By admincal Oct 19, 2015



The hardcore formalism of much of minimal art has always attracted admirers and critics alike. But it was only when in the early nineties Anna C. Chave published her seminal (and fuming) essay, "Minimalism and the rhetorics of Power", that it became impossible to entertain any notion that works by artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, etc. could still be re-garded as focusing on form, on the level of "primary structures". Chave's intensive analysis covers exactly how formal aspects were used to install a language (not only artistic) of strength and power. 


More than that she portrays this group of artists, who at the time were still in high esteem (even if ridiculed by an emerging generation of artists) as the last true heroes of modernism, in a different light. After reading her text they come across as merely a gang of chauvinist macho-artists, fixated on the invasion and occupation of an artistic territory, in particular the constructivist concept of geometry, taking it outside of any original context or discourse, inflating it beyond recognition, and inscribing it with essentialist and arguably esoteric meaning. 


She also makes clear that these "rhetorics of power" not only apply on the level of artistic language, but on a much wider scale, revealing a mindset that appears outright Machiavellian in proportion. The way that this artistic enterprise is revealed as openly aiming for word domination, she also portrays as reinstalling the authority of the artist as the father figure, which Dada had so successfully deconstructed. She neatly links this up with research on the artists' biographies (and their most important collectors' strategies, in a follow-up essay "minimalism and biography"), for example: the involvement of individual artists in the army and their activity as soldiers in different american wars (e.g. Korea), or their social (mainly middle and upper class) backgrounds. 


But as important as this reading of these works is, revisiting this informative and entertaining text, which at times barely conceals the author's legitimate rage, some aspects of minimal art and its success are touched upon maybe too briefly. Looking back, a bigger picture comes into focus, less about persons, but about effects and reflections of these rhetorics. 


Ten years before Chave the artist Buzz Spector observed in an article, "Objects and logotypes: relationships between minimalist art and corporate design", that multinational corporations were already picking up on minimalist ideas, in particular in the way logos are used to create a form of corporate identity. Like building brands on a meta level, which build on but also reinforce already existing brands' identities. 


In the light of present-day developments, when big international brands like Apple or Nike have given up their names in their company logos, choosing instead to be identified simply by a sign, this becomes increasingly significant. The connection between company and sign is graphic, direct and clear, communicating a company identity, rather than brand qualities specific to sneakers and sportswear or smarthphones and personal computer. The way corporations use signs relates them closer to religions and their use of symbols - in effect a statement of alignment. 


What drives Spector's point home, however, lies in a quote about Robert Morris's essay "Notes on Sculpture" about the importance of "strong gestalt sensations" when regarding an artwork, and the perception of the work as representing one distinct entity. Exactly to create this idea of one entity is what makes the symbols of the swoosh so powerful to us today. Their simplicity and lack of complication of course reflect the activities of the company in no way whatsoever, but create an impenetrable surface, on which anything could be projected. Anything, of course, that reflects back on the company in a favourable way.


The application of these ideas can also be detected in the logo and politics of the Deutsche bank. Designed by the artist and designer Anton Stankowski in 1974, ten years after the first minimalist works made a splash on the art scene, it may appear like a square crossed by a diagonal. A second reading reveals it as a surprisingly blunt and abstract rendition of a diagram of rising profit. It does make clear that at the heart of this as much as any multinational corporation, there is all but one goal: making more profit. Or in corporate euphemisms: "steady growth in a stable environment", as the company communicated on a website recently, underpinning (the bank's) strength "coming out of the crisis". 



Considering that much of the current crisis is self-inflicted by the banks themselves, and that it was public budgets that had to bail the banks out, it is difficult to regard this as anything but cynical. Not only in the context of the present crisis but also in those of the past, and probably also present ventures of the Deutsche bank that certainly would warrant closer scrutiny. But let's leave that to the historians for the moment. 


The case of the Deutsche bank actively usurping the creative and innovative connotations of the art world for its purposes, like many other corporate collectors and sponsors of course, appears to refract the minimalists' own strategies, which look a lot like school-yard bullying, but also the relative vagueness and lack of a more concrete political agenda in minimalist artistic language. Cubes, pyramids, spheres may lend themselves to al-most any content, so it comes as little surprise that minimalist sculptures were highly attractive to companies - as a form of decoration in front lawns of representative, preferably international style buildings, underlining a progressive but clean corporate image. 


However, looking at the most popular companies at work today, one can't help noticing that the currency may have changed. Ebay, Facebook and Amazon don't have abstract minimalist sculpture on their front lawns; here the company logos have already taken over. They consider themselves at the epicentre of creativity and innovation  - and as art has proven to be just like any other economy, controlled by bullies, why bother? Has minimalism backfired? Or is it not the strength of art, that it can convey more power by focus-sing on weakness? And may it be vanity. 


Text by Andreas Schlaegel