Minimalism and its aesthetics have experienced a resurgence in contemporary art. Gay Minimalism, a particular brand of this new manifestation, is unlike the Minimalism of the 1960s; it is not founded on reactions to previous art histories nor does it challenge the perception of forms or aesthetic autonomy; instead it embodies gay male identity, addressing issues more social, emotional and human.
Minimalism is the obvious visual touchstone to this genre of contemporary art and artists. As a conceptual and visual force in art-making, it has undergone numerous permutations since its initial presence in the art-historical narrative. A movement largely dominated by white male artists has been employed by a multitude of identity groups, consistently reappearing in contemporary art, and thus effectively appropriating the movement itself. Minimalism, once so separated from the artist, is now completely re-adaptable, re-interpretable by the artist’s person in terms of rendering the meaning of a work. It is undoubtedly the most referenced movement in an art world that is comparatively movement-less and yet, this lack of definable direction enables the existence and advancement of Gay Minimalism. But, where is the connection between homosexuality and Minimalism located? Through what vehicle is it transmitted?
To understand Gay Minimalism’s present, it is necessary to examine its past — a past that could not exist without the work of Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His work is canonical, and represents an important integration of art aligned with gay identity into the mainstream cultural conversation. Gonzalez-Torres’ work is defined by the political, societal and temporal structures surrounding its creation: It is inherently connected with the AIDS epidemic and thus, to tragedy and loss. It eschews formal dilemmas, and functions as political and social critique.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s brought gay rights to the national stage and established an entirely different identifiable homosexuality. While Gonzalez-Torres’ work vocalizes so much of that homosexual sentiment, it does not overwhelm it because of the understated Minimalist forms he created. Gonzalez-Torres’ work was called “politically correct,” though he created in the spirit of “guerrilla warfare.” But a war against what exactly?
Participatory pieces like the spill of candies, Untitled (Placebo) (1991), and paper stack sculpture Untitled (Death by Gun) (1990), violate traditional encounters with art. This is his aforementioned “guerrilla warfare;” It adheres to the participatory principles of the work, interacting within its environment and challenging the traditional viewer-art relationship. In Untitled (Perfect Lovers), two clocks tick, positioned side-by-side. Despite the clocks’ perfection in being mass-produced and identical, one eventually falls out of sync with the other (Storr).
While Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991) can be immediately interpreted as the relationship between Gonzalez-Torres and the death of his lover, Ross Laycock, Untitled (Placebo) achieves more universality; minimalism as an aesthetic of loss, or loss memorialized through Minimalist aesthetics. Gonzalez-Torres’ 1992 Untitled — 24 billboards installed throughout Manhattan after Laycock’s death — depicts “an inviting, recently vacated double bed” and emphasizes the importance of the public component of Gonzalez-Torres’ work. The exhibition itself functions as public memorials to the AIDS epidemic; however, the piece, like much of Gonzalez-Torres’ work, is not confined to maudlin expression as it hints at excesses of pleasure. In the public sphere, his billboards are as much a playful and tragic (MoMA).
Inaugurated in Berlin’s Tiergarten in 2008, Danish-Norwegian artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Memorial to the Homosexual Victims of the Nazi Era builds on Gonzalez-Torres’ foundation. Elmgreen and Dragset’s sculpture is supremely Minimal: The sculpture is comprised of four slabs of concrete walls — sunk at an angle into the ground — and houses a looped video of two men “locked in an endless kiss.” The structure’s material is heavy and permanent, embodying the gravitas of tragedy. The piece is approachable (it is located in a pubic park), yet specific in referencing the homosexual pastime of cruising. As in Gonzalez-Torres’ billboards, Elmgreen and Dragset’s sculpture subverts the seriousness of Minimalism with the joy of excess and homosexual physical fulfillment (Deutsche Welle).
The employment of appropriated mass-produced or machine-made materials is crucial to the language of both Minimalisms. Donald Judd writes in “Specific Objects” that the materials are “simply materials. They are specific… There is an objectivity in the obdurate identity of a material.” For Minimalists, the material was not the visual communication, but a means of conveyance. Inaccessibility, however, is not a preoccupation of the Gay Minimalists: Their motive is aligned with accessibility, though their works are significantly metaphorical. Objective materials are used in subjective manners to seep, instead of intrude, into the viewer’s interpretation. As Gonzalez-Torres states in his 1995 interview with Robert Storr: “The thing that I want to do sometimes with these pieces about homosexual desire is to be more inclusive. Every time they see a clock or a stack of paper or a curtain, I want them to think twice.”
