In Focus

The Apogee of Abstraction

The following essay is excerpted from the 2007 exhibition catalogue Fast Forward: Contemporary Collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, which showcased promised bequests of the Hoffman, Rachofsky, and Rose families, in conjunction with works from the Museum's previously acquired contemporary holdings.

In a famous diagram, originally appearing on the cover of the catalogue for his groundbreaking exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art, Alfred Barr outlined a dialectic responsible for the progress of modern art. His Rube-Goldberg-like maze of lines and arrows identifies Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin as the source of what he called "Non-Geometrical Abstract Art" and Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat as the fathers of "Geometrical Abstract Art." Many 20th-century artists, he observed, "were driven to abandon the imitation of natural appearance. 'Abstract' is the term most frequently used to describe the more extreme effects of this impulse away from nature."[1] As early as 1936, Barr detected a particularly fertile tradition, one that will be especially well represented in the enhanced collections of the Dallas Museum of Art. The addition of major early works by artists such as Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra reinforces the historical significance of the bequests.

In minimal art of the 1960s, the tradition of geometric abstraction reached its apogee. More than a style, minimal art represents a philosophical position that is committed to the self-sufficient materiality of artworks, rather than to narrative or metaphysical possibilities. Compositions are typically serial or repetitive, described by Donald Judd as "one thing after another," sometimes mathematical, but rarely characterized by traditional forms of balance. Minimal art's simple, regular forms, industrial or other plainspoken materials, and human scale appeal to the body of the viewer as much as to the eye. Often enhanced by a richness of color or conceptual complexity, these abstract works of art are exhilaratingly real.

Because of their hard-edge styles and use of the grid as a system of order, four major precursors, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Tony Smith, and Anne Truitt, were often included in exhibitions of minimal art. Kelly is a member of the last generation of American artists who considered study in Paris as essential. Living in France from 1948 to 1954, he developed a form of abstraction based on direct observation and was drawn in particular to architectural elements such as windows and bridges. According to his friend Anne Weber, Sanary (1952) was inspired by "the bright light and color of Sanary," a resort town on the Côte d'Azur, where the artist spent the winter and spring of 1951-1952.[2] With the exception of the placement of the darker ones in three vertical rows, the colored squares in Sanary were arbitrarily arranged. In other works he used the color spectrum to avoid idiosyncratic or potentially self-expressive forms of composition.

Many of Kelly's works in the Dallas Museum of Art and Hoffman collections use a gentle, attenuated curve, which entered his vocabulary in 1968. It is related to his interest in the arches of bridges, especially those over the Seine, but also, as E.C. Goossen pointed out, to the then-new Gemini photographs of the "earth's circumferential horizon."[3] The Museum's curved and folded sculpture from 1983 [1983.56] evolved from Kelly's earliest sculptural effort, Pony (1959). While visiting his neighbor, Agnes Martin, Kelly bent the lid of a tin can and let it rock on the table. Martin "suggested that he 'make that'." [4]

The gift of Martin's paintings fills a major void in the DMA's collection of postwar American art. All of her works are based on the grid, which not only suppresses the expressive ego—drawing attention to the artwork rather than to the artist—but also reinforces the abstractness of the painting. Although Martin conscientiously refused to represent nature, she was inspired by it: "When I first made the grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied." [5] Two of the Museum's bequests date from 1960, the year she discovered the grid. Martin's work is distinguished by pale colors and a delicate pencil line that moves resolutely across the bumpy, woven texture of the canvas. "Thus the grid, though tight," Lawrence Alloway observed, "does not close the surface, but establishes an open suggest, for all its regularity, a veil, a shadow, a bloom."[6]

An exact contemporary of Martin and her friend Jackson Pollock (all three were born in 1912), Tony Smith was originally an architect with an interest in modular structures. From the 1930s through the 1950s, he painted quietly and without exhibiting his work. An important early example is Untitled (1934-1935), an architectonic painting composed of square and rectangular forms resembling building blocks. Influenced by Jay Hambidge's book, The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry (1919), which identified the source of dynamic symmetry in combinations of the five regular geometric solids, Smith began to make sculpture in 1960. According to Sam Hunter, Smith "settled on the components of the tetrahedra and octahedra in the mid-sixties when he made Willy," named after a character in a play by Samuel Beckett [1977.72].[7] Before enlarging his sculptures in metal, Smith would arrange and rearrange four-sided and eight-sided cardboard modules until he arrived at a configuration that could convey the strong emotional presence he sought. [1978.31]

