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Mining Minimalism

Ecocriticism meets a revisionist history of minimalism


FEB 28, 2023 | ISSUE 11

Illustration By Xiaotian Wang

During the 1960s, the glossy surfaces and industrial fabrication of minimalist painting and sculpture heralded a radical new approach to the usage of materials in art. What’s been left unsaid in the history of minimalism – and is an increasingly pressing concern today — are the extractive processes that produced many of minimalism’s iconic materials, such as aluminum and the crude oil byproduct, Plexiglas. There are two contemporaneous pieces that can help excavate the ways the process of extraction has materially informed minimalist art, and point towards an ecocritical revision of its history.

The first is Frank Stella’s Avicenna, first exhibited in 1960 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City. Technically a dodecagon (a twelve-sided shape), this painting had one notch in each of its four corners. The apexes of those notches point diagonally to a cavity in the center of the canvas itself, exposing the wall upon which it is hung, thus creating a continuity with its exhibition space. Compositionally, the painting is nothing...