Minimalism in the Age of Speculative Realism an essay by Daire O’Shea

We loved this essay by Daire O'shea featured in Murze issue two, so much we thought we'd share it again on our blog ....

Minimalism in the Age of Speculative Realism

A Radical Re-Reading of Minimalist Artworks through the Lens of Object-Oriented Ontology

The minimalist art movement which came to prominence in New York in the mid-1960s was defined by its celebration of industrialised processes and materials. Whether it was viewed as a continuation of the Russian constructivist sculptures of Vladimir Tatlin and Naom Gabo as theorised by Robert Morris or viewed as a completely new form of art that stood apart from sculpture as Donald Judd’s competing ideology of minimalism declared, every conception of minimalism agreed that industrialisation was the way forward for artistic production. (Reynolds 2004) It is important to remember the climate of America in the 1960’s when looking at why these artworks were made and rose to such prevalence. The steel industry was still a very large (although slowly shrinking) aspect of the American economy. (Tiffany 1984) Industrial processes were largely viewed as a positive force especially by the minimalists who looked upon the contemporary methods of construction allowed by technological advances as a source of inspiration. Artists such as Robert Smithson, who, in his text A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, wrote approvingly of the construction sites he found in a state of half-completion, took their

aesthetic sensibilities from modern industry;

‘Along the Passaic banks were many minor monuments such as concrete abutments that supported the shoulders of a new highway in the process of being built… many machines were not working, and this caused them to resemble pre-historic creatures trapped in the mud.’ (Smithson 1966)

I am proposing a radical re-reading of minimalist practice in a contemporary context. As we come to the close of the second decade of the 21st century we have a very different

conception of material production and its effects. Theorists of the school of speculative realism, ‘an emerging philosophical movement committed to a unique form of realism and non-anthropocentric thinking’ (Morton 2011) are showing us that humans are even less important in the grander scheme of being than we thought and hyperobjects - such as global warming - are proving this to be the case. Through looking back to the work of minimalist artists and reading them from our more informed perspective as regards to human industry’s impact on the world at large we can learn much about how to create an object oriented art that is ecologically aware and displays a vibrant materialism.


According to Timothy Morton hyperobjects are ‘things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans’. (Morton 2011) This applies to many things as Morton explains; ‘A hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism’, (Morton 2011) but one of the clearest examples is global warming. We can feel the weather where it manifests itself in the particular time and place we are currently standing but it is impossible for the human sensory organs to process the cumulative effects of global warming at any one time because it is spread out over such massive distances, both spatially and temporally. These hyperobjects are a relatively new phenomenon as it is only with the cumulative effects of human endeavours since the age of industrialisation and the drastic implications this had on the environment that the hyperobject has come into being. The hyperobject is both a very recent concept for humans and one that shows the ineptitude of human centred thinking:

‘The more we know about radiation, global warming, and the other massive objects that show up on our radar, the more enmeshed in them we realize we are. Knowledge is no longer able to achieve escape velocity from Earth, or more precisely, what Heidegger calls “earth,” the surging, “towering” reality of things.’

(Morton 2011)

Thus as humans we find ourselves as just one ‘actant’ (Bennett 2010) in a sea of factors

beyond our control whose relationships make up reality. From oil deposits to weather systems to plastic islands in the oceans we can no longer escape from the encroaching realisation that ‘things, too, are vital players in the world.’ (Bennett 2010)

Vibrant Matter

At its heart Jane Bennett’s conception of the vibrancy of matter is quite a simple concept, she argues that we must tear down the artificial barrier we have created between dull matter (things) and vibrant life (beings). This barrier ‘encourages us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations’, (Bennett 2010) she gives the example of omega-3 acids being able to alter human moods and of landfills, far from being inert sites where matter simply exists, as vibrant ecologies creating a constant stream of chemicals. Vibrant materialism calls for a recognition that agency is distributed far more broadly than human centred thinking has led us to believe and that everything from the bacterial make up of a person’s digestive system, to the raw mineral distribution of the earth, to the global weather system, all share a part in deciding the course of the future.