Anne Truitt was after a similar quality of serenely commanding presence, although she was primarily interested in color [2002.55]. "What I want is color in three dimensions, color set free, to a point where, theoretically, the support should dissolve into pure color." With blocks of dark red seemingly suspended in a lighter red frame, "Valley Forge, of 1963, was made of an interest," Truitt told Jane Livingston, "in 'cantilevering' color."[8] Despite the fact that her sculptures were actually painted in deep earth tones, Truitt was included in Black, White, and Gray, an exhibition organized by Samuel Wagstaff Jr. at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1964. Signaling the ascendancy of minimal art, the exhibition brought together the works of several generations of artists, including Smith, Kelly, and Martin, and Stella, Robert Morris, and Dan Flavin. It was reviewed at length in Arts Magazine by Judd, whose work was not included. By this time, the effect of Stella's Black and Aluminum paintings, from 1959 and 1960 respectively, had spread throughout the New York art world. Inspired by Johns's flag paintings, which he had seen at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958, Stella began a series of box-and-stripe paintings using inexpensive housepainter's tints and black enamel. "When he 'got into trouble' with the color," reported William Rubin, "he simply overpainted the problematic areas in black."[9] Eschewing the kind of relational balance typical of modern European painting, Stella explained that younger American artists "strive to get the thing in the middle, and symmetrical...The balance factor isn't important. We're not trying to jockey everything around." [10] To coincide with their patterns of diagonal stripes, the metallic Valparaiso paintings of 1963 are shaped in the form of trapezoids and parallelograms, and the monumental canvases of the Protractor series are limned with wide curved stripes in fluorescent and other bright hues. [1981.135] Since the Protractors, Stella has pursued progressively more baroque compositions, substituting dynamic three-dimensionality for the modernist emphasis on flatness in painting. With the bequests, Stella's influential oeuvre will be comprehensively represented in the collection.

The Museum will also become a major repository of works by Judd, one of the 20th century's great artists and, for many years, a resident of West Texas. Originally a painter, Judd began producing three-dimensional works, which he referred to as "specific objects," in 1963. Unlike traditional sculpture, his objects are not representational or referential. Originating in sheet form, his industrial materials, such as galvanized iron or the fluorescent Plexiglas of Untitled (1965), are specific and undisguised. Like Stella, Judd was adamantly opposed to relational composition and turned to symmetry, repetition, and mathematical progressions to determine the structure of his objects. The widths of the purple boxes supporting the square tube of Untitled (1970), for instance, are based on a Fibonacci progression (each unit in the progression the sum of the two preceding units) [2001.346]. Since Judd's death in 1994, critical emphasis has been redirected to his passion for color, frequently applied through the process of anodization, an electrolytic procedure that fuses color to aluminum.

The DMA's strong collection of minimal art includes major examples by Flavin and Morris. An important early sculpture by Carl Andre, Pyramid (Square Plan) (1959, remade 1970), reveals his interest in the repeated modules of Constantin Brancusi and the symmetrical stripe patterns of Stella, with whom he shared a studio [1979.44]. Describing his floor pieces, some of which can be walked on, Andre explained, "All I'm putting Brancusi's Endless Column on the ground."[11] This comment is literalized in 41 Endful Column of 2000.

As the concrete objecthood of sculpture began to dematerialize in the late 1960s, many artists sought alternative forms of expression. Fred Sandback's stretched yarn sculptures, represented by a 1989 drawing as well as by a sculpture in the Rose collection, outline large geometric volumes in space. Alex Hay's drawings from 1968 relate to his career as a performance artist in the 1960s. Sol LeWitt supplemented his modular cube structures, which were begun in 1965, with wall drawings in the 1970s. The addition of LeWitt's Wall Drawing #310 (1978) to the Museum's collection will provide visitors with a historical precedent for the more playful and decorative wall drawing that presently graces the Barrel Vault [1985.3]. Recalling the modular structures of LeWitt and Tony Smith, Robert Smithson's Ziggurat (1966) is derived from his interest in crystalline structures and complements the Museum's beautiful Mirrors and Shelly Sand (1969-1970), an indoor earthwork involving the displacement of crystalline grains of sand from a beach to the Museum [2002.3.A-YY]

Michael Heizer's large geometric abstractions on shaped canvases have a reciprocal relationship to his earthworks. Referring to his paintings from the 1960s, he said: "The physicality of the paintings had grown to the point where they had become sculptural. They had become diagrams of dimension. Two of these paintings gave me the basis for my first underground sculpture," [12] North, dug into the Sierra Nevada in 1967. The geometric shapes of North, East, South and West—cone, truncated cone, prism, and cube—provide the model for the negative cuts into the circumference of his painting, Untitled #2 (1975).

