in Frieze | 12 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Less is More

John Pawson's Minimum

in Frieze | 12 NOV 96

Minimal Art has become a creature of myth: it is said never to have existed and yet it is present everywhere. The artists who are celebrated or blamed for inventing it have consistently refused the term and the group identity it implies, and yet the influence of some version of Minimalism on just about every subsequent generation of artists is unmistakable. Underlying the work of Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons, Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst and many, many others is a strikingly consistent grammar of seriality, repetition, geometry and three-dimensionality; a grammar made all the more striking given the artists' otherwise divergent interests and themes. So too have the conventions and routines of the studio been transformed as a result of what was done in the name (or otherwise) of Minimalism. In place of a cottage-industry, hand-crafted, solitary-struggle, improvised-adjustments, unrepeatable-results-type ethos, many kinds of sculpture or painting or photography or installation are now as likely to be made around a systematised and structured division of labour.

Above all, Minimalism instituted a productive division between conception and execution: a work or its parts these days may exist as a plan or a set of measurements which are subsequently ordered up from the most appropriate commercial stockists or light-industrial fabricators. The studio, if it has to exist at all, often resembles a small assembly line more than a craft workshop or a homely garret. And if it does exist, the studio is likely to be occupied not just by the artist, but by that strange and elusive being, the artist's assistant. In these ways the production of art has undergone a massive transformation, and it was Minimalism, together with its close relative, Pop Art, which ushered in these changes. In its attentiveness to the demands of modernity, it paradoxically made the (successful) studio more like its 17th or 18th-century equivalent than its late-Romantic 20th-century counterpart.

So why is it necessary to restate what must be fairly obvious to just about anyone who looks at contemporary art on a more or less regular basis? Only because of the curious fact that in the hands of many critics and historians Minimalism has been subject to such demonisation, to such invective and innuendo that any sane person would have to conclude that its existence could only have been mythical. Not only has Minimalism featured as some phantom and shamefaced Other in a range of criticism for at least three decades, it has had the perverse fortune to have been so placed by both sides in the extended border dispute between Modernism and Postmodernism. For Michael Fried, as long ago as 1967, the 'literalism' of Minimal Art and its proximity to the Readymade made it the very negation of art, the enemy of everything high Modernism had achieved. For Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss, commenting in a 1994 issue of October, the 'pictoralism' of a Judd or a Flavin, (as distinct from a Morris) and its closeness to painting made such work merely the last gasp of Modernist academicism. In the many accounts of this kind Minimalism is routinely judged to be either too literal or not literal enough, too pictorial or not pictorial enough, too theatrical or not theatrical enough. It dominates a space between sculpture and the Readymade which theoretically can hardly exist (which ought to make it more worth looking at rather than less). Minimalism in these accounts is a strangely sad entity, even before it is given the dismal appendages of an entirely reprehensible 'masculinity' by the likes of Anna Chave and others.

It should come as a relief then to find Minimalism being written about by someone other than an art critic or historian with an axe to grind or the moral conscience of the world to carry around on their shoulders. John Pawson's Minimum is an entirely different kind of account. Put together by a practising architect, it is not concerned with history or context in any standard sense. The volume is not about Minimalism; rather it places works by Judd and Flavin (but not Andre or LeWitt or Morris) within a broad, almost universal tradition of 'simplicity' in architecture, art and design. For Pawson, this tradition encompasses buildings, objects and landscapes from 16th-century Japanese sand gardens to New York skyscrapers, from Stonehenge to the instruments of modern industrialised warfare, from Shaker furniture to the Spiral Jetty (1970), from ancient Egyptian structures to his own conversion of a retail outlet in midtown Manhattan. The book is not so much written as presented in a series of enticing juxtapositions. It looks like the Beatles' White Album with its embossed monochrome cover and comes across more as a picture book with captions than anything else. It will be seen by many, I suspect, as the embodiment of Minimalist aesthetics: square, pale, exquisite, refined and, above all, tasteful.

