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Chapter 16 - Minimalism

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The aim of graphic design is to elucidate a specific visual message and communicate it to a wide range of audiences. Given that the capacity of  various communication vehicles  for conveying a message is limited, and the viewers time for the gleaning of a message is scarce, the artist needs to clarify the core of a message with maximum efficiency so that a viewer would be able to absorb it as fast as possible. In 1971, the oft-quoted political scientist Herbert Simon predicted that in an information age, cultural producers, such as designers,  filmmakers, theater producers, musicians, and so on , would quickly face a shortage of attention. "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients," he wrote. The more information, the less attention, and "the need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."

Thus, to capture this rarefied  attention, the massage needs to be clearly exposed, that is to be laid open to view and to be unconcealed and uninterrupted by irrelevant disturbances. The artist must try to resolve any lingering question in the minds of the viewers using the most adequate dimensions at her disposal. The idea of minimalism shed lights on the problem of dimensions in a graphic design context.

rom left to right, C.E. Chambers (1932), Harrison Fisher (1918), and N. C. Wyeth (1933) American Red Cross Posters,

For the start, consider the above posters which are designed to convey a rather identical message. The poster on the left side is the work of C.E. Chambers, in which a Red Cross Nurse looks at you, the viewer, straight in the eyes while stretching her right hand towards you, and its caption reads; YOUR RED CROSS NEEDS YOU. Note that the message is delivered in the spirit of the US individualism. The emphasis is on the viewer -- i.e., an individualist American. In contrast, the poster in the center contains a quotation from the US president, Woodrow Wilson, of the First World War era, which reads: "I Summon you to Comradeship in the Red Cross". The artist, Harrison Ford wraps the body of his female subject in the old glory, so it is immediately clear that he is appealing to the viewer's patriotic sentiment. The character appears to represent an all American girl, who has put her hand on her heart and sings, most probably, the national anthem. An image of the US congress is depicted in the back ground, which suggests that the president's message has the blessing of the US Congress, where the nation's democratic representatives reside, indicating that this is a democratic message, and a red cross on the upper left corner adds an extra spiritual dimension to the whole composition. Finally, the design of N. C. Wyeth poster on the right hand side, appears somewhat busy, showing a series of Red Cross flags at a rather complicated trajectory, perhaps moving towards clouds. The caption reads; The American Red Cross Carries on, Join!

When I show these images to my students, most would agree that the first image is the most powerful of all, and if you ask them why, most appear to be impressed with the simplicity and the clarity of its design. The poster in the middle comes the second, as most students think that the various messages of this poster are still clearly elucidated, but they feel it is on the whole somewhat less communicative. Finally, they all find the image of the last poster rather complex and aesthetically unbalanced. What is striking in the first two posters is that if you stripe them out of all their texts, still one may convey their messages - albeit this is more true for the Chamber's poster because of its striking simplicity of design. As the poster  designer  David Lance  Goines  has argued posters must be minimalist to be effective :
One of the most recent posters I just did was for the Fillmore Jazz Festival. It’s got a picture of a guy playing the piano and a piano keyboard above him and the word "Jazz"  in big letters. If you’ve got a little more time, it says “Fillmore Jazz Festival.” That’s all it says. It doesn’t tell you where. It’s doesn’t tell you when. It doesn’t say go. It doesn’t tell you what it costs. If you want more information, you can find it elsewhere. The poster is not the place for that information. If you want to figure out what’s going on in the poster, you can look at it more, but I would say that you would get an entire message in maybe a tenth of a second, maybe less if you’re fast. You can take it in all at once and not think about it ever again, or you can say, “Wait a minute. This has got some interesting stuff going on.” You can look at it if you want to, but you don’t have to. I don’t demand that you look. I’d give you the whole message in much less than a second.

Occam's and Einstein's razors; A Paradigm for Minimalism

All this, is just to introduce the concept of minimalism. What is today known as "Occam's razor" was a common minimalist principle in the medieval philosophy, which was then formulated by the medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk William of Occam (1285-1349) as; "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate" or "plurality should not be posited without necessity." In other words 'Everything should be made as simple as possible'
"Einstein's razor", agrees with Occam, but warns about too much simplicity. It says "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." This has become known as the "KISS principle": Keep It Simple, Stupid — but never oversimplify.

