You can’t swing a dead phone without hitting a lifestyle influencer’s paean to “minimalism” of late. Somewhat divorced from its original taxonomy, this millennial iteration focuses less on the theoretical underpinnings of the art movement and more on living like some sexy urban monk with an ecological conscience. While well-intentioned, contemporary usage of this term has proven deeply boring in practice. It’s artistic predecessor was not, however, except in the typical patriarchal sense that often haunts cultural conversations of yore; ‘60s and ‘70s Minimalism proved even more male-dominated than the emotive, egocentric Abstract Expressionist ethos that inspired its restraint.
Minimalism required an extreme, un-tethered relationship to form, shirking associations with outside reality in favor of strict medial fixation. Artists and confirmed dudes’ dudes Robert Morris and Donald Judd produced much of the writing that cohered the movement’s ideology; its landmark “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966 only included three women in its ranks. Female contributions to Minimalism have not been entirely erased, however. A revived interest in mining history for errant traces of estrogen has inspired a slew of recent retrospectives prominently featuring women Minimalists. At long last, viewers can revel in the voices that imbued this stripped-back, geometric aesthetic with the humanity that made it memorable.
Here are seven women who helped pioneer the Minimalist approach to art-making.
Frecon is primarily known for her stark, placid oil and watercolor abstrations, a body of work she’s been developing since the early ‘70s. Her large, chromatically resonant pieces pair a stark, nuanced investigation of surface with a self-consciously classic approach to spatial interplay. The gentle, haloed forms blooming forth from her compositions seem to exhale alongside the viewer, never forgoing structural rigor in their search for a common heartbeat. Born in 1941 in Mexico, Pennsylvania, Frecon received her fine arts degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1963 before spending three years studying at the Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her organic, tactile color palette was pathologically overlooked for decades, but a 2008 retrospective at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas put her squarely on the map.
Truiett’s color-field sculptures, heavily inspired by the paintings of Barnett Newman, reify pigment, light, and shade modulation in three dimensions. Eschewing the industrial processes of the other Minimalists, Truitt made all her sculptures by hand, lending each monolith its own quirky quintessence. Originally hailing from Maryland, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in psychology in 1943, declining a place in Yale University’s PhD psychology program to pursue a career as a psychiatric nurse. She left the field shortly thereafter, eventually enrolling in courses offered by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C. Her pieces blur the lines between two and three dimensional rumination, interpreting the painting process as a simultaneously procedural and emotive undertaking. Following an influential solo debut at Andre Emmerich Gallery in 1963, Truitt continued producing fleets of sleek, bright columns until her death in 2004.
To discuss Minimalism without mentioning Agnes Martin would be an oversight of criminal proportions. Her quiet, contemplative studies in white ushered in a new, Zen-influenced era of Modern art, and while she always identified as an abstract expressionist, her commitment to simplicity came to define the ways Minimalism was critically interpreted for generations to come. A notoriously solitary person, Martin left her bustling New York life in 1967 to live alone in Galisteo, New Mexico, eventually retiring to Taos, where she stayed until her death in 2004. After some time experimenting with biomorphic forms and landscapes, Martin began to incorporate her signature square-formatted, repetitive grids into her paintings; some have characterized this shift as a result of her well-documented schizophrenia. Her reclusive later life produced a range of achingly refined grid pieces, testaments to her ethereal genius.
Argentine relief sculptor Escandell’s bright, winking abstractions seethe with the political charge of her era. The oppressive dictatorship of Juan Carlos Ongania provided the background for her practice, inspiring her participation in radical art collective Grupo de Arte Vanguardia in Rosario after matriculating from the local university. The artists involved staged a famous collaborative protest, now known as “Tucuman Arde,” which led to a harsh censorship of her work. She was barred from public exhibition in Argentina from 1968 to 1983, lending the stark, pointed iconography of her oeuvre a distinct sense of urgency. Unlike many of her male peers, Escandell was interested in affective implication through gestural economy, inviting associations with body and lived experience.
Originally hailing from Pakistan, Mohamedi studied at the prestigious St. Martin’s School of the Arts in London, where she then stayed for nearly a decade before moving on to Paris and finally India, where she taught university. Primarily recognized in America for her 2018 Met Breuer retrospective, Mohamedi’s work bucked many of the curatorial stereotypes traditionally associated with post-Independence India, focusing on architecturally-gleaned graphite, gouache, and watercolor abstractions rendered with near-obsessive, ritualistic precision.
Posenenske was a German artist whose sculptures, paintings and drawings grappled with the systems and structures derived from and responsible for mass production and standardization. After a childhood spent in hiding to avoid persecution by the Nazis, Posensenke worked as a set and costume designer, eventually studying painting with Willi Baumesiter in the early 1950s at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart. Posensenke envisioned her practice as a methodology for institutional critique, drafting her own manifestos commenting on her relationship with the market. She showed widely and had work acquired by MoMA and the Tate, among other institutions, but her mounting frustration with the art world’s lack of socio-political ingress led her to renounce art-making en entire in 1968, retraining as a sociologist with a specialty in employment and industrial working practices. Until her death in 1985, Posenenske refused not only to show her pieces, but also to visit any art exhibitions of any description. As of spring 2019, her pieces are back on display at Dia: Beacon, to great critical acclaim.