Articles and Essays

Articles and Essays

Mondrian Still Rocks

In many ways, minimalist, pop and abstract art share some of the same essential elements of rock & roll, e.g. a hard edge, reduction of harmony to three chords, use of simple beats and riffs, and so on.

Minimalism was an attempt to create a pure American art, and rock & roll--which already had myriad influences--wanted it as well. A visual representation of rock & roll would be something like this:

Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930

But not really like this (unless intentionally ironic, e.g. Glam):

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, c 1757

Little did Mondrian know the ramifications of his work. The residue of 1920s geometric idealism may have indirectly changed the course of pop music through musicians influenced by Mondrian or his contemporaries. Art and music are always entangled as soul mates, especially musicians who were formerly visual artists or had formal training as artists. There were also musicians that became artists such as Paul Klee, John Cage and Ansel Adams. Classical or "serious" music of the 1970s through the present would first come to mind as being genuinely minimalist. Phillip Glass' early pattern pieces were pure minimalism, sparked by associations with sculptor Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd--with Glass' "Music With Changing Parts" performed in Judd's studio in Manhattan in 1970.

It is through these fortuitous cross-pollinations in the late 1960s do we see the connection being made between minimalism and pop music. Artists and musicians primarily use conscious or unconscious sensory experience to inspire creative action. It may be something immediate or something learned or absorbed subliminally, and projected back out in various mediums. Perhaps one of the purposes of minimalist or reductive art may be a kind of intentional isolationism that prevents dilution of pure essences or zeitgeist, as an attempt to reclaim what might have been lost in the process of acculturation. This is what punk and grunge attempted to do in reaction to progressive rock: Progressive music of the 1970s sounded too much like Madame De Pompadour. rock & roll stripped it all down and in some cases mischievously denigrated it.

In the late 1970s the Talking Heads attempted to distill and simplify pop music by stripping the sound down to something almost "quantized".

David Byrne: "It was mathematics...When you subtract all the unwanted stuff from something, art or music, what do you have left?”

Ellsworth Kelly, White Curve (1974). (Inspired by the Apollo 11 lunar module window, abstracted to a simple shape.

A recent analysis of the timbre and dynamic range of pop music indicated that the overall sound, when reduced to its constituent elements, has been decreasing since the 1960s.

"...artists and composers tend to stick to the same sound qualities — in other words, instruments playing the same notes sound more similar than they once did." [The Computer as Music Critic, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

Since the 1960s and even more so the 1980s to the present, the DIY music culture obviated formal music training in favor of a free exploration of the possibilities with sound as a primary element, divorced from music theory. Similarly, formal art training had been separated from artistic practice. Frank Stella for example had only a few art classes before going off and doing his own thing with house paint. Pop and minimalist artists were compelled by the idea that there could be a truly unique American art form with no connection with Europe. Mondrian was one of the first European artists that provided a new abstract vision of America that eventually became a new "representational" style for America, at least through his eyes circa 1940.

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1943)

There was a revelation at some point in 20th century art, that the marks made on a surface or in various expressions in other mediums were more of a projection of an idea or concept, and not necessarily done to represent reality. Photography was thought to replace painting, but it never really happened that way, as photographs suggested other art works in other mediums and were used to abstract vision (which was more like the act of painting something). Photorealism is an example of artists being nostalgic or "home sick" for painting and using the "old family photos" to produce exact replicas. Photography can easily create abstractions of seeing through the process of constraining vision by framing it, and making it square to begin with. If Mondrian were a photographer, the images probably would have had some of the same geometries as in his paintings.

Abstraction as Agitprop?

There are two opposing views of the connection between minimalism and rock & roll, one which is subversive in nature and one that is more benign. In a sense, abstract art is more "decorative" and has been parodied as such by a number of artists, such as Philip Taaffe's swipe at Barnett Newman or Warhol's and Lichtenstein's roasting of Mondrian, as being too easy and visually empty.

Phillip Taaffe, We Are Not Afraid

Barnett Newman, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue

Lichtenstein's golf ball painting of 1962 was both tribute and send-up of an early Mondrian called Composition in Black and White (1917)

Art is expected to be subversive (or may be appropriated as such) even if it had no message in the first place. The future is always casting shadows on art and music, or by people that promote or endorse it or simply misunderstand it. This is why it may not always be a wise strategy to be intentionally political, as interpretations of history are widely varied over time.

