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According to the international exhibition Minimal Baroque, contemporary art has locked Minimalism and maximalism in a lusty embrace. Moreover, the show claims this antithetical premise to be a productive condition of art making today. It’s a beguiling hook, if only to entice us with the promise of ‘Post-minimalism,’ in which the mixture of austere and decadent impulses might yield something new.
Or, if not new — that gnawing demand of a commodity-driven market — `interesting. “A work needs only to be interesting. […] The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.” Arch-Minimalist Donald Judd proclaimed this in his 1965 essay “Specific Objects.” Admixtures of painting, sculpture, and objects previously unclassified portended the best new art. Bastardization was key, so long as it achieved a holistic sense of resolution. Minimalism’s geometry, its compactness, its gestalt, its monumental or serial reductions — from Judd’s perspective — are not so far from Baroque’s delight in eclecticism, dramatic tension, and opulent materiality.
Two years after “Specific Objects,” critic Michael Fried responded to what he saw as decadent literalism and ideological orthodoxy in the views of Judd and Robert Morris, a critique that Fried condensed in the notion of “theatricality,” which detected the Baroque impulse within Minimalism, as Judd did in his own way, and their Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship. Don’t be fooled, he was saying; Minimalism was not so pure or even minimal. Reclaiming Modernist painting’s suspension of time and objecthood, Fried pointed to Minimalist sculpture’s inherent conflict between idealism and materialism. By extension, contemporary art’s dueling sensibilities between Baroque and Minimalism can be similarly summed up as a tension between idealism and materialism in both aesthetic and economic terms.
So now, fifty years on, how does the struggle in Minimal Baroque between idealism and materialism point to economic disparity in the arts and beyond? The show makes a case for art that captures the “duality of restraint and excess in recent Post-minimalist art” — what sounds like an echo of the increasingly acute struggle between haves and have-nots. A pair of woodblock prints by Judd acts as a touchstone for the exhibition, which spans historical and recent sculpture, painting, photography, video and installation. The selection of work in Minimal Baroque, organized for Denmark’s Rønnebæksholm Cultural Center by artists Bodil Nielsen and Julie Sass and art historian Courtney J. Martin, plays on color, shape, light and surface with sophistication. And yet, the term ‘Post-minimalism’ — if read more broadly in the context of the global economics — can also be viewed as shorthand for the challenge formalism faces after the economic upheavals of 2008 — a year defining another kind of ‘post’ in the wake of very real economic ‘minimalism.’
The artists in this exhibition, deeply invested in questions of form and materiality, work under the pressure of what it means to make sensuous objects in the context of our increasingly bipolar economic landscape, the new normal of the growing wealth gap, which the Occupy Movement rallied against. What we find aesthetically is in fact less a duel of opposites than a very stable alloy of minimal and Baroque sensibilities that is unified in its dependence on form as content, showing that opposites share affinities as much as they contain inner contradictions. By all appearances, the show is not as volatile and riven with paradox as the global art world it reflects, a world where sprawling fairs and Occupy Museums exist in symbiosis. Or is it?
Indeed, the building and grounds of Rønnebæksholm are ideal for staging the balance between materialism and idealism as well as decorative fancy and geometric discipline. The structure is a former powder mill dating back to the 14th century that was converted into a contemporary cultural center. Though the collection of artists is international, the setting is distinctly Danish in its architectural and design sensibility. Inside, a traditional wood-burning stove is found alongside Julie Sass’ delicately sewn untitled collage (2014) and Jo Baer’s painting, “Untitled 1972/1975.” A mattress in one of the center’s transitional period rooms, reminiscent of Judd’s furniture multiples, seems to become subsumed as art. Milena Bonifacini incorporates the patterned wallpaper, pink chair and baskets of a bedroom into her site-specific installation, embedding her sculptures and paintings within the found domestic interior so that they appear almost invisible as art. Outside on the grounds, Bodil Nielsen’s “Untitled, (flower bed), 84m2 (Viola cornuta, Yellow Frost)” (2014) maneuvers between land art and cultivated decorative landscaping with a subtle magnificence: a vibrant square of violets slides down the gentle slope of the hill in front of Rønnebæksholm’s historic house, while the title of the work sacrifices none of its conceptual literalism.
