Modernism refers to artwork produced during the period of the 1860s until the 1970s. During this period society was experiencing a time of great progress and change facilitated through sciences and technology. This culture of progress gave birth to artists who were analyzing traditions and experimenting with new methods. These new methods were concerned primarily with formal properties. Modern works of art are classified by their primary concern with essential qualities of color and flatness. These works display a progressive reduction of interest in the subject matter.
Clement Greenberg was a prominent art critic in the 1950s and 1960s, serving as one of the foremost voices for the Modernist movement. Even those who opposed his views recognize that he was one of the most important critics of his time. His voice is recognized as the definitive articulation of the Modernist movement. Greenberg claimed, “modernism in the arts involved a process of reduction according to which traditional conventions were progressively discarded until in the end one arrived at a kind of timeless irreducible core – until we arrive at its essence.” Formal qualities are central to a work of art and by breaking away from traditions artists are able to focus on the qualities that cannot be eliminated.
In the 1960s a movement of critical art began in New York that stripped away decorative detail and technique, instead of focusing on geometry. These works emphasize extreme simplification of form and are known as Minimalism. Three of the central artists of this movement are Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. These artists chose to interpret literally the tenets of Modernism and in doing so created a new movement in art.
Frank Stella discovered in his youth that he was not skilled at representational art and chose to focus his studies on the abstract form. It was during his time at Phillips Academy that he began organizing his compositions in rectangles. Stella said, “I liked organizing things in blocks, abstractly. I thought about that and often said that I wanted to paint just squares or something comparable. It seemed to me the thing to do; a painting could just be involved with squares and that would be enough.” His pieces lack representational subject matter but often are given subject through their titles. Stella’s paintings progress to works of single or multiple box forms arranged over varying stripes. Although he chose to reduce his paintings to one visual element he felt that his paintings were defined by what he chose to do, not what he chose to omit.
One of Stella’s early pieces, completed in 1958, is Plum Island (Luncheon on the Grass) (Figure 1). This piece involves a series of stripes in an arrangement of various shades of green and pink. Here Stella begins working with stripes as the subject matter but is still experimenting with the effect of different colors on the overall composition. The pink stripe grounds the piece and draws the eye to the horizon. The stripes blur into one another almost seamlessly in areas but are more frequently emphasized with a deep blue/green line dividing each. Stella negates space, offering the illusion of a horizon but no depth from which to perceive it.
Plum Island (Luncheon on the Grass) bears a stark contrast to the first series Stella produced, the Black paintings. Morro Castle (Figure 2) is the first painting in which Stella determined to make a “Black” painting. Despite the series name, many of the paintings reveal layers of colored paint beneath the black paint, as in this piece. The bits of color that peek through illustrate the process of reduction this particular painting went through and a progression from Plum Island (Luncheon on the Grass). In a similar fashion, this painting began with something colorful, but Stella chose what was necessary, the stripes themselves. The color was secondary and, consequently, abandoned in order to shift focus to the stripes. The stripes in Morro Castle are presented in a pattern of nested squares. There are imperfections in the squares, as they seem to drift off-center, revealing that Stella was unconcerned with keeping them straight. This painting is reduced to essentially one core color and one primary shape repeated in an architectural pattern. The large solid stripes on the left and right sides of the paintings are perhaps addressing the leftover space that preoccupies abstract expressionism. Given the rectangular shape of the canvas and the square pattern, leftover space is inevitable. Stella uses this to his advantage by allowing the leftover space to frame the pattern; he takes the residual and makes it focal.
This same theme is addressed in Reichstag (Figure 3), the first “all black” painting with no under painting showing through, only the bare canvas. The painting consists of concentric right angles nested within each other. Stella stops the pattern on the two top corners, filling them with solid black rectangles, perhaps, again, an exaggerated acknowledgment that the pattern is limited by the constraints of the canvas. This painting is also reduced to one color and one primary shape.
