Minimalism in Architectural Space

Imagine that you're lying in bed at night, relaxing, preparing to sleep. Your eyes are adjusting to the darkness. Somewhere off to one side, to the right or left, you become aware of a distinct glow of light — but when you turn your head to look directly at it, the light disappears and you find yourself gazing into the dark. Everyone with average eyesight will have experienced this, and there's no mystery involved: low-level light is stimulating the eye's peripheral rod cells, which are more concentrated around the retina's edges, and which respond to lower levels of light than the colour-perceiving cones at the retina's centre.
In this situation, swiveling our heads and directing our habitual, stereoscopic, predator's gaze at the object of visual interest won't work.
Our eyes cease to be a sense organ that we can ‘target' at individual foci, and we experience the sight system of prey animals, who need a wide, decentred visual apparatus to survive. Architect Juhani Pallasmaa has written that “vision separates us from the world, whereas the other senses unite us with it” — but maybe this dictum is not universally true. In the instance above, when we try to see in the dark, we have to decentre our visual attention and look much more effortfully than usual. We become conscious of our eyes as they really are, as receivers: bodily openings infiltrated by light energy from the outside.
The artist Robert Morris might also have taken issue with Pallasmaa's comment. His 1966 Artforum article Notes on Sculpture asserts that “the better new work” of that time “takes relationships [and illusionism] out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer's field of vision… Even [the new works'] most patently unalterable property, shape, does not remain constant, for it is the viewer who changes the shape constantly by his position relative to the work” (and, we might add, his or her position relative to the space in which the work exists). Morris, here, is stipulating a very consciously embodied kind of looking as a necessary approach to the work that he likes.
Despite the fact that none of the artists very much liked the term, the 1960s works Morris was describing now get labeled ‘Minimalist'. Philosopher Peter Osborne characterises Minimalism as a complex exploration of a “four-fold relational dynamic between objects, their surrounding space, [the space's] architectural frame, and the body of the viewer, in which architectural form was a given parameter of the exercise” — even when the work's architectural frame was modified, removed or reconstructed as a part of the work. Minimalism activated so-called “negative space”, requiring viewers to think hard not just about where the work was, but where it wasn't; and thus it activated a fascinating dialectic of materiality and dematerialization. It focused on the objective properties of specific artworks whilst also fraying their ontological integrity.

Minimalism's artefacts, protocols and practices became canonical in the 1990s and remain a powerful frame of reference for artists today: we can see the “four-fold dynamic” Osborne describes at work in Line , Point an d Plane : Minimalism in Architectural Space. However, this exhibition is by no means an exercise in tending the flame of 1960s Minimalism; today's frames of reference are significantly changed. Maybe the best way to get at the differences is not, with a predator-style gaze (the “hegemonic look” that “organises, classifies and observes”, in Pallasmaa's words) to target the works, but to think back to that opening example of seeing in the dark, and to speculate about how we might conceptualize Line , Point an d Plane 's viewing subjects (and here I'm thinking about a group comprising both artists and “the audience”).

The viewing subject of 2016 is necessarily different from the subjects of sixties Minimalism. The “fraying” operation Minimalism performed on the ontology of the artwork is now, arguably, being conducted on the subjects who make and look at it. The contingency and porosity of the human subject (the human as a mutating, temporary host for trillions of other organisms, or as a nexus where diverse, inanimate material entities exert multiple influences) is now a common theme in philosophical and cultural discussion. Morris's idea of “the viewer who changes the [artwork's] shape constantly by his position relative to the work” (Morris) seems to need modification: the addition of an inverted clause noting how the works' position relative to us constantly “changes our shape”, infiltrating our vision, prompting our movement, and subtly or conspicuously re-shaping our behaviours.

This subjectivity is reflected in the sense of contingency, antimonumentality, interconnectedness and decentering in the works in Line, Point and Plane. Timo Kube's Siegburg (2015) comprises a very large component, a slab of clay on canvas, but this ‘monumental' presence is offset by another work, Cut (2016: a line created with a shadow gap that's been routed out of a nearby wall space) that posits a crucial moment of absence. Robert Luzar's Posts Retraced (2016) uses simple, undemonstrative materials and a kind of anamorphosis to quietly ironise the idea of a dominant, “ocularcentric” point of view onto the artwork. Lucinda Burgess's Difference (2014) is literally decentred, in that it exists in two distinct sections, and is made from a material, cold steel, whose apparent solidity and permanence belies its real, continually corroding and unstable, nature. Kjersti Crossley's wall piece Linear Perspective (2014) sounds a faint echo of a Judd wall work, but the aluminium bars from which it's constructed stealthily re-order our perception of the wall surface, in an arrangement that poses a perspectival question and prompts viewers' movements as they test out its “sightlines”.

In conclusion, and maybe most importantly, the conception of the show is a unified one that decentres privileged individual authorship. The works are deployed not just to inform and animate one another, but to affect visitors' perceptions in an integrated and “choreographic” fashion. And so, the works in Line, Point and Plane make the show; but the show also makes the work, and the works and the show, for a short but crucial period, “make” the viewer, via their play on perceptual memory, peripheral vision, and the animation of viewers' trajectories in the time and space of the ensemble.

Rachel Withers, Writer and Senior Lecturer at Bath School of Art and Design


Minimalism in Architectural Space
by Rachel Withers

articles overview