The key figures of minimal painting are Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold, and David Novros, who represent the last great period of abstraction in the 20th century. Following a series of encaustic monochromes in the 1960s, Marden worked with multiple panels, separating his colors by actual divisions of the surface rather than by drawn lines. For many years, Marden lived part-time in Greece, which led to a group of paintings inspired by silvery green olive groves, such as To Corfu (1976) [1976.23.FA]. In 1987, Marden shocked the art world with what seemed to be a complete rejection of his previously minimal style. After traveling in Asia and studying Chinese poetry and calligraphy, he developed a new gestural form of brushwork that led to fluid, confident, yet still abstract, paintings such as Red Rocks (2) (2000-2002).

With ten major paintings, Ryman's work will be extensively represented in the collection. For more than forty years, he has reveled in the textural, coloristic, and viscous versatility of white paint. In Untitled (1962), a small grid of pencil lines in the lower right corner of a large raw linen canvas serves as an armature for a patch of green nearly hidden by squiggles of white paint. Ryman can be seen pursuing the same idea, now with a more holistic, nonrelational approach to composition and a mature, graceful style, in Document and Lift (both 2002), with masses of white paint floating over green or burnt sienna grounds. The variety of Ryman's brushwork and supports contributes to the sense of weight, temperature, atmosphere, and presence in his painting.

With his reputation as a painter's painter, Harvey Quaytman's abstractions were admired for their independence from prevailing trends. A conceptual approach to abstraction is seen in Jo Baer's elegant white paintings with crisp black framing edges and in the French artist Roman Opalka's white number paintings, produced daily to record the passage of time. Eleven years into the project, which will be concluded at the artist's death, he painted 1965/1-Infinity: Detail 3039180-3047372.

For the conceptual artist, "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art."[13] A classic example of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965) includes an actual chair, a photograph of the chair, and a dictionary definition of the word chair. Posing a question about chairness (a standard example used by philosophers in the investigation of essences), the work provides three forms of knowledge: material, imagistic, and linguistic. Working solely in the form of language, Lawrence Weiner presents statements about materials such as (HEAT)WATER + CLAY (1991), that may or may not have material existence. Mary Kelly's Primapara (Bathing series) and Dan Graham's Homes for America represent key moments in conceptual art: Kelly's in its fusion of feminism and conceptualism—the grid of photographs represents the first bath of the artist's son, whose childhood served as the focal point of her seminal Post-Partum Document (1973-1979), and Graham's in its immateriality—Homes originally took the form of a slide presentation and a magazine article.

Rejecting painting as an "elitist language," John Baldessari recalled, "I thought, most people do read newspapers and magazines, look at images in books and TV, and I said this is the way I'm going to speak, be more populist in my approach."[14] A similar interest in words and pictures drew Ed Ruscha to the format of the book. His deadpan photographs record the mesmerizing sameness of commercial and residential architecture in Los Angeles. Page after page, the structures of his books echo Judd's "one thing after another," and, as Peter Plagens observed, " the photographs in them are specific, homely and accurate."[15]

With twenty-two works in the permanent collection, Vija Celmins will be especially well represented. In 1968, Celmins began using her own photographs of the Pacific Ocean, taken from the Venice pier near her studio, as a source of materials for drawings such as Untitled (Ocean). She stresses the fact that her water drawings are not realistic images but pictures of photographs. "Making art, for me, is much more abstract," she said, "which is what I always want to bring it back to."[16] Indeed, the space in these drawings is at once deep, as the size of the waves decreases toward the top of the drawing, and flat, creating an allover rippling pattern on the surface. Inspired by satellite photographs, her galaxy paintings and drawings have smooth shimmering surfaces, enhancing their dusky light. The drawings of tiny stars in dense black space are produced by leaving empty spaces where the white acrylic ground is visible. Providing Celmins with another form of spatial ambiguity and allover design, the linear patterns of spider webs are ideal subjects for photogravure and mezzotint prints.

With a grisaille palette that mimics his photographic sources, Richard Artschwager draws the imagery for his paintings on Celotex, a low-budget wall covering, of images from upscale interior decorating magazines. His sculptures are also inspired by furniture. Swivel (1964), for example, resembles a pared down, nonfunctional swivel chair. Its simple geometric forms and industrial materials recall those used by minimal artists.