Bennett points to Nancy Levene’s book Spinoza’s Revelation for a summation of this idea; ‘not only do humans not form a separate imperium unto themselves; they do not even command the imperium, nature, of which they are a part’. (Bennett 2010)

Minimalism and Speculative Realism

What then, is the connection between this object-oriented philosophy and minimalist art created in the mid-sixties before anyone had even come up with speculative realism? The speculative realism of thinkers such as Timothy Morton and Graham Harmon is seen as a reaction to the fact that in the 21st century we are in a state of ecological crisis and only a philosophy that accepts the power things have over the fate of the world is one capable of dealing with this environmental crisis. In the words of Graham Harmon ‘beneath [philosophy’s] ceaseless argument, reality is churning’. (Harmon 2010) Minimalism arrived at a point in history when environmentalism was in its

infancy, at a time when it was still in the process of becoming a recognised movement. (Price 2008) Therefore the connection between minimalism and speculative realism is a retrofitted one to be sure, but no less important for that. When dealing with concepts such as vibrant materialism and hyperobjects that one cannot see with the naked eye, using artistic means of hinting at these ideas through literalist sculptures is a useful way of getting across the concepts of a new philosophical school that has a deep connection to the reality of objects. This connection with the physical reality of objects is a radical break from traditional philosophical thinking in a time when ‘philosophy has

gradually renounced its claim to have anything to do with the world itself.’ (Harmon 2010)

As a corollary to this, if we look at this connection from the other side, speculative realist philosophy gives us more tools with which we can appraise the canonised works of minimalism with fresh eyes and new viewpoints that may not have been available at the time of the work’s creation. Take for example Carl Andre’s laconic history of the development of sculpture:

‘The course of development Sculpture as form Sculpture as structure Sculpture as place.’ (Bourdon 1968)

Looking at this list through contemporary eyes we can now add Sculpture as materiality as the logical next step in the course of development. Living as we do in the 21st century the world has shrank to the point where place is no longer as looming an issue for human existence as materiality, for it is through our engagement in the (over)production of materials that we have come to this crisis made manifest in the age of the hyperobject. ‘What is happening here when, as a result of the abolition of great distances, everything is equally far and equally near?’ so asks Heidegger in his 1950 lecture Das Ding (Heidegger 1994) since then practically all

distance has been abolished and so the question of place is even less pertinent to sculpture. Through making a reappraisal of minimalist sculptures looking at their materiality from a contemporary perspective we can open up whole new avenues of thought and glean more information from these objects. I will now begin this process of re-reading artworks through a materialist gaze by engaging with two works made by two significant minimalists, Carl Andre and Donald Judd.

Fig. 1, Carl Andre, 1966, Equivalent viii, 12.8 x 68.5 x 229 cm

In 1966 Carl Andre produced his ‘Equivalent’ series from eight separate structures of

methodologically arranged firebricks.

‘Each of Andre’s Equivalent series consists of a rectangular arrangement of 120 firebricks. Although the shape of each sculpture is different, they all have the same height, mass and volume, and are therefore ‘equivalent’ to each other.’ (Tate 2017)

The Tate Gallery purchased ‘Equivalent viii’ in 1976 to much public uproar, stemming from conservative art appreciator’s incredulity that tax payer’s money could be spent on a pile of bricks. (Jones 2016) I am interested in the Tate’s purchase and subsequent display of this artwork for a different reason. In purchasing this one element of the Equivalent series the Tate divorced it from its relationship with the other seven pieces, shifting the focus of the sculptures from one of relative mass and volume, to a different, materialist reading of the object. Looking at Equivalent viii standing alone in the gallery space the only thing one can read from it is the material itself, the fire brick.