Dean Sameshima’s 2007 photographic installation Griffith Park, confronts the viewer with 36 grainy black and white inkjet prints that hint at the illicit side of Los Angeles’ idyllic park. The specificity of location (acting here as material) is undermined by its un-precious, uncomplicated visual communication and conveys: “You can be an artist too.” Subversions like this that defy the sanctity of “Art,” are a defining characteristic of Un-Minimalist, Gay Minimalism. This raises a larger question: Is the work of Gay Minimalism Minimalism at all? As a brand-name art movement, have the definitions of Minimalism become too widely applicable?
Minimalism’s diffusion into the broader consciousness has declared every aesthetically simplified and basic piece as Minimalist. Gay Minimalism, which necessitates an understanding of the artist’s persona to formulate an accurate conception of his art, stems from human experience and not theory alone. The conceptualization of conventional Minimalism lends to depersonalization. This is not to say that Gay Minimalism has any dearth of concept; instead, it goes beyond its predecessor. “I think more than anything else I’m just an extension of certain practices, Minimalism or Conceptualism,” Gonzalez-Torres says to Robert Storr, “that I am developing areas that are not totally dealt with.”
Design became a principle employer of Minimalist forms. Purity and autonomy, as translated by design, is sleekness. The aesthetic tactic “less is more” created a plethora of glossy, simplified, useable objects re-appropriated in the pursuit of creative commercial gain. Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa (2005), in which the luxury brand has established an outpost in the Texas desert, is founded on this art-monetary paradox. Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa encapsulates the irony and absurdity of a small Texas town turned “glamorous.” This is art, not fashion. “The sculpture is meant to look like a real Prada store, with Minimalist white stucco walls… but there is no working door.” By literally barricading the art from the public, the artists are addressing the lower-class demography of Marfa and hinting at the inaccessibility of Prada and Minimalism, as well as the use and appreciation of these styles by gay men. Elmgreen and Dragset’s sense of humor is apparent, and Prada Marfa, a gay Minimalist intrusion on hallowed Minimalist ground, embodies a connection between homosexuality, its artistic movements, and its interpretation by larger social and cultural structures (Wilson). How did Gay Minimalism shift from politically active and socially engaging art to riffs on luxury, Minimalism and the excess and beauty of homosexuality? (VernissageTV)
The gay community contains a substantial generation gap. In an essay for New York, Mark Harris writes, “For most [gay men born after 1982], AIDS is not their past but the past… we complain that young gay men don’t know their history, what we’re really saying is they don’t know our history — that once again, we feel invisible, this time within our own ranks.” Gay-rights movements have not ceased operation, but the ecstatic passion, grandeur and robustness is gone. As gay men have differentiated along historical lines, so too has the art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s sculptures, though timeless and indisputably historically important, are products of the older generation and their engagement with society and politics. Contemporary Gay Minimalism, at least the variety created by the younger generation, wears with ease the luxuries afforded by the older generation. This generational gap is witnessed in all in contemporary art. It is no longer about making movements; it is about being. And thus, Gay Minimalism has evolved into the broader genre of gay contemporary art (Harris).
Contemporary Gay Minimalism is more concerned with homosexuality and contemporary mentalities. It employs Minimalist’s basic, conventional forms as a means of conveyance. Terence Koh’s work, on the surface, adheres to Minimalism: there is little color, objects exist in black and white, expressing the most of the least and the least of the most. His stylistic work expresses purity, death and homosexuality, and possesses restrained opulence and luxurious control. Koh’s work represents the most beautiful aspects of contemporary Gay Minimalism; that is, its ability to visually communicate complicated concepts in an entirely uncomplicated manner without sacrificing or doing a disservice to those ideas (Finel Honigman).
New York-based video and performance artist Ryan McNamara works with similar directness. His contribution to Performa 2009, Ecks Ecks Ecks — AKA — Sacred Band of Thebes — AKA — In Memory of Robert Isabell — AKA — Any Fag Could Do That combines two separate moments of gay history to produce an erotic, if not humorous, effortless dance. As a woman’s voice espouses the evolution “from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices to beautiful forms,” the generational shift of Gay Minimalism is encapsulated in the performance’s camp portrayal of battle. McNamara’s inclusion in the title of the word ‘fag,’ a polarizing epithet in the gay community, signals a less politicized, more casual relationship with homosexuality.
Homosexuality is no longer the identifying characteristic of an artist. It is not as politically charged or socially unacceptable to be gay. Gay Minimalism has emerged as its own rightful category, in large part due to the pioneering efforts of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His “guerrilla warfare” was the first act in battling larger, socially constructed ills while manifesting the emotions of an entire generation of gay men. Of the artists examined in this essay, his work is most similar to formal and conventional Minimalism. Gay Minimalism, slightly decadent in nature, is inherently connected to the person behind its creation, and is thus connected to the time of its creation. As crafting a gay identity has less and less to do with the AIDS epidemic and as the notion, need and regard for art movements becomes obsolete, Gay Minimalism is no longer as specific as it once was, retaining only ‘gayness,’ albeit a constantly shifting one, as its most assured characteristic.