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The history of minimalism in Australia has yet to be written. Minimalism "arrived" late to Australia and never fulfilled what has generally been regarded as its early promise. However, the re-emergence of minimalism in Australia in the late 1980s could be said to involve a genuine reinvestigation of what was otherwise a stunted genre, one which was never truly understood and met an untimely and premature demise at the hands of a host of fashionable styles which overtook it.
The rearticulation of a minimalist art with strong formalist leanings may also be seen outside of the 'provincialism problem'; as not involving a process whereby Australian artists openly and slavishly imitate initiatives from perceived cultural and artistic centres elsewhere. While not denying its sources or origins, this reinvestigation surely avoids any allegation that it is merely derivative and an effect of cultural retardation. Rather, it may be viewed as fresh and rigourous, as an exploration of formalist concerns taken up by younger artists who appear to reflect a new maturity in Australian art.
At the forefront of this "movement" is Scott Redford, whose recent show at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art (IMA) deserves particular recognition for its multi-faceted yet essentially simple form. This large-scaled floor work comprised twenty-six sheets of silver/blue steel which were welded together in a wall to wall grid and which engaged the language and history of formalist art. While the piece superficially recalled the work of Richard Serra, it did not imply the same heaviness and volume so evident in Serra's works. On the contrary, there was a lightness about Redford's floor piece. The viewer was invited to walk over the surface of this work and, in so doing, to experience the uneasy feeling of steel as it crackled, creaked and buckled under foot. The work drew upon Carl Andre 's checkerboard floor pieces of the late 1960s where the spectator was encouraged to stand on the works to experience their materiality and to sense the space they occupied. In Redford 's case one could not avoid thinking that this also involved a not so subtle critique of the institution and art's privileged and precious status. While this may have been a concern of early minimalism, Redford takes the point to extremes by effectively inviting the spectator to trample upon and potentially "damage" this less resilient object.
The privileged status of the art work was even further eroded by the artist's conscious decision to leave the IMA Administrator's desk and filing cabinets in their usual location, effectively positioned on top of the work. Had the installation covered the entire floor space, Redford would have gone further in subverting the object's status, however he quite deliberately left a metre-wide gap at the window end of the gallery in order to "frame" the work- to remind the viewer that this object referred to painting and could not be viewed simply as "wall to wall" carpet. Nevertheless, the artist's subversive intent ultimately triumphed when one recognised that this floor piece was truly site-specific not capable of being moved once installed), and that at the end of the exhibition it had to be physically cut up and destroyed so as to restore the space to its previous condition.
Redford refers to all of his art works as "paintings"1 in the sense that they address the practice of painting. Whether a sumptuous black construction or a minimalist steel floor piece, all his work deals with the problems and concerns of painting. That he gives all of these objects the status of "paintings" is partly an ironic acknowledgement that in order to be a successful artist in Australia one must be considered, first and foremost, a painter. This point is firmly taken up in the floor installation – its flatness implying a critique of Australia's art history as being a flat history and referring to the art museum bias towards painting rather than the three dimensional 2. In this context, the title of the work may be said to address the way painting and art history are constructed by, and manipulated within, the art museum system.
Another possible reading of the work's title and its flatness would be in terms of a reassertion by Redford of his formalist position. He has, from the beginning, claimed to be a formalist, denying meaning for his work despite the fact that it is usually loaded with signs and can be read metaphorically. This piece certainly revealed a formal simplicity and elegance that belied its industrially fabricated elements. At the heart of this simplicity was the grided structure and the associated changes in the tone and complexion of the metal, changes which were a chance result of the welding process. The grid, of course, clearly alludes to the act of painting while the welded joins between the steel sheets, on close inspection, suggested a certain gestural process and brought to mind Barnett Newman's painterly zips. And, not unlike the "white" paintings of Robert Hunter, this work demanded a sort of quiet contemplation, one's perception of it altering according to subtle shifts of both natural and artificial light.
1. Michele Helmrich "The Gloss and Veil: A Sublime Wasting in the Black 'Paintings' of Scott Redford", Eyeline # 4, 1988.
2. A point initially made by Bob Lingard & Peter Cripps in "Flattening Australian Art History?" E3 Catalogue Essay, ACCA 1988, and later reinforced by Redford in conversation with Ashley Crawford in "Scott Redford : Avant Garde or Mudguard?", Tension 14, 1988.