“California minimalism” is a peculiar phrase, one I’d never really heard before January 8, when this show opened at Chelsea’s David Zwirner Gallery. It’s a phrase not much in the literature about minimalism, either because the Californians are rarely considered within the arc of minimalism’s history or because, well, the stuff coming out of southern California in the late fifties, sixties and seventies was sort of minimal and sort of not. (Much of it was more perceptual than minimal.)
For years this art has been a mainstay of California museums and galleries, particularly in southern California. LACMA, MOCA and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego all have significant collections of the work.
However, some of the reaction to the Zwirner show has reminded me that this California-based art is little-known in the East: Robert Irwin has been the star of just one New York museum presentation since a 1977 Whitney retrospective, a 1998 show at Dia. Doug Wheeler has virtually no New York museum footprint, ditto other key Light and Space and fetish-finish artists. Perhaps as a result, New Yorkers have tended to see art from the period as a reaction to New York.
That may account for Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker-published reaction to the Zwirner show. It’s not online, but an audio slideshow is. Schjeldahl opens by describing ‘California minimalism as “an under-sung movement mainly of the late 1960s that reacted to the development of minimal art in New York.”
Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight noticed that wasn’t exactly right and raised an tweeted eyebrow at Schjeldahl by pointing out that geometric minimalism in Los Angeles pre-dates the same kind of work in New York. Knight quoted from Schjeldahl’s printed review: “Time travel: From 1959-1961 L.A. artist Larry Bell ‘absorbed influences of triumphant  New York minimalism.’ Wow!” Larry Bell was exploring minimal forms at least as early as 1959. [Image above: Bell, Lux at the Ferus, 1961, from MOCA's collection.]
(It wasn’t just Bell, either. Irwin was exploring perception in the way that would become key to ‘California minimalism’ in 1962, also before New York minimalists began showing their work.)
So if Californians weren’t reacting to New York work that — as Knight points out — didn’t exist yet, what were they reacting to? Like seemingly everyone else in art they were certainly reacting against abstract expressionism. (Irwin, for example, made abex paintings as late as 1961. Amazingly, in 1959 Irwin’s palette seemed right out of Clyfford Still. He moved forward fast.)
Installations currently on view at LACMA and MOCA hint at the other likely answer. Both museums are showing works by hard-edge painter John McLaughlin: three at LACMA, four at MOCA. The MOCA McLaughlins are hung in a gallery with Ellsworth Kelly, ‘before’ the museum’s minimalism galleries. I suspect that California art of the period had a lot more to do with McLaughlin than it did than anything in New York (and it looks like MOCA’s curatorial team at least partially agrees). Next year post-war California post-war art will be surveyed by virtually every art museum in southern California. Alas: McLaughlin remains substantially overdue for re-evaluation. (Fortunately, New Yorkers can see more now.)