Now how could an artist make her design as simple as possible -- but no simpler? To answer this question we should first note that in every works of art the artist utilizes a number of dimensions. The minimalist principle requires that the artist should be very choosy about the dimensions of her work and utilizes as few as possible of these dimensions, but not fewer. For instance the artist Piet Mondrian created paintings of absolute simplicity, where the form was reduced to the most essential dimensions; the vertical line, the horizontal line, and a limited range of the primary colors, plus white, gray and black.
The simple mosaic patterns of his work were painted frugally to suggest a chromatic tension. The varying thicknesses of their black borderlines imposed a delicate balance. Mondrian's message was then an abstract aesthetic derived from; “showing the dynamic balance of vertical and horizontal linear structure and simple, fundamental colour.”

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue
1921; Oil on canvas

Understanding the Concept of Dimension

Most viewers are accustomed to three dimensions, and this is the way most of us perceive our universe. The cave rock artists were among the first people who became aware of the role of dimensions and the limitations they impose on an art work. The basic dimensions of a surface in cave rock painting were horizontal and vertical. The surrounding world, however, had a third dimension -- i.e., depth. Thus, when the cave artists tried to represent a three dimensional world of their surroundings into two dimensional surfaces of their cave walls, the idea of depth needed to be imposed on the image by other devices. Artists gradually invented and developed other dimensions that could be substituted for this missing spatial dimension. These new dimensions include distance, scale, luminosity of colors, idea of distance and so on and so forth.

So what is a dimension? Euclidean geometry provides us with a good visual grasp of the three spatial dimensions, but it is not capable of depicting time. Animation on the other hand can provide us with a visual depiction of time in a four dimensional structure, but it is not able to depict other dimensions such as fragrance or temperature. A viewer watching a scene from a hot tropical Savannah or a freezing arctic tundra does not feel any real sense of warmth or cold. Mathematicians have the most practical and perhaps the most precis definition of dimension . A dimension is defined as an explanatory variable that in combination with other explanatory variables would explain a dependent variable. For a non-mathematician this might be hard to grasp, but consider the concept of an apple, which is a dependent variable. It depends on independent variables like taste, aroma, size, color, texture and the shape. When a viewer sees an object, he uses these variables, which constitute his "information set", and decide if the object that he sees is an apple or something else. Mathematicians, argue that an independent dimension would be "orthogonal" to all other dimensions. That means a real dimension does not depend on any other dimension. For instance fragrance and size share no characteristics and do not depend on each other at each point in time.
Artists try to reduce the unnecessary dimensions in their works, and at the same time they want to introduce some new dimensions that would lead to discovery of new horizons, new understandings, and alternative universes. It was Paul Cézanne who in a letter to Emile Bernard wrote:
Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective ... nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.
Perhaps he was also the father of minimalism as is evidenced by his masterpiece Bathers of 1904.

Paul Cézanne, Bathers, Oil on Canvas, 1906

The aesthetic of the Minimalists art has been quite powerful. It appears that the simplicity of a design can provoke a more intense reaction in the viewer . For example, in Pablo Picasso's serigraph, Le Taureu, many viewers find the more simplified bulls of the right hand side more agreeable and more striking.

Pablo Picasso, Le Taureu, serigraph, 1945

Notice that Picasso appears to adhere to Einstein's razor, and does not oversimplify after the fourth column in his serigraph. Many of my students upon examining a Matisse cutout called 'Nu Bleu I ' feel that he has only utilized three dimensions, the length, the width , and the color blue. However, in fact Matisse has also utilized the background color, white, the figure's pose, and the shape of her body as extra dimensions. Changing any of these new dimensions would change the image aesthetics in some fundamental way, as indeed is the case with his
'Nu Bleu II ' and 'Nu Bleu III '.

Henri Matisse, Nu bleu I, cutout, 1952

The serigraph of Georges Braque called 'L'oiseaux bleu et gris', has four extra dimensions, i.e two extra colors, black and gray, plus an impression of a texture.