A process of reduction is seen through the use of color in these three paintings to shift the attention to the stripes themselves. In Plum Island (Luncheon on the Grass) color is central to the composition and visually overwhelms the pattern of stripes. Morro Castle eliminates this overall use of color, presenting the stripes in black with hints of color remaining between the stripes. This inverts the focus making the stripes override color. Finally, Reichstag presents the stripes themselves devoid of extraneous color. The color is an unnecessary element. It is, as Greenberg said, “progressively discarded until in the end one arrived at a kind of timeless irreducible core – until we arrive at its essence.” By narrowing to a singular color we are left with only the line and texture of the painting. The stripes become the subject and so Stella arrives at his “essence”.
Another artist who deals with reduction is Donald Judd, who began his career as a critic and painter after earning an art degree at Columbia University. He soon moved to create pieces that explored space, which he called “specific objects” because they were not sculpted but rather produced by fabricators using industrial processes. Much of his work centers on technology-based materials such as aluminum, iron, zinc, and Plexiglas, highlighting their properties while concurrently distancing his work from any art historical associations. While removing all illusions from his work is always of concern, Judd lists the three most important elements of his pieces to be color, space, and material. He said that art should be, “a shape, a volume, a color, a surface (as) something itself. It shouldn’t be concealed as part of a fairly different whole.” By allowing his pieces to stand by themselves, not aspiring to be anything other, Judd brings a new richness to minimal art.
Judd’s specific objects are a way of translating space between the object, viewer and the setting. His piece Untitled (Figure 4) seeks to address that space. The piece is freestanding, resting not on a pedestal but on the same ground upon which the viewer stands, forging an immediate connection between the two.The rectangular box has a recessed top, leaving no illusions as to whether the box is solid; by revealing the thickness of the metal the hollowness is evident. The deep enamel covering the object serves to highlight the shape and also reminds the viewer of the space in which it occupies by means of its reflective surface. The object stands without pretense. This piece, like many of Judd’s others, was created through collaboration with industrial fabricators, initiating dialogue about the piece in its inception and making it a societal process. This new method of “sculpture” is an avenue to discard the traditional conventions that Greenberg spoke of. By abandoning conventional methods for creation Judd redirects focus away from the ability of the artist and, instead, focuses on the core elements of his works: color, space, and material.
Another of his pieces, Untitled (Figure 5), employs similar construction but is forged from copper. There are ten ledges, each nine inches high, stacked nine inches above one another. The repetition and equal spacing bring a sense of unity to the piece, implying that each ledge was placed together to form a whole and not by accident. No artificial color has been applied but the tone of the copper itself is exposed, pointing to the properties of the material itself as the subject. The highly reflective finish demystifies the work by revealing every nuance of the surface as well as the tops and bottoms of each ledge that would otherwise be hidden. This piece hangs on the wall, but protrudes into the room, invading the space of the viewer. The wall is a typical placement for paintings, while sculptures are placed on the ground, but Judd rejects this traditional convention by hanging a sculpture on the wall. It is through these conscious rejections that Judd forges a new type of Modern art.
Space is also a concern for Dan Flavin, who translates the idea past simply occupying space into transforming it. Flavin began working with industrial fluorescent lights in 1963 using the colors that were available: blue, green, pink, red, yellow, and four varieties of white. By using industrial materials available at any hardware store he challenges the notion that art is dependent on an original object. Flavin rejects the notion of making a studio composition in favor of focusing on transforming a specific site. He uses his pieces as a means to reshape and redefine space with light.
One of his earlier works is the nominal three (to William of Ockham) (Figure 6). It is arranged in a series, starting with one daylight-colored fluorescent light hung vertically in the left corner, followed by a grouping of two lights in the center of the wall, and finally a grouping of three lights in the right corner. Together they transform the space, causing the corners to disappear as they are enveloped with light and architecturally subdividing the space with their strong vertical lines. Beyond the formal qualities, much can be gleaned about this piece from its titled dedication, to William of Ockham, a 14th century English philosopher famous for his Ockham’s Razor based upon this maxim: “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”. Flavin translates this maxim in this piece of work by using the fewest lights possible to create a series. He said about his works in general that there was, “…a lovely tempering aphorism which has been with me for a few years. ‘Principles (entities) should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” This is, indeed, a minimalist attitude of reduction, only including what is necessary.
Greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) (Figure 7) is another piece that applies this same attitude. It is the first of Flavin’s barrier pieces, consisting of two fence-like constructions of green lights that intersect one another at a point near the center of the room. There is a very architectural sense in the post and lintel structure as it subdivides the room. The green light washes the floor and walls in a glow. The presence of the permeating light transforms the room, both by the introduction of new color and architecturally by dividing the space into four quadrants (three are inaccessible to the viewer) and lighting the corners so that they seem to disappear, leaving only a hint of the room’s original structure. Greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) seizes the viewer’s attention both visually and physically. The green strongly arrests the eye and washes the viewer’s body in color, transforming them into part of the installation. The physical presence of the piece enters the viewer’s space, creating a barricade from the other side of the room. The dedication is to Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter in the early 1900s that painted black and white grid designs and used primary paint colors (red, blue, and yellow) to fill the grid. When working with light, as Flavin does, the primary colors are red, blue, and green, so by using light as a visual tool Flavin is able to add another color to the primary palette. This acknowledgment is a reminder that Flavin is trying to work at the most reductive level of his chosen medium.
These three artists represent the Minimalist movement and each interprets Greenberg’s tenants of Modernism literally, reducing their work to its core: line, shape, and light. Frank Stella eliminates color and focuses on the visual element of stripes, Donald Judd’s work shows a dismissal of traditional conventions and Dan Flavin makes light his subject and uses it to transform spaces. I believe their work is the literal end to Greenberg’s Modernism: “a process of reduction according to which traditional conventions were progressively discarded until in the end one arrived at a kind of timeless irreducible core – until we arrive at its essence.” Each artist removes the unnecessary and is able to focus on a particular visual element, allowing us to see and appreciate each element as its own entity. Their work has paved the way for many artists and shaped the art world.
 Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, Modernism: The Roots of Modernism. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe. 5 Feb 2009.
 Clement Greenberg: Biography. Answer.com. 6 Feb 2009.
 (Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting.)
 Frances Colpit, Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990), 1-2.
 Harry Cooper and Megan R. Luke, Frank Stella: 1958 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 27.
 This was a considerable issue in the Minimalist movement; critics found it much easier to label this type of art by what was missing. One of the most poignant addresses to this issue comes from John Perreault. In the March 1967 issue of Arts Magazine he says, “Minimal art, although it has strong negative connotations (no more negative, however, than the term Fauvism) seems to be the term most commonly used. The term “minimal” seems to imply that hat is minimal in Minimal art is the art. This is far from the case. There is nothing minimal about the “art” (craft, inspiration or aesthetic stimulation) in Minimal art. If anything, in the best works being done, it is maximal. What is minimal about Minimal art, or appears to be when contrasted with Abstract Expressionism or Pop art, is the means, not the ends. For more information see Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective.
 Cooper and Luke, Frank Stella, 30.
 (Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting.)
 Hatje Cantz, Donald Judd: Colorist (Hannover: Hatje Cantz publishers, 2000), 12.
 Ragheb, J. Fiona. Collection Online | Donald Judd. Untitled. 1968. Guggenheim, n.d.. , 20 February 2009.
 Cantz. Donald Judd, 16.
 Kenneth Baker, Minimalism: Art of Circumstance (Abbeville Press, Inc., 1988), 97.
 Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, (Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated: New York, 1995), 303.
 J. Fiona Ragheb, Dan Flavin: The Architecture of Light (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 13.
 Artwork Page: the nominal three (to William of Ockham). CyberMuse, 2009. , 27 February, 2009.
 Ragheb, Dan Flavin, 63.
 , J. Fiona Ragheb, Collection Online | Dan Flavin. The nominal three (to William of Ockham). 1963. Guggenheim, n.d.. , 20 February 2009.
 Ragheb, Dan Flavin, 27.