One of the horizons the show has enlarged is the diversity of gender and race — much larger than was enjoyed by historical Minimalism — an opening that sets forth, through its internationalism, a greater degree of inclusivity to questions of formalism. In one of Rønnebæksholm’s carefully appointed rooms, Minimal Baroque sets Judd’s two untitled woodcuts (1992), between a patchwork pennant by black American artist Rashawn Griffin called “Everything Counts” (2013) and a saucy painting by white female American artist Amanda Church, “Man With a Big Heart” (2010). In this triad, one senses the productive corruption of Minimalism towards mannerism. To the left of Judd, the intersecting planes of black, burgundy and grey in Griffin’s oversize, downward pointing pennant crop the words “everything” and “counts.” It hangs like a pointed tongue, with a line of text bordering the left edge reading tauntingly: “Everything has six legs. Maybe you should too.”
Such refreshing eclecticism makes for engaging bedfellows, with a founding father of Minimalism between Griffin’s textual cheekiness and Church’s wobbly planes of lavender, lemon yellow, pink and red. The latter’s colored shapes suggest figures and vulvas and folds of skin. A mini-Mondriaan grid is inset within the composition’s curves, whimsically overruling the left-right brain dichotomy as well as the traditionally gendered axis that divides geometric and decorative art.
The show reminds us that formalism is not contentless; material conditions also carry significant weight, not only by a call-and-response with tradition, but through the sheer array of techniques and production values. Materialism is a way to visualize economic diversity; in a variety of works we see transformations of poorer materials into a more worked or elevated result. Puerto Rican artist Ivelise Jiménez’s transparent, hanging “EXORBITAT” (2011) is a homespun piecework of colored film and tape that refracts color designs onto the walls behind it. Rashawn Griffin’s untitled room installation (2014) combines lycra, denim, felt, wood and red plexiglass into a more durable built structure, which one can experience either from within, as the light passes through, or without. Paintings by Venezuelan Jaime Gili and Dane Bodil Nielsen feature color interactions between faceted and flat blocks playing with scale and support. The sobriety of Nielsen’s work trumps the fashionable compactness of Gili, but once again, the spectrum from Baroque to Minimal can slide this way or that.
Elsewhere, the bravado of technical process highlights the use of expensive materials and finishing. Sculptures by René Schmidt and Marianne Grønnow take the prize for dramatic presence and opulence, tending toward the Baroque. Grønnow’s “Extraordinary Places We Call Home” (2014) consists of three shiny metallic cone sculptures. They resemble a tinfoil model, redolent of both the extra-terrestrial and the organic, that has been cast on a monumental scale. Schmidt’s impressive “Bambaatta” (2010) is a giant, glazed ceramic clamshell that fills the room with its hot pinks and reds, a craftwork on steroids. Meanwhile, his “Beacon for the People” (2008), installed outdoors, features the precise faceting of a hi-tech process. Mamiko Otsubo’s “¾ LB. Triple” (2013), a machine-finished slab of travertine marble with its title mounted on its face in black letters combines unapologetic conceptual literalism with expensive materials.
The works that most fully realize Minimal Baroque’s claim to synthesis enjoy a compelling integrity. Judd might approve. Yet, in the midst of this materialist bazaar, the mind wanders toward the economic forces that structure the work, and to what makes it all possible. Few remaining state systems buoy the production and presentation of such masterful formalist art. Denmark is one of the few countries that offer a significant state subsidy for the arts; the Netherlands has recently slashed its system of state support by nearly half. One wonders how much public patronage will continue to define expectations, and whether private support and commerce will provide similar allowances for what is made.
Minimal Baroque makes inroads in accessibility through its grouping of a heterogeneous international cohort, mostly unified in aesthetics. But it cannot avoid being structured by economic forces, which come to the fore by virtue of the celebration of the inherent materialism of production, and which leads to the question of how class — that evergreen subtext of the art world— will rear its head. Despite appearances, the need for broad access to works of formalist beauty is as politically urgent as the promotion of overtly political art; private collections alone cannot arbitrate its common value. More than the accessibility provided by opening up formalism to such a diverse group of artists, the exhibition portends thornier economic questions about the future of a kind of art that would seem at face value less politically charged: who will make, present, and be able to see it if the public art sector shrinks further?
Minimal Baroque continues at Rønnebæksholm Art and Cultural Center (Rønnebæksholm 1, Næstved, Denmark) through June 15.