In fact very little of Pawson's taste and reasoning derives from this source. As the author acknowledges, his reflections are rooted in the European pre-war Modernism of Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, thinking which had only a negative influence in 60s New York. For example, the short introductory text (in pale grey on white) deals partly in the philosophical currency of essence-behind-appearances, a neo-platonism that was utterly anathema to the Minimalists. As it turns out, this stress on essence sits rather oddly in a book whose momentum is derived almost exclusively from comparisons and likeness in appearance of otherwise entirely unrelated things. Furthermore it is often only the contingent perspective of the photograph that generates these apparent likenesses. But no matter; there is a fascination in comparing things that are only accidentally alike. Art and poetry would never have got very far if such creative category mistakes had not been made continuously - and certainly Andre, Judd, LeWitt and others continued to look beyond their own immediate culture for resources and inspiration.

The difficulty with this book is not that it makes exotic juxtapositions. There is a much simpler problem: it lies in the conscription of Minimalism by architects and interior designers into a kind of high-income good taste. No one ever seems to comment on this, and as a consequence something rather important about Minimal Art is almost always overlooked: its absurdism, its brashness and its often jarring vulgarity. This is particularly ironic given Pawson's strong preference for the work of Judd in particular, whose three-dimensional assemblies were consistently made by combining light-industrial materials and intense commercial colours in sometimes hilariously inelegant pairings: polished brass and purple Plexiglas, or shiny copper and cadmium red paint. And then people come along and enthuse about its cool rationality and its stoicism.

Nor do the kinds of interiors for which Pawson is known have anything much in common with the aesthetic of Judd, or Andre, or Flavin. For each of these artists any kind of suppression of the structural character and local qualities of materials was to be avoided at all costs - as a result their work has a directness and openness about it. The apparent openness and simplicity of a spare, white, Pawson interior is more often a contrived result of concealment through cladding and painting. In this, Pawson's work has more in common with the hollow forms of Morris' early sculpture or some of LeWitt's closed structures, both of which also tended to be painted a neutral homogenising white or pale grey.

A number of other artists are conscripted into Pawson's vision of simplicity, among them Cézanne, Mondrian, Matisse, Rothko, Newman and Turrell. Certainly some of this work often possesses a deep, static, absorbing intensity. As such it doesn't sit too awkwardly amongst pictures of buildings and spaces associated with other forms of intense contemplative reflection. For Pawson this work and his own are united by a common bond of 'voluntary poverty', a topical expression in some contemporary ecological and theological circles. As I understand it (although I can't help wondering what will happen when the Tories eventually get hold of the phrase) the term is intended to refer to a position of decisive withdrawal from a culture of obsessive over-production and over-consumption. I can just about make sense of Mondrian's or Newman's or Rothko's hard-won asceticism in these terms. Pawson's own adherence to this 'aesthetic and moral principle' is rather less easy to figure out.

It's an obvious question, but how exactly does one match this principle with, say, the author's description of one of his interiors: 'The immediate impression I was looking to create in Calvin Klein's flagship store in New York was one of containment. The outside world is filtered out and the clothes given centre stage, allowing customers to move through a calm, unhurried, but structured, atmosphere'? Elsewhere Pawson quotes Fra Angelico: 'true wealth consists in being content with very little'; talks of 'a life of quietness and withdrawal from worldliness', celebrates the Cistercian 'regime of extreme self-denial', and then shows off the facade he's designed for a cake shop in Vienna. And ever so gradually the essence of Pawson's moral philosophy becomes clearer: it's not about whether you consume; what really matters is where you shop. Pawsonian voluntary poverty comes at a price, literally. And at £60, so does the book.

A book absorbed with appearances is one thing, and a rather elegant thing at that. A book absorbed with appearances which clads itself as a moral and spiritual pilgrimage is something else entirely. The achievements of Mies or Rothko or Judd, in their earlier stages at least, went against the grain of a culture. In that not insignificant achievement there was a political dimension which was inseparable from the aesthetic one. To lose sight of that awkwardness and irregularity and desperation is to lose almost everything that made the work what it is. All that's left is style. Or a certain kind of art history.

David Batchelor's Minimal Art is published by Tate Publications, London in Spring 1997.