Minimalism in the shadow of Ab Ex can exude a zen spirituality, whereas abstraction in the shadow of rock & roll is more brash, and can be used to make benign appropriations of "pretentious" art. The banal surface is deceptive and ironic, the two primary attributes that drove conservatives crazy about abstract art because they thought that it might have ulterior meanings and were casting unwanted shadows on certain ideologies. Minimalism does no harm intentionally, but someone might find sharp edges to use--a kind of "plastic knife" that only appears harmless.

Minimalism is too easy

Then there is the issue of where craft fits into the equation of what the artistic process produces in the absence of an historical purview. This may have been the problem with 70s prog rock; it might have lost the connection with visual art, or never considered it. I doubt Yes wanted to "sound" like Madame De Pompadour, but it was an unintended and unfortunate consequence. Yes wanted to make the connection of through-composed orchestral work with the harder edge of rock & roll but it did not work ultimately--at least in the rear-view mirror. Someone may try a revival and put in what Yes might have missed. Very often the artist that designs the cover art will visually depict the music. Roger Dean accomplished this with a perfect circularity, feeding the visuals back into the overall experience of Yes.

Roger Dean, Freyja's Castle

Music can learn a lot from art history in terms of deeper cultural meanings. One can study medieval organum and learn nothing about the world 2000 years prior to it; whereas a visit to a museum allows one to make connections from distant antiquity to modernity. Ancient artifacts such as pentatonic flutes say nothing about contemporary culture, other than being primitively 'minimal'. Comparing artistic expression from antiquity to modernity, one sees gradual increases of complexity with technological breakthroughs, that are then railed against and simplified. In all of these reductions there was an elimination of the theoretical--that you didn't need formal training to be an artist. This is exactly where modern culture is today; anyone can call themselves an artist. Technology has made production so easy without lifting a paintbrush, pencil or strumming a chord on a guitar. In fact, even the use of those tools is considered old-hat, when the easier option is to use the readymade products those tools already created. Technique assumes years of practice and study, and why do it when all the studying is already pre-packaged and ready to use?

Since the advent of digital cameras, for example, the number of photographers has grown exponentially, and will continue. Warhol had this completely right and he proved it by using repetition as a creative strategy: Photographs of today have in a sense become the soup cans and Brillo boxes of the 1960s. To this day Warhol is still accused in some circles of creating art in bad faith, now completely debunked by the neo-ironic work of Banksy. It's the bad faith that means everything. It's all about attacking hegemonic societal forces and making the work literally right on the street. Again, craft and aesthetics, even 60s-era ironicism are dead.

The minimal works of the late 1960s had no agenda, nor was it necessary to state it. In some cases minimalism was a refuge when nothing else seemed to work or resonate with the way the world was.

The 1970s were still rapt with the look of minimalism, a style that was appropriated (or used conveniently) for wall paper or fabric designs. But if something looks decorative, it is very likely that it will be used as a decoration at some point. This Bridget Riley painting from the early 1970s represents a common style from that era: wavy, curvy with rounded edges, that one might still see on textiles or used in graphic design as a background or border to make otherwise banal designs more visually appealing.

Bridget Riley, Coloured Greys III (1972)

Sol LeWitt, Two Open Modular Cubes/Half-Off (1972)

None of these pieces had any kind of agenda per se in contemporary culture generally, although many minimalist works in the 70s conveniently piggy-backed on the environmental movement, as did pop music in some respects, and became the visual analog of the new movement. It is similar to what is happening now with the "green" movement.

Kind of Blues

Conceivably the blues could be seen as a type of minimalist music, albeit in a simple folk tradition, not a product of modernity per se. Given that blues has become the foundation of so much pop music, this connection is not so far-fetched. Blues is an echt-American art form regardless of its global ancestry, and perhaps Mondrian.

Blues is in a sense the "love child" of European art movements--conceived in a dalliance of trained and untrained artists on both sides of the Atlantic. Delta blues probably would have been reshaped by European classical music if guitarists were more influenced by classically-trained pianists and organists. A deeper knowledge of functional harmony for example would have pulled up blues' plagal roots and re-planted them in the authentic harmonic world of jazz. This of course did in fact happen in many cases, and popular music became more complex and sophisticated in the process.

Cream is an example of a band that fused Clapton's affinity for blues with the jazz influences of Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Cream was certainly not minimalist, but one leg of that three-legged stool was--via Clapton and delta blues. There were lots of these genre experiments in the 60s when the influence of all kinds of world musics were being experimented with, and coming to critical mass with mid-70s art-rock.

