Revaluing Minimalism: patronage, aura, and place.

Author:Chave, Anna C.
Position:Critical essay

Patronage studies are scarce in the literature on contemporary art for a reason: patrons have rarely exercised a decisive sway over the course of that art, broadly viewed. But the leading patrons of the Minimalist movement may be counted as an exception. The spiritualized view of Minimalism held by Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and the founders of the Dia Art Foundation, Heiner Friedrich and Philippa Pellizzi (nee de Menil and later changed to Fariha Friedrich), led them to elevate certain artists within the Minimalist ambit and motivated them to underwrite particular forms of Minimalist production, especially site-specific forms, at times on an epic scale. These predilections would culminate in various initiatives--such as Walter De Maria's 1977 Lightning Field or the Dia:Beacon museum--that would often be likened by the press to pilgrimage sites or sanctuaries and would otherwise lead to an institutional framing of Minimalism putatively at odds with the movement's premises in their inception, for dominant critical accounts would have it that Minimalism is properly understood as an ineluctably secular, materialist undertaking. (1)

Count Panza began collecting art by Dan Flavin and Robert Morris in 1967, followed by the work of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and others, monopolizing the market for Minimalism over the course of a decade when prices were low and competition from fellow collectors scant. (2) what he discerned in Minimalist initiatives generally was "the research of truth through simple forms," a quest for the "essential" that endued the work with auratic qualities. (3) Over time, with his "taste for the metaphysical, [Panza] rewrote the Minimalist project to suit his own sensibilities," Rosalind Krauss charged in 1991. (4) As for the founders of Dia, who largely succeeded Panza as the Minimalists' chief patrons. Village Voice critic Kim Levin inquired whether they were "propagating their own idealistic and somewhat mystical aesthetic" when they opened an exhibition space devoted to a limited number of outsize, long-term projects in an industrial building in New York's Chelsea neighborhood in 1987. (5) Dia's establishment of stand-alone art projects in accordance with individual artists' designs was framed skeptically by Krauss in October in 1990, further, as the "reconsecrating [of] certain urban spaces to a detached contemplation of their own 'empty' presence," spaces that emanate an "inscrutable but suggestive sense of impersonal, corporate-like power to penetrate artworld locales and to rededicate them to another kind of nexus of control." (6)

According to Dia's first annual report, of 1975, the foundation's aim was to "plan, realize and maintain public projects which cannot be easily produced, financed or owned by individual collectors because of their cost and magnitude," (7) Heiner Friedrich chose the name Dia--Greek for "through"--to denote (albeit in a way arcane to most) the foundation's role as a "conduit." But dia is also said to mean "the godlike one," and the artists anointed by Dia as geniuses capable of "creat[ing] major works which would be gifts to mankind for all time," as Dia artist La Monte young put it, (8) were sometimes said by the press to have been "dia-fied," while the patrons themselves were slyly dubbed by Flavin the "dia-ties." (9) In an age-old bargain, in short, artists and patrons each in a way affirmed the other as possessed of a superhuman spark. The press often compared the de Menil family generally to the Medici. And, for his part, Friedrich explicitly represented Dia's founding as a due response to a cultural moment of Renaissance-like dimensions: "We have artists of the magnitude of .. Michelangelo, be it Dan Flavin; of the magnitude of Donatello, be it Walter De Maria." (10)

Heiner Friedrich and Philippa Pellizzi welcomed Flavin, Judd, Turrell, De Maria, Young and his partner Marian Zazeela, and performance artist Robert Whitman into their founding Dia stable, promising to capitalize major projects by all of these figures. (11) Like Panza before them, the Dia founders generally sought work that they perceived as auratic, and (like Panza, too) they embraced some of the leading California Minimalists equally with certain of their New York counterparts. As the discourse on Minimalism evolved, however, numerous critics and historians would count the "light and space" artists--Irwin, Turrell, and others (all hailing from the West Coast)--not as full-fledged Minimalists but as exemplars of a tangential, spiritualized practice, or a "California sublime." (12) In an influential essay of 1991, Krauss pointedly separated two geographically defined cadres of Minimalists while extrapolating from a comparison between black cruciform paintings by Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella: whereas Stella's work was cast as a springboard for a "materialist," forward-looking, East Coast cohort of Minimalists, such as Morris and Flavin, the meditative, subtly illusionistic Reinhardt painting was portrayed as generative for a West Coast, retrogressive group of "idealist" minimalists--accorded but a lowercase m--such as Irwin and Turrell. (13)