Georges Braque, 'L'oiseaux bleu et gris', c. 1955

Picasso in his serigraph 'L'acrobat ' uses only two color dimensions, plus the figure's pose, and the shape of the body, but he also introduces two totally new dimensions; one the enigmatic contortion of the figure's body and the other its facial expression. The combination of these new dimensions not only add to the aesthetics of the work, but also evoke some philosophical questions. For example, does the balancing act of the figure, or his equilibrating pose, cause his serene facial expression or vice versa?

Pablo Picasso, L'Acrobat, 1930

Marcel Duchamp, Pourquoi ne pas éternuer Rose Sélavy? (Why not sneeze Rose Sélavy?), 1921

Marcel Duchamp with his multidimensional readymade constructions and his La boîte-en-valise, during the catastrophic era of the first world war, wanted to “put painting at the service of the mind”, and in order to do this he employed some unconventional dimensions which helped him to express the meaninglessness of war, destruction and displacement. In 1917, under the pseudo name of M. Mutt, he signed an urinal and called it a fountain. His main purpose was to find new a meaning by looking at things differently. In trying to explain this he wrote in an article in the Blind Man;
Le fait que Monsieur Mutt ait modelé ou non la fontaine de ses mains n'a aucune importance. Il l'a CHOISIE. Il a pris un article courant de la vie et fait disparaître sa signification utilitaire sous un nouveau titre. De ce point de vue, il lui a donné un sens nouveau.

The fact that Mr. Mutt has or hasn't shaped the fountain with his own hand is of no relevance. He has CHOSEN that object. He has taken an object used in everyday life, and has made its utilization significance to disappear under a new title. From this point of view, he has given it a new meaning.

The Blind Man, n° 2, cited by Janis Mink, Duchamp, 1887-1968, L’art contre l’art, Ed. Taschen, 1995,
In 1921, he made the above piece, Pourquoi ne pas éternuer ? (Why not sneeze ?). To make it, he filled a small wire birdcage with blocks of white marble cut to the same dimensions as sugar cubes. Rose Sélavy is a pun on Eros c'est la vie ('lovemaking is life'). However, the thermometer, the cold marble, and the whiteness of the cage and cuttlebone all suggest frigidity. The birdcage is a symbol of constraint, and suggestive of a sexual inhibition. Between 1935 and 1940, Duchamp created a deluxe edition of twenty boxes, each in a brown leather carrying case but with slight variations in design and Boîte-en-valise, or box in a suitcase, which is a portable miniature monograph including sixty-nine reproductions of the artist's own work. A later edition consisting of six different series was created during the 1950s and 1960s; these eliminated the suitcase, used different colored fabrics for the cover, and altered the number of items inside. Each box unfolds to reveal pull-out standing frames displaying Nude Descending a Staircase and other works, reduced size Readymades hung in a vertical "gallery," and loose prints mounted on paper. Duchamp included in each deluxe box one "original."

Duchamp's new dimensions were the enigmatic and nostalgic attributes associated with various objects, which were suggestive of their complex interrelationships. They made the viewer to think hard about the piece and determine what it is Duchamp is trying to show and what the significance of such juxtapositions of objects could possibly be.

A History of Minimalism

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915

In 1915, Kazimir Malevich, created his Black Square, which became one of the most celebrated piece of Russian art in the 20th century . This was the first image in the European art that had minimized the number of dimensions to only three. Black Square against white background became the symbol of non-representational art of the past century and an icon representing Modernism which by the late 20th century descended into the realm of absurd and vulgar.

Malevich created four replicas of the Black Square, between 1915 to the early 1930s. In those early innocent and naive days of minimalism his repeated production of the Black Square were regarded as a sort of assertive courage. He also created a Red Square that was subtitled; Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions. He called his style Suprematism, and wrote:
To the Suprematist, the appropriate means of representation is always the one which gives fullest possible expression to feeling as such and which ignores the familiar appearance of objects. Objectivity, in itself, is meaningless to him; the concepts of the conscious mind are worthless. Feeling is the determining factor ... and thus art arrives at non objective representation at Suprematism.

