The Invention of Minimalism

A group of students was standing in front of the Mark Rothko painting taking notes as the museum guide talked about the artist’s life and his inspirations. I would have walked past the crowd had the curator not suddenly dropped one phrase, “As we all know, minimalism in art was invented in the West.” I was admiring Rothko’s use of vermilion red, an intense hue that made me think of Indian kumkum (the crimson powder Hindu women use to draw a mark on their foreheads) and Russian lacquers, when the West claimed Minimalism.

nishapur-bowl

Leaving aside the absurdity of referring to Rothko as a “minimalist”–a label he would have rejected outright, it’s senseless to separate artistic achievements by arbitrary parameters. To see why, one should leave the halls devoted to 20th century art and walk through, say, the expositions usually housed in the Eastern wings. If the museum in question is the Met in New York, then the Department of Islamic Art is where I would take you.

We will walk with nary a glance at the lacy Mughal stone screens and the gilded albums decorated by Ottomans calligraphers–we can return to admire them later–and stop in front of one of my favorite objects in the museum. It’s a white bowl with a black border. The glaze is translucent and the few cracks on its smooth surface only enhance the whiteness of the earthenware. The decoration is as simple as it can be–letters, forming into words.

The bowl comes from Nishapur, a city in northeastern Iran. In the 10th century when a craftsman decorated it, Nishapur was one of the largest cities in the world, numbering around 1.7 million people. Elsewhere, the Chinese were inventing playing cards. The Umayyads at Cordoba Spain declared themselves emirs and set about creating a splendid court to make their archrivals, the Abbasids, envious. In Baghdad, Ibn al-Nadim compiled Kitab al-Fihrist, “an index of the books of all nations, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, which are extant in the Arabic language and script, on every branch of knowledge.” Kyivan Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to his land and ordered the old Slavic gods to be thrown into the Dnieper. The Europeans switched to Arabic numerals. Meanwhile, the artisan in Nishapur threw a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel.

We admire the way the letters frame the edge of the bowl and the striking combination of white and black. It is, I dare say, quite minimalist in its bold shape and design. I won’t proceed to argue that minimalism is an Eastern concept, mostly because I don’t find such divisions interesting, especially when it comes to abstract concepts. People devise artistic solutions in a variety of ways, from the visually complex–the Belgian medieval tapestries–to the strikingly simple–the austere beauty of the wooden sculptures from the same era.

Moreover, people traveled and ideas spread. The East vs West division might be useful to the political propagandists and their epigones, but life, fortunately, is much less neatly ordered. Hokusai, the master behind one of the most renowned images in art, the Great Wave off Kanagawa, was inspired by the European paintings that reached Japan with the opening of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century. In turn, his Great Wave swept over European Art Nouveau and sent ripples through Impressionism and Cubism. Its flotsam continues to surface as the Great Wave decorates mugs and mousepads. Who invented what in that case?

Instead of looking for simple answers, let us once again turn to the white Nishapuri bowl. The reason why the popularity of Nishapur’s wares didn’t last beyond the Middle Ages is that in the 13th century Genghis Han ordered the slaughter of the whole city as a punishment for the murder of his daughter’s husband. The pottery and poetry–the famous Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din known as the Attar (Perfumer) of Nishapur wrote his best work in this cosmopolitan city–were no more. But when the artisan was making our bowl, Nishapur was in its golden age and concerns were more pragmatic. The description on the rim reads,”Planning before work protects you from regret.” It then goes on to wish “good luck and well-being.”

Photography by Bois de Jasmin. The white Nishapuri bowl, an example of the Samanid pottery style, is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 450

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61 Comments

  • spe: The bowl is an exquisite piece of art with a sobering history. Most of us realize the “minimalism” of the West is informed by other cultures – Asia, etc. That’s a strange comment to make with regard to abstract works which lean more intellectual. Modernism tends toward utilitarianism, in my opinion. September 12, 2016 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I agree. Zen Buddhist artists certainly refined some of the principles of minimalism well before the 20th century.