‘A fire brick is a block of refractory ceramic material … designed mainly to withstand high heat’. (Vitcas 2017)

The firebricks appealed to Andre because of their apparent clasticity, i.e. the inner and outer surfaces are identical: ‘Andre has always shown a preference for solid materials, of the same consistency or substance from outer facet to innermost core.’ (Bourdon 1968) When we are looking at this material from an informed speculative realist point of view however, the apparent homogeneity only serves to put into sharp relief the inadequacy of our sensory apparatus in appraising the inner vitality of all matter. According to Jane Bennett it is not that these materials are inert, quite the opposite is true, it is simply that ‘the rate of speed and pace of change are slow compared to the duration and velocity of the human bodies participating in perceiving them.’

(Bennett 2010) When looking at Equivalent viii from this point of view it becomes not so much a rumination on volume and place within the gallery but a physical example of the Heideggerian concept of the thing always receding from view and never being fully graspable in all its reality. This concept is explained by Harmon in his interpretation of Heidegger’s tool-analysis:

‘The tool recedes from every possible view. What Heidegger calls the ready-to-hand is said to remain invisible except for… the “broken tool”… [but] no matter how badly the tool breaks, no matter how deeply we dissect it or analyse it, whatever emerges will never be the tool in its being’. (Harmon 2010)

Another ‘thing theorist’ Bill Brown put it like this ‘we look through objects… but we only catch a glimpse of things’. (Brown 2001) I am arguing that in the case of Andre’s work the object (the fire brick) has been transformed into a thing because of the fact that it has been specifically arranged and put into an art historical context (by virtue of its display in a gallery and subsequent purchase by the Tate), thus we are made aware of the infinite irreducibility of the thing that is a fire brick.

Looking at the arrangement of the bricks themselves, they are a perfect example of the dark side of the coin as theorised by Edmund Husserl in 1900. No matter how many times he flipped over a coin there was always a side that was invisible to him. ‘The coin had a dark side that was seemingly irreducible.’ (Morton 2011) This harks back again to the strange irreducibility of things, we can never appreciate them in the fullness of their existence. Due to the fact that Equivalent viii is a sculpture in the collection of the Tate Modern and therefore one is unable to get near enough to touch it, this irreducibility is reinforced. The way the bricks are arranged the most one can see of any of the identical blocks is three sides of the bricks at any of the upper corners thus we have a situation where there is a permanent dark side to every brick as they are masked by identical bricks, strangely reinforcing our inability to ‘know’ the objects and giving us a glimpse of their strange thingness.

Robert Morris touched on this point in his 1966 essay Notes On Sculpture with his use of the gestalt theory in explaining his use of regular polyhedrons but to the contemporary viewer his theories seem naïve ‘one sees and immediately “believes” that the pattern within one’s mind corresponds to the existential fact of the object’. (Morris 1968) The difference being that from a

contemporary speculative realist point of view one does not “believe” in the existential fact of the object so readily, as the existential fact is always changing in relation to the rest of the world in a vibrant matter on scales (both spatial and temporal) that are naked to the human eye.

The use of many identical mass-produced units such as these fire bricks reads a lot differently in 2017 than it did in 1966. In all cases it is impossible to look at these and not think about the modes of mass production used in order to create them. The uniformity of the bricks paired with the repetition and formal arrangement suggests an infinity of bricks, in 1966 this was suggestive of ‘that infinitesimal condition known as entropy’. (Smithson 1968)

In the 1960s theorists such as Robert Smithson were reminded of the incomprehensibly large timescales of Newtonian physics when they were confronted with these serial repetitions of homogenous objects, they looked to theories such as entropy and science fiction narratives because of the implication of the infinite in these mass produced works. Today we can have no such luxury of abstract theorising when confronted with mass production in the gallery setting, when we are confronted with a seemingly endless supply of objects we think about where they will go to be disposed of, for this may be matter but, as we know from Bennett, it is far from inert. It plays an active role in shaping the future and the more matter we create the more we will have to deal with, ‘vital materiality can never really be thrown “away” for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity’. (Bennett 2010) We cannot afford to think about Robert Smithson’s vision of the ‘ultimate future [when] the whole universe will burn out and be

transformed into an all-encompassing sameness’ (Smithson 1968) because we have to deal with the ecological disaster of the present which, according to Timothy Morton, we are already experiencing on a daily basis. (Morton 2011) Works such as Equivalent viii remind us that this disaster is due at least in part to the industrial over-production of commodities.