Eccentric Abstraction, organized by the critic Lucy Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in 1966, signaled a reaction against the hard-edge rigor of minimalism and ushered in a much more variable and fluid postminimalism. Among the seven artists represented were Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and the much younger Bruce Nauman, fresh from the University of California in Davis, where his graduate work consisted of quirky fiberglass sculptures such as Untitled (1965). Nauman's career has never been driven by medium; he uses whatever form or material is best suited to convey his ideas. His works in neon, for example, draw on the association with textual signage. Video allows for sounds and pictures to unfold temporally. Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor) of 1999 shows Nauman digging a posthole on his ranch in New Mexico, a task that determined the length of the video tape. Good Boy/Bad Boy (1985) explores the issue of time and language through the use of two actors who read aloud the same texts at different speeds.

Typically small, fragile, and playfully crafted, Richard Tuttle's work is made by hand from unassuming scraps of material. Although his work is everything that minimal art is not, he recalls admiring Agnes Martin's paintings in Black, White, and Gray in 1964.[17] With Martin-like delicacy, Sail (1964) and Equals (1964-1965) were constructed that same year. Calling attention to the softness of the support, Canvas Pale Purple (1967) is unstretched and sliced. Among his most important works are the wire drawings, which trace nearly invisible shapes on the wall.

When Joel Shapiro's sculpture was first shown in the early seventies, its most remarkable aspect was a refreshing sense of small scale. As Roberta Smith observed: "Shapiro took the new architectural space of minimalism and dramatized and emotionalized it, giving it some of his childish, lost feelings by shrinking his objects so that no matter how close you got to them, they remained at a distance."[18] Placing many of these tiny works on the floor, Shapiro forced his viewer to experience sculpture in a different way, more consciously engaging the body in the act of perception. Fusing representation with abstraction - "the imagery that attracted me was imagery that had abstract intention,"[19] he explained- Shapiro's house-shaped sculptures explore psychological concerns such as memory and nostalgia.

Also oriented to the human body, Richard Serra's work depends on weight, gravity, and balance. Made from lead antimony, a soft metal that is conducive to being rolled into tubes, his Prop pieces are not welded but rely instead on the equilibrium created by two elements pushing against each other. This delicate sense of balance also characterizes the pitch of the DMA's Untitled (1971) and the crushing force of Zappa (1995). As Serra's work grows in size and weight, the impact on the viewer's body and his awareness of scale, tension, and potential collapse are intensified.

It is both a big step and a small one from Ellsworth Kelly to Richard Serra, from the graceful curves of Untitled (1982-1983) to the hair-trigger tension of Zappa. As the collection at the Dallas Museum of Art will reflect, the trajectory of abstraction is one of modernism's strongest.

1. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Cubism and Abstract Art, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936), 11.

2. E.C. Goossen, Ellsworth Kelly (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 46.

3. Ibid., 92.

4. Ibid., 67.

5. Lily Wei, "The Eternal Joy of an Attentive Mind," Art in America 93(March 2005): 104.

6. Lawrence Alloway, Agnes Martin, exh. cat. (Philadephia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1973), 9.

7. Sam Hunter, Tony Smith, exh. cat. (New York: Pace Gallery, 1979), 5-7.

8. Jane Livingston, Anne Truitt: Sculpture, 1961-1991, exh. cat. (New York: André Emmerich Gallery, 1991), n.p.

9. William Rubin, Frank Stella, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 16.

10. Bruce Glaser, "Questions to Stella and Judd," in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battock (New York: Dutton, 1968), 149.

11. David Bourdon, "The Razed Sites of Carl Andre," in Battock, Minimal Art, 104.

12. Julia Brown, "Interview," in Michael Heizer: Sculpture in Reverse, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 8.

13. Sol LeWitt, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, Mass,: MIT Press, 1999), 12).

14. Jeanne Siegel, "John Baldessari: Recalling Ideas," Art Talk: The Early 80s, ed. Jeanne Siegel (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 39.

15. Peter Plagens, "Ed Ruscha, Seriously," in The Works of Ed Ruscha, exh. cat. (New York: Hudson Hills in association with San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982), 35. Italics mine.

16. "Vija Celmins Interviewed by Chuck Close," Vija Celmins, ed. William S. Bartman (New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992), 38.

17. Michael Auping, Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle, exh. cat. (Fort Worth, Tex.: Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, 1998), 10.

18. Roberta Smith, Joel Shapiro, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982), 20.

19. Ibid., 96.

Excerpt from

Frances Colpitt, "The Apogee of Abstraction," in Fast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, eds. María de Corral and John R. Lane (Dallas Museum of Art ; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 104-111.