Listening to a podcast off and on for the last few days, I’ve been intrigued by some of the impassioned arguments for abstraction by Kirk Varnedoe. His arguments are complex and multi-layered, but relatively easy to digest. One claim is that minimalism can be read as growing from two opposite trends: first, an evolutionary (art-historical) trend towards reduction of form/representation to its simplest form and second a revolutionary trend leading to the irrelevance of representation—a sort of dadaist flouting of the convention that pictures are actually of something. Art seen either as a historical/rational progression or as a continual slash and burn campaign to discard the old definitions of what constitutes art. The two trends mutually exclusive, but the actual physical objects created in pursuit of each aim are indistinguishable without delving into secondary literature about them.

Similarly, Varnedoe discusses differences between West Coast and East Coast minimalism claiming that while East Coast minimalism places a slab of steel in a gallery to emphasize the pragmatic nature of art as objects (you can stub your toe on it) the West Coast variant tends to lead one to the slippery nature of objects as illusions, as surfaces constructed only by momentary and transitory impressions. In discussing the East Coast version, he suggests that the pragmatic nature of minimalism is tied to the rejection of the concept that art resides in abstract ideas. In other words, to call such non-representation art “abstract” is the worst sort of misreading. In its own way, minimalism is a rejection of the trend towards abstraction and rationalism.

It works this way: by placing a steel slab on a gallery floor, it challenges us the idea that the work of art is a rational practice constructed from ideas. Rather than Eurocentric rationalism which screams “contemplate this,” it places it where we can literally stub our toes on it forcing us to pragmatically deal with the presence of this object in this context; practical reason, a la American pragmatism rather than “intellectualize this.” It’s a tough sell, but it makes a sort of twisted sense.