Of course, the idea of a black square was not something very modern or even radical. For example, as far back as 1617 Robert Fludd in his book Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica created a black square to represent the metaphysics of the infinite and an image of the genesis.

Robert Fludd, 1617

The De Stijl movement of 1917, was an association of Dutch artists, architects and designers that was organized by painter Theo van Doesburg, and included Piet Mondrian among others. In the same year van Doesburg began editing the De Stijl magazine. De Stijl means ‘The Style’, in Dutch, and the aim was to create an international art in the spirit of peace and harmony, and in their first manifesto stated: “There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal.”

The movement
emphasized on the need for abstraction and simplification, and concentrated on the dimensions of forms and colors in abstract from nature.This abstraction was the conduit for artists to explore and universalize their new minimalism aesthetics. The interrelationship between vertical and horizontal lines in a composition became Mondrian’s primary obsession and this constituted the basic compositional aesthetic in the De Stijl works. Any use of the diagonal line was considered by the most members of the De Stijl as heretical. When the van Doesburg added in his works diagonal lines and thus broke the principle of the orthogonality a bitter fall out with Mondrian ensued. This could have been one of the main reasons for Mondrian leaving the De Stijl in the mid twenties.

Theo van Doesberg "Counter-CompositionV" (1924)

Minimalism in the US

"Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting."
Artist's Statement, Written by Carl Andre for Frank Stella's group exhibition ; "Sixteen Americans" in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 1959.

The American minimalist movement started in the 1960's.This was a provoked backlash against the conventional inundation and pomposity of Abstract Expressionism. Its roots can be traced to Picasso, Braque, Warhol and Kasimir Malevich.

Andy Warhol, Liz, Offset Color Lithograph on paper, 1964

The father of American minimalism is perhaps Andy Warhol, who was one of the most successful commercial graphic designers of his time during 1950s, wining quite a few awards such as the Art Directors Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Among his clients were The New York Times, Columbia Records,Vogue, NBC, and many others. In 1952, he had his first one-man show at the Hugo Gallery in New York. He made his first Pop paintings, based on comics and ads, in 1961, and then a series of Campbell’s Soup Cans in 1962. As a pop artist who illustrated brand name products, he also wanted to mass produce his own works in his art studio called The Factory , where he began a large series of celebrity portraits, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1962. In his designs Warhol was adhering to "Einstein's Razor" in the above portrait of Liz Taylor, a minimal number of dimensions are used to produce such a stunning impact. Any further reduction would have altered the impact drastically. The same can be said for the two following paintings by James Rosenquist and Jasper Jones, who were among the important pop art artists that have inspired the American minimalism.

Frank Stella. Die Fahne Hoch. 1959

American minimalism per se emanated from Frank Stella's Black Paintings. These were a series of linear shapes and squares in various shades of black,exhibited initially at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1959. One of these was the above paintings called Die Fahne Hoch! ( The flag on high ). This new dimension was inspired by the first line of the anthem of the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Horst-Wessel-Lied,) and as Stella revealed was in the same proportions as banners used by that organization. Some of these new dimensions was explained by him in a speech he gave at Pratt University in 1959:
"I had to do something about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry - make it the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration placed on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionistic space. The solution I arrived at forces illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate by using a regulated pattern.
Stella quoted in R. Rosenblum, Frank Stella, New York, 1971

Frank Stella, Carl Andre portrait, metallic paint on canvas, 1963

In 1963, Stella introduced yet another abstract dimension, as he created a series of virtual portraits, paying homage to some of his best friends. He designated a geometrical pattern to each character, and depicted these so-called portrait on large canvases, using the same style as his Black Paintings with metallic paint. One these portraits was that of his closest artist friend Carl Andre, which Stella shared his studio space with him on West Broadway.

