Does Minimalism Matter?

MinimalismleadStephen Bayley in More Intelligent Life:

Last June I shared a cab with Grayson Perry, one of Britain’s best-known artists. He had just returned from the Basel art fair, where he had been struck by something. “Everything is now happening all at once,” he told me with a roll of the eyes. There was no longer a ruling style or taste, no common agreement on what is avant-garde and what is retrograde. Today the happening thing is just what is happening. We have reached the end of “isms”.

Minimalism was the last, and most curious, ism of all. The late 20th and early 21st centuries were peculiarly receptive to its poetics of purity—in architecture, in art, in food, in design. This autumn it receives what might be either its coronation or its obituary. “Plain Space” is the title of both an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, and a book by its subject, John Pawson—the elegant Old Etonian architect who, more than anyone, turned a cerebral art-world cult into a deluxe style for the stratum of society where fastidious aestheticism meets high net worth.

The exhibition is not, Pawson insists, a retrospective, but an account of work-in-progress. Still, when estate agents are touting properties as “minimalist-style”, you suspect that the vitality of this ism may have left the building. Was minimalism the last absurd, exhausted spasm of neophilia, the cult of the new that so defined modern taste? Or is it still, and will it remain, the ultimate refinement of aesthetic sensibility: the place we go when we have been everywhere else? The answer to both questions is yes.

In one sense, minimalism had a beginning and end as (nearly) precise as the beginning and end of, say, baroque or pre-Raphaelitism. German architects first used the term “Existenzminimum”—referring to low-cost social housing—in the mid-1920s. The term “minimal art” first appeared circa 1965. Journalists writing about interior design began mentioning minimalism in the mid-1980s. But, unlike baroque or the pre-Raphaelites, the minimal aesthetic has been a continuous element in European culture. It’s been with us in some form since the fifth century BC, when Socrates declared that a well-made dung bucket was better than a poorly made gold shield.