From November 8, 2003 through January 11, 2004, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents Primary Matters: The Minimalist Sensibility, 1959 to the Present. This exhibition conceives Minimalism not as a monolithic movement, but as a set of strategies or practices adopted by a range of artists over the past four decades. Drawn entirely from the SFMOMA collection, Primary Matters features 28 works—seminal paintings, sculptures and installations—that exemplify the vitality and malleability of the minimalist aesthetic.
The exhibition also showcases the substantial growth of SFMOMA’s structural acquisitions since the 1990s, particularly in art of the 1960s and 1970s. From Dan Flavin’s readymade light installations to Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings, Primary Matters demonstrates SFMOMA’s dedication to housing a wide range of critically diverse and significant works that offer a rich palette for creating new dialogues. Major figures of Minimalism such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre share this exhibition with artists who appropriated elements of the minimalist vocabulary without aligning themselves with a particular movement.Primary Matters also features works by Jo Baer, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Eva Hesse, Jenny Holzer, Sol LeWitt and Fred Sandback, among others, including a site-specific installation by Richard Serra that has been hidden behind the SFMOMA gallery walls since 1995. Also highlighted will be recent acquisitions by Richard Artschwager, Carlos Mollura and Frank Stella. The exhibition is organized by Tara McDowell, SFMOMA curatorial associate of painting and sculpture. Former SFMOMA Curatorial Associate Clara Kim worked with McDowell on the initial conception and planning of the exhibition.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically, Primary Matters provides a survey of significant groupings and exemplars of the holistic style often associated with the term “Minimalism.” At the same time, the exhibition expands the definition of both artistic approach and the range of artists typically linked to the style, underscoring the relationships among works of art rather than charting a strict continuum.
Primary Matters takes its title from the groundbreaking show Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors at the Jewish Museum in New York (1966), one of the first major exhibitions to gather works that were reduced and geometric, emphasizing the relationship between viewer and artwork rather than the artist’s self-expression. Critics struggled to put a name to this sensibility, alternately dubbing it Literal Art, ABC Art, Cool Art and Minimalism. Though the term “Minimalism” became the historical point of reference, the artists associated with this style rarely endorsed the label. Nonetheless, certain characteristics have become definitive of the period—simple forms, an engagement with architecture and space, an emphasis on seriality, and the use of new, often industrial materials—and this vocabulary not only informed art practice throughout the 1960s and 1970s but also accommodates a host of artistic approaches today.
Abandoning overt subjectivism and striving for ideal forms, minimalist artists sought truth through reductivism, resulting in practically anonymous works with bold, visceral impact. This was a shocking and radical move that challenged the very foundations of what we value in art. “This work helped set the stage for an ever-expanding field of art practice encompassing performance, installation and site-specific art,” says SFMOMA Curatorial Associate Tara McDowell.
The first gallery presents works that blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture, where painting is no longer defined simply as paint on canvas. Featured here is Frank Stella’s Zambezi (1959), one of his best-known stripe paintings and a recent gift to SFMOMA; John McCracken’s Right Down (1967); and Richard Artschwager’s Triptych III (1967).
The next major section of the exhibition is dedicated entirely to Richard Serra’s Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift (1969/1995). A gift of Jasper Johns, the work was originally created in 1969 and then remade at SFMOMA over a three-day period in 1995 by the artist. Serra threw molten lead against the space where floor meets wall in a method recalling Jackson Pollock’s action-painting style. After the lead solidified enough to hold the shape of the corner, Serra pulled it away from the wall and then repeated the entire process until he achieved a series of molds lined up along the floor.
The exhibition continues with works that address accumulation, repetition and the grid, featuring the tactically insistent white bars of Sol LeWitt’s Steel Structure (1975–76) and Yayoi Kusama’s Untitled (1960), a work of amassed brushstrokes that employs a similar strategy of accumulation but to a strikingly different effect. Present in all these works is a highly intellectual format that is nonhierarchical and nonreferential. Primary Matters also showcases Dan Flavin’s 1968 work Untitled (to Dorothy and Roy Lichtenstein on not seeing anyone in the room), installed in SFMOMA’s gallery for the first time, and the Museum’s strong collection of paintings by Robert Ryman.
Concluding the exhibition are more recent expressions of minimalist sensibility. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (1992–93) depicts a familiar minimalist form—a rectangular block placed directly on the floor—that is activated with notions of loss and regeneration by inviting the visitor to take a sheet from a stack of printed paper (replenished over the course of the exhibition). Also featured is the first SFMOMA installation of an immense, inflatable polyurethane grid by young, Los Angles-based artist Carlos Mollura. This piece challenges the viewer to negotiate spatial boundaries, echoing the rational structures of LeWitt as both an acknowledgment and reinvention of this precedent.
Primary Matters invites the viewer to rethink the minimalist sensibility, presenting works from the past four decades that engage the aesthetic legacy of the artists who worked in, around or in spite of history’s designation of these strategies as a movement. Collected here in a new relational context, the works on view ask the observer to slow down, to open the eye and the mind and, perhaps, to begin anew.