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September 17, 2001

Meyer gets minimal in second book on art genre

By Michael Alpert


The American Heritage Dictionary defines minimalism as “use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements, as in the arts, literature or design.” But James Meyer, assistant professor of art history, has his own unique views of the sculpture genre, which initially endured negative perception when first popularized in the United States in the 1960s.

“Critics initially felt there wasn’t enough ‘art’ there,” Meyer said of minimalism’s uncomplicated, often factory-made sculptures, which contrasted with more handmade and formally complex works of preceding decades’ abstract expressionism. “Critics felt it was too reduced, both in form and facture. Minimal was initially a term of deprecation in the early 1960s.

“It was a way of saying the art was not art enough,” Meyer added. “Abstract impressionist art was expressive, and you could feel the artist’s subjectivity. You could feel [Jackson] Pollock expressing his feelings in [abstract expressionist] art. Minimalism is against that—minimalism is against personal expression. You don’t feel the artist in the work.”

To express his perspective on the now widely accepted genre, this summer Meyer produced his second book, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, which traces minimalism’s genealogy and evolution from a negative term to a positive one by the end of the decade. The 275-page book came a year after his more general Minimalism, an assembly of major essays for which he wrote an 80-page introduction.

Meyer’s first book became an editor’s pick among art books last year. But the second book, which amplifies the substance of his 1995 Johns Hopkins doctoral dissertation, is considerably more specific and thoroughly chronicles minimalism from 1959 to 1968. Though he considers his first book slightly more “chic,” Meyer said his second is pitched more to a scholarly audience, designed for scholars and students of 20th century art.

“It seems almost a paradox that minimalism should need such complex explanation,” said Carlos Museum Director Tony Hirschel. “This period has been requiring such a thorough and beautiful explanation like James’.”

As its title indicates, Meyer’s second book is an attempt to specifically address minimalism’s polemics, or the arguments over the movement’s veracity, in a decade of heightened intellectual debate in the art world.

“Minimalism inspired heated debate, both by the artists and major critics of the day—the polemics were essential to the invention of minimalism itself,” Meyer said. “The ’60s was a period in modern art when debate and criticism around art became essential to thinking about the ‘art,’ part of the art. One of the reasons for so much discussion was the art was so simple that it infuriated viewers. The artist had to justify what he was doing and explain why this type of art could be taken seriously.

“There’s a certain ethos in the ’60s that minimalism exemplifies,” Meyer added of minimalism’s environmental, often floor-standing sculpture. “There was an interest in getting rid of the expressive author of abstract expressionism and simplifying the work.”

Having already sold half of its initial run of 4,000 copies since its release in June, Meyer’s book is the result of nearly 30 interviews with artists and critics, including major critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried and minimalist sculptors Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and Anne Truitt. Also included are the perspectives of art historians Barbara Rose and Rosalind Krauss. Art history chair Clark Poling admires the totality of Meyer’s new book and considers it very unique.

“He’s been very enterprising in getting to know artists and their work, as well as criticism of their work,” Poling said. “He’s very insightful and has a unique perspective on this material. He does a good job of combining scholarship and criticism and brings a breath of perspective to the topic.”


Back to Emory Report September 17, 2001