      This white Nishapuri ware is among my favorite ceramics. You see various examples in museums, and it’s so distinctive. September 12, 2016 at 9:54am Reply

  • Iuliana: Thank you, Victoria, this brightened y Monday. And made me want to drop everything and go to the V&A :-). September 12, 2016 at 9:21am Reply

  • Sylviane: Thank you Victoria for this very enriching post. September 12, 2016 at 9:58am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad you liked it, Sylviane. September 12, 2016 at 10:10am Reply

  • Diana: How odd to say minimalism was “invented” in the West — and to label Rothko a “minimalist”! Thank you for your beautifully written description of the Nishapur bowl, and for showing how ideas (artistic, intellectual, religious) inevitably flow from one area into another — East into West, West into East. September 12, 2016 at 10:33am Reply

    • Victoria: Arts–and of course, cuisine–are always much more interesting in places where different ideas can be shared. So, yes, the flows back and forth are fascinating. September 12, 2016 at 2:01pm Reply

  • Sarah: Beautifully understated! September 12, 2016 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: And bold at the same time. September 12, 2016 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Karen A: Kufic script on pottery/porcelain is one of my favorite things! The Freer/Sackler in DC has some beautiful pieces (although the Freer section is closed for renovations right now).

    I have been trying to figure out weaving structures and designs for incorporating Kufic script! The idea of having words or messages within a piece of clothing or utilitarian item fascinates me. Several years ago, I saw the undergarment shirt of one of the sultans and it had prayers of protection stitched in to it.

    Great post, thanks for rekindling some ideas that have been percolating for a while! And also the reminder that art does not just spring up from one region. September 12, 2016 at 1:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: The Samanid pottery (this white and black style) is by far my favorite. It was quite a trendy thing back in the 10th century, and the script they are using is not Kufic, but a more contemporary variety. Nishapur in those centuries when it grew thanks to the Silk Road trade was a hub like New York or London–the fashionistas wanted the latest and most unusual varieties. It’s so interesting to see how it all developed.

      Like you, I love the squat, dramatic heft of the older scripts. I’d love to see a weave using those. September 12, 2016 at 2:08pm Reply

  • Alicia: Rothko is a superb example of expressionism, abstract expressionism, and a powerful one. In the West minimalism opposed abstract expressionism. Your guide had her notes in the wrong order.
    At the moment I am enjoying a fleeting moment of Elena’s minimalism, Osmanthus Y.
    Gorgeous bowl, Victoria. September 12, 2016 at 1:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think Rothko hated all labels, but if he would have called himself anything, it would be an abstract expressionist. And standing in front of his paintings pulsating with colors, it’s hard to see how anyone can call him a minimalist.

      Now, Ellena too disagrees with the minimalist label attached to his work. In a way, I can see why. He uses few materials, yes, but the harmonies and accords he creates with his palettes are quite intricate. Either way, it’s beautiful and memorable. September 12, 2016 at 2:12pm Reply

      • Alicia: I agree, Victoria. Few artists like labels, though, except when they create them. Braque and Picasso were at odds on the matter of who created cubism. Now, when you belong to a school, with a manifesto, it is another matter, such as futurism and surrealism.
        Ellena can do whatever he wants, it seems to me. One always recognizes an Ellena. I admire him very much, although I am rather sore with the poor lasting power of many of them. The man is a master, perhaps not of minimalism, but certainly of ellenism. September 12, 2016 at 6:45pm Reply

        • Victoria: I suppose that Ellena is also rejecting the label, because minimalism in perfumery calls to mind the blandness of the 90s and the CK One trends. It’s a concept that has been overused, and it’s hard to say what it means. I admit that I myself describe Ellena as a minimalist time to time, thinking mostly of the refinement of the Japanese arts he so admires, but well, it’s good to reflect more on these terms. September 13, 2016 at 7:45am Reply

      • Alicia: Unfortunately for artists who dislike labels, it is a matter out of their hands, because art historians do. They group artists in categories, as they do in periods. Historical periodization is arbitrary, but necessary, as are categories of different sort .Mitsouko and Femme and Miss Dior will be grouped together, and separated from Shalimar. That is the fate of works of art in the control of the historians of such art. Rothko is no doubt abstract, but a very personal kind of abstract., and that rare moving peculiarity he has is what the expressionists also had. Thus abstract expressionism suits him well, and we, the book worms, go then, and write a book. September 12, 2016 at 7:19pm Reply

        • Victoria: True. In perfumery, the time and brand still have the upper hand, which is sometimes unfortunate, because it prevents the kind of discussions you’re describing. It’s easier to understand the evolution of perfume history–and of a chypre–if you’re talking about Coty Chypre, Mitsouko and Miss Dior, as opposed to telling a story of Guerlain only. September 13, 2016 at 7:53am Reply

  • Mer: I loved this post! And the bowl. And particularly the inscription. Spoken like a true artisan. September 12, 2016 at 2:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very down to earth and pragmatic, I’d say. September 12, 2016 at 3:37pm Reply

  • Steve L.: Today’s history lesson! Honestly, it had me looking up things I’d never heard of.