Having grown up with art-rock (as it was then labeled) as a young musician, I should come to its defense. Before 1980, music technique was still an extremely valued skill, and attending a conservatory was still something worth doing: There was a robust music industry, and many musicians, session players, arrangers and so on made a very nice living. The music industry was firmly incentivized by demand for good music, as it was not free. One would typically not buy an album that had one or two good songs.

When Mondrian first came to America in 1940, he depicted it in Broadway Boogie-Woogie. When Brian Eno first came to New York in 1980 he made a similar work in video that depicted America as he first saw it:


Here is short list of musician/artists that are "connective tissue" between the music and art worlds:

Jack White/The White Stripes:

"What I was interested in was design, breaking things down to its simplest forms, and was [inspired by furniture design of Gerrit Rietveld ]..."

The White Stripes, De Stijl (2000)

White's approach to simplicity belied the simplicity and power of the blues, which he also used as one of his primary creative impulses.

The interesting transect of blues and minimalism is that they are not completely American and are in many ways inextricable from European influences of minimalism such as De Stijl or the constructivist work of Richard Paul Lohse.

The curious thing about Jack White is that he skips over the African rhythmic elements, that in themselves are anything but simple; and uses only the storytelling aspect of African music.

African music uses intricate rhythms as its storytelling language. American music and art seemed to have done the opposite, although R&B as a sub-genre retained the rhythmic elements, minus the cultural narratives. Once art becomes entertainment, its role in tradition is fundamentally altered. R&B is considered "traditional" American music, but in fact its roots are in African cultural traditions. It seems strange to associate minimalist art with Africa, but it is there subliminally via the redounding effect of Americanization, which has a tendency to simplify and reduce art to basic components or shapes, and make them accessible as "entertainment".

(At a Q&A ahead of Gerhard Richter's retrospective at the Tate Modern on October 4, 2011 he was asked: "Has the role of artist changed over the years?" to which Richter replied: "It’s more entertainment now. We entertain people.")

Brian Eno and Mondrian

Brian Eno loved Mondrian, and was contemporaneously inspired by both Mondrian and Little Richard in the late 1950s, setting off a long chain of events, obliquely resulting in the start of the Ambient movement:

"I was listening to Little Richard at the time. My roots are Little Richard and Mondrian, really. I became really fanatically interested in painting, though I had never seen a real painting except Mondrian's. I was also fanatically listening to rock & roll records. A family friend we called Uncle Stan left us his record collection to look after. It was all music that I had never heard before. Big Band music of the late forties, Jack Teegarden and Ray Coniff; big influence... formative side of Music For Airports." (laughs)

We cannot over-emphasize the importance of Eno as a very strong connector, with his interest in the minimalist procedures of John Cage, Steve Reich and La Monte Young and their art contemporaries Walter De Maria and James Turrell.

Role of Technology

Synthesizers have an innate power to shape music based on their unique qualities and constraints. Synths, MIDI, sequencers and so on redefined what the composer or songwriter did to make music. Before electronics, composers only controlled the piano or the orchestra, and the combinations of sounds it could produce. While there are infinite ways to combine the sounds of individual instruments in an orchestra, synthesizers made it even more infinite, and placed the composer in the role of a chooser of options. By the turning of knobs to control filters, oscillators and envelopes, composers would sample sound possibilities, and write music based on chosen options. Many electronic instruments are aptly referred to as "controllers" that control the selection of sounds, beats and textures.

Quasi-minimalist techniques were used by Pete Townshend on The Who's Who's Next album (1970-71), using the EMS VCS 3 synth through an organ. The song grew organically out of various patterns generated by the synth, generating the basic chord structure played on an acoustic guitar. While Townshend may not have intentionally composed the song in a purely minimal style, the compositional strategy is very much minimal, letting the machine dictate the musical ideas as opposed to everything being generated by the musician. It is very similar to Phillip Glass's Music With Changing Parts, although Glass's work is inherently minimal, whereas Townshend is using it as a compositional subfiguration or "abstraction" of a compositional element. Electronic sounds can never be anything but an abstraction of the sound of an acoustic instrument, regardless of its sample rate.

To abstract or reduce sight and sound to essences is a by-product of modernity, as it is something that we do easily. Complexity is not an end but a means to simplicity. New York must have been a sensory assault for Mondrian in 1940, just as it will be for other artists and musicians that arrive in new places in the future; and will perhaps set in motion other similar revolutions in perception. Technology will compel artists to throw everything at the wall, until it means nothing, at which point there will be a clean break, giving us a break to clean it up and break it down.

Lee Barry
September 16, 2012