Taking Shape: Less is More

Have you ever looked at a minimal work of art and thought “It’s just shapes?" Chances are, without a firm grasp of art history, the answer is yes. Luckily, one quick visit to the current exhibition at the CMA, Less is More: Minimal Prints, will illustrate the power behind such seemingly straight-forward art and explain how that initial reaction is not far from what was intended. The museum’s Curator of Prints, Jane Glaubinger, provides us with some explanatory background on this exhibition and its featured artists. 

Minimal prints focus solely on color, form and composition. Whatever may have been the influence for the design or shape is reduced to geometry. The works have an appearance of perfection in their application and lack personal expression. There is typically no reference to narrative or story – the titles do not refer to anything, nor do the colors. “What you see is what you see,” as famed minimalist artist Frank Stella said. 

The style of minimal prints emerged around 1960 and was a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated the art scene of the 1940s and 50s. The fundamental notion behind Abstract Expressionism was feeling and emotion. Artists like Jackson Pollock (Number 5, 1950, 1950, pictured at right) and Willem de Kooning used thick paint and bold brush strokes to express their emotional state. By the 60s, however, a group of artists emerged that developed their work in the opposite direction. In contrast to the Abstract Expressionists, minimalists refined their work to only the most essential characteristics. “They go back to this idea of using geometry – of reducing and taking out meaning,” notes Dr. Glaubinger. “Instead of seeing the hand painting and brushstrokes, they want flat areas of color that are very mechanical looking.”

One piece in the exhibition Less is More is a print on Plexiglas by Ad Reinhardt (pictured at left). At first glance, Untitled (Black Square) looks like a simple black square, but upon closer examination, one notices four slightly differently shaded black squares in each corner. The corner squares are more red-black than the deep black around them. “Reinhardt was an expert in Asian art and you can see that sense of contemplation and quietness. It is like a Japanese rock garden,” Dr. Glaubinger explains, “at first it seems like not much is there, but once you use your senses, you realize there is a lot there – It is about the spaces between the rocks.” Reinhardt, along with his contemporaries, wanted viewers to look and contemplate the art instead of inherently feel it, like the Abstract Expressionists. 

In essence, it is correct to look some prints and think “It’s just shapes,” for Minimalism is an objective and literal style. “It is just this and nothing else,” Reinhardt liked to say. This intriguing collection of prints illustrates how the simplest shapes and colors can provoke thought and inspire meaning the viewer.

Less Is More: Minimal Prints explores works on paper by artists who pioneered an art of spare elegance working as creative and talented printmakers. The exhibition is open at the Cleveland Museum of Art through Sunday, October 20.



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