Writing a book about minimalism opens you up to a lot of easy jokes. There’s the simplest, the mismatch of form and content: You wrote a whole book on minimalism? That’s not very minimalist! Then there’s the added wrinkle of the book’s size: How could minimalism fill such a long book? (In my defense, the book I wrote is only a bit over two hundred pages.) People ask if they should actually buy the book, since it’s not minimalist to own extraneous objects. (Please do—buy the e-book if you must.) Someone suggested that instead of text I should have just published a volume of empty pages: the only form of writing that could be properly minimalist is no writing at all.
In fact, many minimalist books have already been written. In the context of literature, the word is associated with a hard-boiled quality, like Raymond Carver or Bret Easton Ellis: terse sentences, tight plots, literalism. Or it can be in reference to scale, like flash fiction, in which a large effect is created within a small space. Diane Williams is a minimalist, as are haiku and Zen koans, fragments of language. I have begun to think that autofiction is our dominant form of minimalist writing today because it dispenses with some of the usual qualities of fictional literature, like dramatic plot, character arcs, and the boundary with nonfiction, in the same way that an artist like Donald Judd left out human figures, varied colors, and aggressive brushstrokes from his works. Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy is minimalist because it leaves the narrator blank, a protagonist who listens instead of acts.
But my book, The Longing for Less, is mostly about the visual associations of minimalism, in art, design, and architecture. Those forms have an antipathy of language and resist subtle description. There aren’t enough words to capture the various shades of visual emptiness—I’ve used blank, austere, and spare too many times to tally without hating myself. Labeling something indescribable is an excuse for lazy writing, yet it seems to apply here. Writing that one of Judd’s works is a box made of unpolished aluminum about a meter square, with its longer sides empty so that you can see through it, is both literally correct and missing the point entirely, like describing a Picasso only as oil and pigment caked on stretched cloth.
At one point I went maximalist in frustration, spending many ekphrastic paragraphs on the epiphany of seeing a Judd box from multiple angles, the shallow pool of empty space in its top, the psychedelic effects of the SoHo sunlight glinting off its powder-coated angles in the upper floors of the artist’s loft home. My editor wisely cut it down to a few sentences.
Minimalist art is meant to exist for and as itself. There is no interpretation or explanation needed—it’s all evanescent effect. By contrast, all language seems like explanation, particularly in nonfiction. As soon as you point to something in writing, it’s there, even if what you point to is the empty floor. Words break the delicate emptiness of a room or the thoughtlessness of pure observation without judgment, which is what I came to think minimalist art is actually about.
Judd, who began his career as a prolific critic, wound up hating words. He used language to summon the absence of language. In his notebook in 1986 he observed a jackrabbit hopping in the grass in rural Texas, where he lived. “The desert was spare, as usual, but very green and beautiful. I realized that the land and presumably the rabbits, quail, lizards, and bugs didn’t know that this was beautiful,” he wrote. “The observation is only ours, the same as the lizard’s opinion of the bug. The observation has no relevance, no validity, no objectivity, and so the land was not beautiful—who’s to say. It simply exists.” Or, as the 1953 John Cage poem that I used as my epigraph puts it: “No object / No beauty / No message.”
Judd was constantly aggrieved by the idea of minimalism as a movement, which he didn’t identify with. He saw it as marketing shorthand. “Instead of thinking about each person’s work, critics invent labels to pad their irrelevant discourse,” he wrote in a letter to the Village Voice in 1981. It’s true, but we critics do it because we have to: language is a way of communicating the abstract ideas of art to an audience that might not be amenable to them otherwise. The simplification is a necessary evil, despite the artists’ feelings. And simplify it does, unfortunately: “When I hear the same nonsense about Minimalism and impersonality for twenty years, I realize that the clichés have stuck,” Judd wrote in 1984.
The painter Agnes Martin wrote, too, though much less frequently, from statements on her work to more abstract poetry. Her writing is also anti-language, offering koans that must be resolved by the reader. “It is commonly thought that everything that is can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words,” Martin wrote in “Beauty Is the Mystery of Life.” “We are so used to making these emotional responses that we are not consciously aware of them till they are represented in art work.”
Martin’s ethereal grids and stripes evoke rather than describe. They present a form of transcendence that writing usually fails at, a heightened emotional plane in which the artifacts of the human world fall away. “My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent,” she wrote. Late in her career she chose titles like Beautiful Life, Happiness-Glee, and I Love the Whole World. I wouldn’t call these good writing, but the language was not the point. Under minimalism, “metaphor died,” as the critic and artist Brian O’Doherty wrote. Like Judd’s description of the desert, art “simply exists,” and that is enough.
Philip Johnson, the figure most responsible for propagating the minimalist aesthetic by popularizing modernism in architecture and design in the United States, also spoke out the most vociferously against language. “The word kills art,” Johnson proclaimed in a 1955 speech at Barnard College. “The word is an abstraction and art is concrete. The word is old, loaded with accreted meanings from usage. Art is new.” Language always gets bogged down in its past; only art can surpass it and create something truly unprecedented—or so he argued. It could be a boast for Johnson’s own Glass House, which envisioned its own new way of living in 1949.
This idea that anything can emerge fully formed from a blank slate without history or context is one of the dangers of minimalism, which has a tendency to erase its own origins. (Johnson affiliated for years with the Nazis, who maintained their own regime of aesthetic homogeneity.) Charting the history and heritage of minimalism in its varied forms and iterations is one way of complicating the idea, allowing for more interpretations to coexist.
Ironically, it was a writer who first came up with the fateful phrase “less is more.” It’s usually credited to the architect Mies van der Rohe and associated with the chilly minimalist geometry of his glass-and-steel buildings, in which less visual stimulus leads to more effect. But the phrase actually first appeared in English from the Victorian poet Robert Browning, who was decidedly maximalist.
In an 1855 poem, Browning wrote from the perspective of Andrea del Sarto, an Italian Renaissance painter who was known for his technical brilliance. Browning’s del Sarto delivers monologues to his wife, Lucrezia, confessing his own ultimate lack of emotion. Other painters try to match the skill that he seems to display so effortlessly, but they end up achieving “less, so much less.” “Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged,” del Sarto admits. “There burns a truer light of God in them.” The other painters are able to capture the deeper truth that del Sarto misses as he focuses too much on the cold exactness of each line. “All is silver-grey, / Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!”
So “less is more” is a complaint instead of praise, and placid perfection a fault. The harder you try to nail something down, the more it escapes. My mistake.
Kyle Chayka is the author of The Longing For Less: Living with Minimalism, out this week from Bloomsbury.