Indeed, Reinhardt's generation (born early in the twentieth century)--including Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Tony Smith, Ron Bladen, Agnes Martin, and Anne Truitt--ad generally imbued their practices with a spiritual approach, alluding to either or both Judeo-Christian and Asian philosophies in doing so. (14) Many of these artists, whose work affected an extreme geometric simplicity, would command deep respect among the succeeding generation of Minimalists (above all, Newman, whose work Judd had hoped to include in the Dia-funded Marfa, Texas, compound he devoted to the artists he most esteemed). (15) Yet prominent narratives tend to index the Minimalists' use of geometric simplicity to the materialist, secular realm of the industrial or technological and to canonize a faction of East Coast artists said to be distinguished from their elders--as well as from their California counterparts--principally on that basis. In his 2001 monograph on Minimalism, for example, James Meyer followed Krauss's lead, justifying the exclusion of all the Californians (along with the California-born, New York-based De Maria) by referring readers to her aforementioned 1991 essay. (16)

At the time Minimalism visibly coalesced as a movement, in the mid-1960s, many would regard, say, Judd and Irwin as very much of a kind, as both attempted "to provide the viewer with an object of attention devoid of elements that might set the imagination wandering beyond immediate physical facts," as Richard Shiff succinctly put it. (17) Some of the key early exhibitions that included artists now called Minimalist--such as the legendary Primary Structures show at New York's Jewish Museum in 1966-encompassed alike East and West Coast-based practitioners. But the essays included in the first book on Minimalism, Gregory Battcock's 1968 an thology, mentioned only a few California-based artists in passing, and the Californians were slighted also among the works reproduced there. With time, this bias became further entrenched: California-based artists were excluded from or diminished in texts on Minimalism that emerged in the late 1980s and after, with the light and space artists particularly vulnerable to erasure. (18) Thus, whereas James Meyer's expansive 2000 anthology of writings by and about the Minimalists admitted certain California-based artists who produced discrete objects, such as John McCracken, Larry Bell, and Judy Chicago, Turrell and Irwin were omitted. (19)

Whether it is possible to generalize meaningfully about East and West Coast forms of Minimalism and, if so, how they intersected and how they might usefully be compared are questions that deserve fuller and subtler analysis than they have yet received. Among the most canonized Minimalists, it bears noting that Flavin was the lone New York City native. Judd and Morris were Missourians, although Morris spent a formative period in California before settling in New York and Judd would count Texas as his primary residence after a key period in New York City. Sol LeWitt and Andre were originally New Englanders, with Andre's work often speaking deeply of that identity. Many artists crucial to the performance and musical dimensions of Minimalism hailed from California, although most became transplanted New Yorkers: Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer on the dance side; John Cage, as a forefather, alongside La Monte Young and Terry Riley, on the aural side. California-born De Maria also settled in New York, whereas Irwin, Turrell, Bell, and McCracken remained based in the West, where they were raised (although not all of them stayed on the coast). (20)

Recent exhibitions centered on Minimalism at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City--the first ambitious historical surveys of the movement--might be taken as evidence of how Panza has indeed helped to foster a certain view of the Minimalist project. As homes to large portions of Panza'a former holdings, with their liberal mixture of East and West coast practitioners, both museums elected to integrate New York and California Minimalist work. (21) Further, and more enduringly, the recently established Beacon, New York, museum devoted principally to Dia's permanent collection, Dia: Beacon, grants pride of place to De Maria and Judd, among others, within a structure revamped by Irwin.

Panza's initial forays as a collector of contemporary art proceeded in a fairly ordinary way, but rather than continue to acquire discrete objects that appealed to him, he developed an idealistic vision of the potential for public installations of contemporary art to "tak[e] the place of the cathedral." (22) That vision came to be strongly shared by the founders of Dia, who in time established numerous permanent (and...

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