Through examining Equivalent viii from a 21st century object oriented perspective we can glean new readings from the sculptures using theoretical frameworks that were unavailable in the 1960’s simply because they didn’t exist. To quote Mel Bochner’s 1967 essay Serial Art, Systems and Solipsism: ‘What is thought about art is usually only thought about because it has been thought about that way before’. This essay is an attempt to break with what has been thought about this sculpture before by using fresh perspectives provided by a relatively new school of philosophy. Why should we bother to reread these sculptures? Why not leave them be? To answer this question another quote from Mel Bochner is needed: ‘Things being whatever they happen to be, all we can know about them is derived directly from how they appear’. This statement is fundamentally wrong in the age of the hyperobject which is defined by the very fact that it is so massively distributed that it is far more than it appears to be at any one time and analysing minimalist sculptures in such a way as to allow for an invisible vibrant

materiality is a useful way of conceptualising these issues which are far reaching and existential.

Fig. 2, Donal Judd, Untitled, 1966, Six parts, 86.36 x 86.36 x 86.36 cm

In 1966 (the same year that Andre created the Equivalent series) Donald Judd created Untitled [Fig.2]. It consists of six cubes each of 86.36cm3 mounted on a wall in a straight line. The cubes are made from stainless steel and plexiglass panels. It currently resides in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection, ‘Boldly reductive and geometric, Judd’s sculpture relies … on modern machined materials and on the very literal adoption of serial repetition’. This sculpture differs from Andre’s in that it is not arranged out of pre manufactured commodities but it is fabricated by experts to specific dimensions and material finishes.

Untitled can be read from a completely different perspective in 2017 than when it was created in 1966, plexiglass for example in 1966 could hardly have been considered a menace, it was a cheap lightweight material synthesized from petroleum, the issue of waste management of plastics hadn’t arisen yet because there were not enough plastics in the world. (Cleetus 2013) ‘Plastics production has gone up by almost 10% every year on a global basis since 1950’ . The result of this is that materially plastics are not as innocent today as they were 50 years ago. We are faced with this plastic material protruding into our space on its own terms and therefore we are forced to think about it. Although we are surrounded by plastic objects every day, when we encounter this material in the art gallery (where one is in a contemplative state of mind) it stops being an object and becomes a thing and this thing is not neatly framed in some pictorial “away”. No, according to Michael Fried ‘the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation one that virtually by definition includes the beholder’ (Fried 1968) the sculptures insert themselves into the same space that we inhabit and we are forced to enter into a relationship with them.

It is clear from our reading of speculative realist philosophy that the plastic elements in this piece constitute a hyperobject. We exist alongside the plastic for a fraction of its lifetime, it is spread out so far between the past and future that its entire existence is incomprehensible to us, we can only perceive a snippet of its reality. The fact being that while we can enter into a relationship with the plexiglass panels now as an element of a sculpture they will still exist long after everyone that is alive at the time of writing is dead and buried and after the museum that holds them has crumbled to dust. The serial repetition of the units in Untitled reinforces this idea of the materials in the piece being hyperobjects. ‘I perceived that the monument against which I slept was but one of thousands. Before me stretched long parallel avenues, clear to the far horizon of similar broad, low pillars’. (Smithson 1968) The repetition of identical units spaced evenly implies an infinite amount of units. Robert Smithson makes this point in his essay Entropy and the New Monuments (1966), for Smithson this implied repetition tending toward infinity was a perfect allegory for entropy:

‘The artists have provided a visible analogue for the Second Law of Thermodynamics which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us… the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness’. (Smithson 1968)

While this theory makes sense, looking at the essay from a contemporary point of view there are elements of it that are almost irresponsible in their formulation. Smithson argues that these objects are monuments ‘against time’ in that they reduce experiences to fractions of seconds instead of spanning out over centuries. Of course these days we know that the exact opposite is true. These minimalist sculptures created out of plastics in the 1960s will last far longer than any prehistoric

ceramics found from millennia ago in their material coherence.

