UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From SDS to LSD : politics, viewers, and minimal art in late 1960s America Kelly, Patricia M.


When the artist Mel Bochner described the reductive geometric forms on view in the "Primary Structures" exhibition in 1966, a show that announced the arrival of minimalism on the New York art scene, he claimed: "there is nothing behind these surfaces, no inside, no secret, no hidden motive."1 Yet after a careful examination of minimal art, and the ways in which it challenged a modernist trajectory set into place in the postwar period, I am arguing Bochner couldn't have been more wrong. With minimalism as its primary focus, my thesis considers how the political turmoil of the late 1960s- manifest in widespread social upheaval, the polemics of a contested war, and questions regarding the nature of the modern subject- disrupted the perceived self-referentiality of abstract art, particularly that adhering to a tradition of Greenbergian modernism. That is, when complicated by contemporaneous social relations and artistic debates, the formal language of minimalism, with its simple forms, precise lines, and industrial manufacture, becomes full of potential meaning, leaving the minimal box less hollow than Bochner would have us believe. To get at some of the complexities of the minimal project, both mainstream artists, such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris, and those more marginally related to the movement, like Barnett Newman, Jo Baer, and Eva Hesse, are considered. Setting the work of these artists into tension with one another and with the critical writings of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, the unique strategies used to mediate between individual artistic interests and larger social tensions are brought into focus. One primary area in which this was accomplished was in relation to the issue of viewership. Whether rethinking Morris' notion of "experience," Newman's conceptualization of "participation," or Baer's prioritization of "perception," these distinct modes of engagement signal what was at the time a shifting understanding of how politics is formulated in relation to the body of the viewer and how the art object is implicated in this process. Considering how this broke with previous formalist models, what these chapters show in different ways and from varying perspectives is that the authority of modernism was fracturing in the late 1960s, and that minimal art was central to this process.

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