The Art of Now: Minimalism and Yoga
Fred Sandback. American, 1943-2003. Untitled. Acrylic yarn.
Atha (now), the very first word of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is not merely a segway into the teachings of yoga. The word atha contains the essential reminder that the practice of yoga brings our attention into the present moment, the eternal now. Not only has my understanding of this simple but powerful concept reverberated into my yoga practice, but it has also helped me fully comprehend the nature of Minimalist art, which I not only study as an art historian, but also take as inspiration for my own artistic practice.
Minimalism was an American movement of the 1960s and 1970s which encompassed an array of creative media: visuals art, music, design, and architecture. Emerging in reaction to its predecessor Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism in the visual arts is best described by artist Frank Stella’s famous statement, “What you see is what you see.” Whereas Abstract Expressionists created uninhibited works full of feeling, metaphor, and autobiography (think Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning), Minimalists purged their art of emotion, allusion and traditional conventions of artistic beauty. For the yogi, this purging of artistic attributes resembles the experience of one’s desire to shed unnecessary possessions, to live with less clutter. Minimalist artists distilled abstraction to its purest, most austere and universal form: only what can be directly seen and experienced without thought.
Agnes Martin. American, born Canada, 1912-2004.
Tremolo, 1962. Ink on paper. Museum of Modern Art, NY.
“Not thinking, planning, scheming is a discipline. Not caring or striving is a discipline … Defeated, you will stand at the door of your house and welcome the unknown, putting behind you all that is known. Defeated, having no place to go you will perhaps wait and be overtaken. As in the night. To penetrate the night is one thing. But to be penetrated by the night, that is to be overtaken.”
- Agnes Martin, Minimalist artist
The intentionally inexpressive works of Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, Fred Sandback, and Anne Truitt may at first appear to be meaningless arrangements of rigid lines and geometric forms – essentially an art of nothing. However through these empty forms, Minimalists re-imagined the way in which viewers should experience art, fundamentally as a contemplative practice. Much of Western art before the 1960s was concerned with conjuring either conceptual thought or emotional responses in viewers through both abstract and naturalistic references to biography, emotions, stories, and symbolism. All of these responses stimulate the viewer on the level of egoic thought. The complete absence of such content in Minimalism, however, created a newfound and radical emphasis on pure presence and experience.
Anne Truitt. American, 1921-2004. Acrylic paint on wood.
The Minimalist art object, whether it is a painting, sculpture, drawing, print, or something in-between, is just that – an object which exists to be seen, its physical presence to be experienced. They are meant to evoke sensory impressions but not thought or associations in the viewers’ minds. Minimalist artist Donald Judd claims that: “It isn’t necessary for a work to have a whole lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate.” (Specific Objects, 1965) Thus providing nothing to interpret conceptually, Minimalist art is utterly reflective. It makes the viewer aware of their own shared presence in the space, bringing their attention into the ever-present moment (atha, now). Just as in yoga, feelings or sensations may arise, but they are not to be analyzed before returning to this direct encounter with what is. For the mindfully present and conscious viewer, encountering such art can be its own rewarding meditative practice, an effective means of cultivating awareness by quieting the mind (citta-vritti-nirodha, ceasing the fluctuations of the mind).
Dan Flavin. American, 1933-1996.
The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham), 1963. Fluorescent lights.
Few scholars have drawn such explicit connections between Minimalist art and yogic practices, except for this brief remark by art historian and critic Barbara Rose: “Like the mystic, in their work these artists deny the ego and the individual personality, seeking to evoke, it would seem, that semihypnotic state of blank consciousness, of … tranquility and anonymity that both Eastern monks and yogis and Western mystics, such as Meister Eckhart and Miguel de Molinos, sought.” (ABC Art, 1965)
The relationship which Minimalist artists had to spiritual traditions is quite diverse. Some, like Agnes Martin and Anne Truitt, created art explicitly as a contemplative, nearly ascetic practice, whereas others’ attitudes remained more ambiguous toward such practices. Even the obstinate empiricist Donald Judd, who contended that his works are not overtly spiritual, stated near the end of his life: “I avoid illusions, things are what they are. But all forms are spiritual … I see it as an awareness which stems from reality — a kind of ‘being.’”
Donald Judd. American, 1928-1994. Untitled, 1968. Brass.
Many people, including critics and other artists of that time as well as today, find Minimalist art difficult and alienating because of its nonreferential, austere, and unemotive nature. It is art that does not ask you to think: it simply is. To fully experience such art objects, the viewer must surrender fully to the present moment. Minimalism’s profound power lies in its ability to invite viewers into the quiet state of being which we similarly seek to cultivate through the practice of yoga.
Julie Warchol is currently enrolled in Karuna’s 200-Hour Teaching Training program. She is an art historian and artist.