Reading these ‘New Monuments’ now, I believe that the serial repetition involved in much of the work of Donald Judd is a far better allegory for the hyperobject, the implication of an endless repetition of which we can only see a small part is much like the definition of a hyperobject where its actions and patterns are so spread out that we can never perceive but a fraction of its actuality at any one time.

The use of professional fabricators in creating the piece, thus removing any trace of the artist’s hand from the process, is an important way in when analysing the work from a material perspective. Donald Judd used the Bernstein Brothers in Queens, New York to create his sculptures in the mid to late 60s. According to Benjamin Buchloh ‘By the mid- 1980s, the persistence and credibility of the industrial paradigm, which is clearly in operation in Andre’s, Flavin’s, and Judd’s work, was certainly open to question’ (Bucholch 1994), the

industrial process had lost its innocence and instead of being a symbol of modernity it has become a negative force in the world contributing to the ecological devastation we are currently experiencing. This use of a professional fabricator is important to our understanding of minimalism today for a different reason. When the artist hires a fabricator to create the sculpture, it is

introduced into the world of capital before it has even come to fruition, the fabrication

company is reimbursed for its efforts and once the process is complete the value of the

sculpture itself is created according to the demand for it within the art buying public. This fluctuation of value without any addition or subtraction of matter can be seen as a material vibrancy within the sculpture itself, the artefact becoming more valuable and therefore

bestowing more power on its owner can be seen as a contemporary American sublime as theorised by Rob Wilson:

‘Re-imagining postmodern twists upon the sublime, the response to shifting configurations of American grandeur remains one of awe-struck credulity in God, or that equally vast source of American infinitude reified into global power, “Capital.”’ (Wilson 1998)

This process happens with any and every commodity to some extent but to reiterate my previous point, one encounters art in a contemplative frame of mind where one can ruminate on these processes that might be ignored in day to day life. Encountering these objects in the gallery raises their capital relations from mere value to this contemporary sublimity. This is especially true when looking at minimalist art today because we have seen the extraordinary rise in value of these sculptures throughout the last 50 years. (Thompson 2010)

Untitled (1966) reads very differently today than it did at the time of its construction, today we do not have the security and comfort in our own existence on the planet to be happily

speculating about the all-encompassing sameness at the end of the universe as, in the age of global warming, we are not even sure if humans will be around to witness the end of the century. This, paired with the fact that America has seen a steady rate of industrial decline from the time of the manufacture of Untitled. (Tiffany 1984) The processes and finishes of American industry that protrude into the gallery space from the wall in the form of Untitled [Fig.2] are reminders of the rapidly shifting power dynamic of the globe and the urgent need for a change in philosophical thinking.


‘If you look at the optimism they felt for a fusion of aesthetic practices with industrial materials… That poses a very particular problem. Namely, how can anyone continue to work from within that optimism in defiance of the catastrophes of industrial mass culture, of the actual ecological destruction that industry generates?’

Benjamin Buchloh summed up the issue with reading works of minimalism in 1994, ‘yet, here we go installing another 500 florescent light tubes’. It is for precisely this reason however, that we should be installing these works of industrial minimalism, to look at them from our contemporary point of view, devoid of the naivety of the 1960s, with an understanding of the ecological disaster we have created. These works that used to be a beacon of hope for modernist development of the future are now a dark warning of the birth of the hyperobject from our past; but they are arguably more important than ever because of this. From the irreducibility of the object that is apparent in Andre’s arrangements of fire bricks to the embeddedness of Judd’s fabricated objects in the flow of capital from even before the time of their creation these objects can now serve as philosophical lessons for a new school of thought; one that is capable of dealing with the current issues of the planet. Given the right framing a re-evaluating of the canonical works of minimalism from the 60s could serve as a warning for the current generation of the cost of putting faith in the reified mechanisms of capitalist production, and of the responsibility of artists to create work that is ecologically responsible both in its production and in its potential reception.

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