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Minimalists at the Castellani Art Museum

Untitled, from the On the Bowery portfolio, 1969-71, by Robert Ryman.

The Language of Less

The art movement known as Minimalism, which had its heyday around the 1970s as artists squeezed the last drops of quintessence out of the more comprehensive abstraction tendency but has been out of fashion in recent years, is reprised in an exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University entitled The Language of Less.

The exhibit features stunning works from the collection that are not just Minimalist but basically and for the most part white-on-white Minimalist, emphasizing the chaste core impulse of the movement.

The exhibit was created to complement a play put on by the Theater Department, a comedy, by Yasmina Reza, entitled ART, staged in the main room of the gallery, with the exhibit serving as a kind of secondary backdrop to the dramatic action.

The main character in the play, a collector, buys a white painting with three slightly tonally different white diagonal stripes that, as the aficionado explains, “if you screw up your eyes, you can just make out.”

A friend of the collector, who also takes his art seriously but prefers work of a more traditional sort, landscapes, for example, is so offended by the Minimalist piece—to which he has a kind of emperor’s new clothes reaction—and his friend’s purchase of it that it threatens to destroy the friendship. (If he likes more traditional art, particularly landscapes, he should wander into an adjoining room of the gallery and view the small but excellent exhibit entitled Masterpieces of the North American Landscape, featuring works by artists from Albert Bierstadt to Rackstraw Downes and covering key American landscape art movements from pre-Hudson River School to Modernism and photo-realist early indication Postmodernism.)

The artworks in the Minimalist exhibit include several of Barbara Bloom’s exquisite watermark works from the UFO series. On white paper, in white paper, backlit via light boxes, are watermark depictions of scenes featuring UFOs. (These works started out life in an installation at Hallwalls that then went to other art venues, including the 1988 Venice Biennale, where the installation won top prize in the open competition.)

Figuration—as in black on white—is not a prominent aspect the works on display.

Though it does make an appearance (in a Minimalist way) in several items from Sol Lewitt’s iconic Straight Lines in Four Directions and all their possible combinations portfolio. How the Euclidean fundamental element of a straight line by replications and juxtapositions evolves into more and more complex geometrical figures and patterns. Also, Paulo Buennos’s work depicting two circles that could represent the essence or the absence of dialogue. Also Lois Lane’s huge untitled woodcut that could represent the outlines of a domino mask. Minimal mask? And Guy de Cointet’s zig-zag itinerary maps, suggesting slightly out of control further extensions of Sol Lewitt’s strictly under control project. And with enigmatic titles in the Guy de Cointet case. For example, I had never had any particular interest in lost treasure hunting.

Back to white-on-white, Robert Ryman’s piece—of the works in the exhibit the one most like the painting the character purchases in the play—is Minimalism in the extreme. What looks like thin white paint uniformly applied in two uniform rectangles on white paper. If you screw up your eyes, you can just make them out. Ryman’s idea was, in his words, to produce painting “representing nothing at all, not even that which could be called non-objective or abstract.” And Feliciano Béjar’s quilted-look embossed paper work, in a design of baroque efflorescence, suggesting an eye, the sun, a radial city plan, communal organization.

And back again to (modicum) black on white, Joel Shapiro’s charcoal on paper drawing evoking an archaeological site map, with heavy black lines delineating two adjoining rectangles, dwelling foundations, constructions, and infinite smudges and fingerprints indicating more ephemeral—but actual—human presence.

Out of fashion, but not dead, not even moribund. An antidote in the 1970s and still to a world of noise and frenzy of dubious purpose or utility. A world of fashion.

The Minimalist art exhibit continues through July 24. The North American landscape exhibit continues through May 13.

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