Frank Stella, Avicenna, aluminum series, 1970

ther virtual dimensions in his aluminum series of 1970 was the abstract portrait of the Persian philosopher Avicenna, and the Andalusian polymath Averroes among other themes. It
is evident from his initial sketches that Stella cogitated about these personalities and the forms associated with them. Each virtual dimension in these works is represented by a distinct polygonal pattern which conveys a discernible revelatory character that in a heraldic fashion distinguishes the personality of the subject. In these new dimensions Robert Rosenblum discovered a new relationship between an image and its frame, as though the viewer can imagine the portrait of a character in her mind and place it in the small core of the center. He wrote:
If anything, these Dada portraits were more closely united with the picture's frame than with its contents, for now the very core of the picture was hollow, a possibility already hinted at in two of the 1960 aluminum canvases. Here the central void had been so enlarged that the usual relationship between the picture and the frame was totally reversed. The enclosed area, traditionally reserved for the 'picture,' had simply disappeared; the bones and the flesh of painting were united. If we were to look at anything at all, it would have to be the tangible structure that isolated this void, a void that became all the more conspicuous because of the emphasis given to its frame, a polygon that was reiterated concentrically as many as nine times.

R. Rosenblum, Frank Stella, New York, 1971

Ellsworth Kelly, White bands on yellow,
1959, Oil and graphie on paper

Ellsworth Kelly is among the few Minimalist artists who understood the role of dimensions in Einstein's Razor paradigm with an encompassing grace. Furthermore, he understood Cézanne, and worked with geometric form with an ethereal touch of proportion, producing the most charming patterns with lines, grids and areas of black on white paper and then extended these motifs in vivid color. By 1959 he had enjoyed considerable success in a number of exhibitions. He has said of his works;
“I decided I was not quite an inventor. Not in the way that art was being invented by Picasso or Matisse, Picasso especially. He found the painting — as the Abstract Expressionists did too — in the painting. But I have to plan my pictures. Look at all these here; they’re not rectangles. I have to order the canvases. So I plan the painting small and see it as a large image.”

Ellsworth Kelly: America in the abstract, NY Times, December 9, 2009

"Primary Structures", at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1966, established minimalism in the American art officialdom. Primary Structures' minimalist art was categorical, explicit, and uncompromising . It integrated mathematically composed geometric motifs and compact surfaces of primary colors. Many artists used industrial materials in order to dispose any trace of artist interference, their purpose was to represent a Kantian thing-in-itself; a dimension that could not be distorted by the complexity of unnecessary dimensions. Because of its success many aspiring young artists jumped over its band wagon.

in the hands of the new artists in hurry, the original philosophy was degenerated into a destructive nihilism .They ignored traditional craft skills in deference to an overriding system or idea that often arose in their mind from a banal and sophomoric question.

Ad Reinhardt , Abstract Painting, 1960-66.
Oil on canvas,

For example, Ad Reinhardt's abstract painting of a black square, that he called Abstract painting was the most famous of his so-called "ultimate" paintings, which he claimed to be the "last paintings" that anyone can paint. He rehashed the French Parnasian concept of "art pour l'art" which was advocated by the French painter and poet Gautier as far back as 1830, and also Baudelaire. In fact, it was through the American painter James Whistler McNill that art for art was imported to England in the 1860s, after his stay in Paris. Reinhardt used the expression Art-as-Art and ranted against against "the disreputable practices of artists-as-artists". His black square was very much like Malevich's, but if the viewer tilts the screen, it would be seen that this painting is not uniformly black, it is instead a picture of a Greek cross, as Rosalind Krauss,Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University, has argued;
"The grid is a staircase to the Universal.... We could think about Ad Reinhardt, who, despite his repeated insistence that 'Art is art,' ended up by painting a series of... nine-square grids in which the motif that inescapably emerges is a Greek cross. There is no painter in the West who can be unaware of the symbolic power of the cruciform shape and the Pandora's box of spiritual reference that is opened once one uses it.

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 17 - Communications: from Speech to Pictograms and Heraldic signs

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  1. Hi there, I am wanting to reference this for a literature review, would you please be able to tell me the year it was written? Thanks

  2. Hi, Based on Google's record, this segment is published on 13th, August 2010. However, the first draft of my lecture notes was written in 1972. It has gone through numerous revisions. I hope this helps. gN