Review by Lia Trinka-Browner
Heftily, this book re-examines the territory of sculpture and the paradigms and writings associated with what has come to be called “Minimalism.” Some familiar, albeit base, terms that come to mind might be: geometric, paired-down, monochrome, reactionary, sparse, maybe even simple. It’s not that Applin is arguing against these off-the-cuff descriptive words, but bringing up artists that, while not frequently discussed in Minimalist terms for the most part, were very much a part of the conversation. These words were most definitely not being used to describe them. In fact, words like organic, biomorphic, anthropomorphic, idiosyncratic, assemblage and chaotic, were…and still are.
Most everyone schooled in the art world academically has read, discussed, and critiqued some of the key articles of this era in their respective classrooms. I’ve always enjoyed re-reading “Notes on Sculpture” by Robert Morris (1966) and even the somewhat annoying “Art and Objecthood” (1967) by Michael Fried. But Applin goes for arguably the most interesting from the well-cited, over-photocopied art school packet, by closely looking at Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” (1965). Applin uses “Specific Objects” and “Local Histories” (from Judd’s Complete Writings) to form this book and to a greater degree, re-unpack 60’s Minimalism (and Pop) as it’s reflected on today. Perhaps we should re-populate our go-to list of minimalist artists and perhaps, even more so, we should think about what we have learned from our history lessons as at times inexact, unstable and maybe uncertain. After all, Judd argued that art itself is not about tidying up everything into little defined boxes, writing “The history of art and art’s condition at any one time are pretty messy. They should stay that way.”
While there are a number of entertaining history lessons and stories (H.C. Westermann and Bruce Nauman in particular) on the life-narratives of these artists, the main thrust is obviously Judd and whom Judd championed. The artists he wrote about were, in a way, his art siblings and his contemporaries. There’s Judd on Lee Bontecou and Judd on Claes Oldenburg and Judd on Lucas Samaras and Judd on Westermann and Judd on Nauman. Gratefully, Applin doesn’t go over every artist mentioned in Judd’s essay, but does expand and bring into context what Judd meant by writing “art isn’t so neat as to be simply linear.”
What Eccentric Objects lacks in appealing design (or font choice for that matter), it holds within it some very smart observations. And what this investigation might lack in really opening up an unforeseen newness, it makes up for in clear and intelligent thought circling around concepts of positioning and boundary lines that history inevitably draws through time, despite the accuracy of those boundaries and whether those lines even need to really be that firm. To Applin, it’s enough to look back at the possibly pervasive way that this specific era has stopped being investigated and say- how about we look sideways at these relationships and re-open the conversation.
Jo Applin, Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture in 1960’s America, (Yale University Press, 2012)
Images: Cover and interior of Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture in 1960’s America.