves Gaucher in his studio, 1968

The elementary forms and techniques which echo throughout abstract art from the 1960s are often deemed not worth seeing and misunderstood in our day and age. The public majority of our 21st Century generation will share the view of Michael Fried, a formalist critic who objected to minimalist work because of its "theatricality", meaning that it was too dependent on the engagement with the physicality of the spectator and could not stand on its own. Yet changing a culture's norms and values by challenging them from within is exactly what the visual language of 1960s painting set out to represent.

Common reactions include "boring", "too simple” and "how come this is in an art gallery?" If we are ignorant of the social or political origins of these paintings, it seems that the mere visual language and primary impression do not suffice. The 1960s were regarded as a counterculture and a big player in social revolution. Minimalist artists used a radical new visual language to question conservatism and provoke the public with size, form and color. Large scale paintings were traditionally meant for historical and formalist paintings, however the abstract movement of the 60s combined this large scale with minimal shapes and colours, taking a stance against political control and provoking the public. These artists challenged the illusions of the modern and critiqued contemporary life.

A square is the most realistic depiction of a square, a circle is exactly that: A circle. Ad Reinhart, a minimalist artist from the Abstract Expressionist generation, states that "the more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature.”

One of the most attested series of minimalist paintings are by Yves Gaucher's: big grey areas of canvas from edge to edge. Across the surface are stripes of lighter grey both at the top and bottom. Does this not appeal to the majority of our generation because it seems easy and uncomplicated? Because it does not depict anything concrete, because we have to set our imagination to work for it to have any significance? Even so, they are extremely expensive paintings and run popularly throughout the art world. Why?

Even if this painting did not take as long or was as full of labour as some others, does the lack of manual labour imply that it is in any sense worse? The artist intentionally painted the canvas grey which was a calculated decision. His piece may seem simple, however within the simplicity and minimalism can arguably lie a calculated socio-political gesture. There is a reason for this painting to be merely a grey background with six stripes that go beyond just the formal aspects. When Gaucher's paintings were first exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1969, senior curator Ian Thom described them as if "all the paintings [had] the same color. It was only after you spent some considerable amount of time in the space, that you realized that the paintings were purple grey, some were red grey, some were blue grey and so on.”

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, who’s theory of aesthetics is in many ways still relevant today, thought that one must abstract from all emotional, political, social or human values regarding a work of art and judge it merely by its formal qualities. Much can be said about that, but ultimately it poses a question about what it is we look for in art and whether or not there is such a thing as objective judgment. The average time which people spend looking at a work in the Vancouver Art Gallery is under 15 seconds. The consensus amongst the public seems to be that by merely looking at the artwork for under 15 seconds we have the ability to judge it as “good" or "bad". However, in some ways it is very difficult to judge art merely on formal aspects. A work which appears “easily completed” in its formal aspects can arguably still be appreciated for the ideology and sociopolitical messages that it carries, and thus deserves more time for contemplation.

“How is this considered art?” or "I could paint this” are common phrases whispered throughout art galleries. The work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. Capitalism is based on understanding things fast and easily, categorizing art as being an immediate and simple (profitable) pleasure. I will not deny that such “art” exists, nevertheless, in order to appreciate and grasp the context which defines much of conceptual and abstract art, the viewer must be informed of these cultural features in order to make a decision about whether it is “good” or “bad” art (that is, if one accepts there exists such a divide). 

As an artist myself producing work in an oversaturated environment, there exists immense pressure to be original and new. Originality arguably cannot be something that artists strive for, rather it is solely a byproduct of their creativity in a particular cultural climate. In today's world of immediacy and abundance, I think that the importance of so-called “simple" work, which doesn’t necessarily result in immediate pleasure, are easily overlooked. This encourages sociopolitical ignorance of the past, present and future. My point is to highlight how easily we overlook the importance of the seemingly simple and how an open-minded and curious outlook on not just art, but life, can help an individual become far more knowledgeable than a viewer who has already decided what is "good" and what is "bad".


Bec Wonders