    My guess would be that the museum docent was referring to Minimalism with a capital ‘M’. That would make the statement correct, in any event. September 12, 2016 at 3:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Even if it was Minimalism, it still isn’t a “Western invention.” September 12, 2016 at 3:40pm Reply

  • Victor: Culture has a way of hitting the delete button and the refresh button of history simultaneously with interesting results. Islamic calligraphy gets pulled into modernity and the dynamism of abstract expressionism gets misinterpreted as zen, and yet all forms arise from and dissolve into emptiness so who is to really say? September 12, 2016 at 3:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: But is it really emptiness? September 12, 2016 at 3:42pm Reply

  • Annunziata: All your writing is wonderful, substantive and evocative, but I especially loved this. The statement made by the curator was really astonishing! I’m instinctively wary of anything prefaced with ‘as we all know’. My own feeling is that labels and categories are provisional, a way to begin to understand something. The bowl is stunningly beautiful. I’ll make a point of visiting it next time I’m in the Met. — Amy September 12, 2016 at 3:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that it’s in the second room of their Islamic galleries, so you can’t miss it. I’m not sure why they immediately classify this entirely secular bowl as “Islamic”, which would be the same like classifying spoons made in the 10th century Rome as “Christian.”

      Anyway, I completely agree with you. The art history labels are not set in stone, and using them to stake grand claims is misleading at best. September 12, 2016 at 4:01pm Reply

  • Neva: Beautiful post Victoria! I love your writing and the comparison of the cultural acchievements in various parts of the world in the 10th century. And it feels so alive, like a movie script: “meanwhile, the artisan from Nishapur threw a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel”
    The bowl is amazingly beautiful in it’s simplicity and the stylized letters make it very modern. September 12, 2016 at 4:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: I forgot to add that Sei Shonagon started writing her Pillow Book at the end of the 10th century. 🙂

      Thank you, I’m very glad that you liked it. September 13, 2016 at 7:41am Reply

  • Neva: “its” simplicity, of course… September 12, 2016 at 4:04pm Reply

  • April: Wonderful post. Contextualizing this piece into modern terms, craftsmen often say “measure twice, cut once”. This is fabulous. September 12, 2016 at 4:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Such a great saying! September 13, 2016 at 7:41am Reply

  • Qwendy: Minimalism, Simplicity and Zen are terms that have entered the mainstream and are brandished constantly, to my chagrin. Yet it is still surprising that someone working at a Museum should use any one of those terms in reference to a work that isn’t actually part of the movement or culture associated with it!

    That said, I love the bowl, which certainly is not simple, especially when one knows the meaning of the phrase which is not simply written around its edge …… Thank you! September 13, 2016 at 1:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Maybe, it was just a visiting docent or just a guide for the students. I didn’t pay attention to her affiliation. Anyway, I agree with you, the bowl is anything but plain and simple. September 13, 2016 at 7:56am Reply

  • Sylvia: What a lovely piece of writing, so informative & to have it contextualised like that! Shame about the Minimalist reference to Rothko, & I hope that guide wasn’t from the Met, they’re not as reductive. It just goes to show the importance of experience & the value of disseminating information.
    Have you come across Rendez-vous with Art by Philippe de Montebello & Martin Gayford? The former director of the Met & the journalist have a discussion about many artifacts & paintings from galleries around the world. what is so insightful is that Montebello’s favourite piece from the Met, is a fragment of a sculpture, the yellow jasper lips of an Egyptian queen…something I’ve passed by many times…I’m going to look for this & the white Nishapuri bowl on my next visit!
    Most enjoyable! Thanks September 13, 2016 at 3:44am Reply

    • Victoria: I just sent myself a Kindle sample of Rendez-vous with Art. I heard of Philippe de Montebello in my years of being the Met member, but I look forward to reading his conversations combined in one book. Whenever someone is able to reveal the beauty in the objects one didn’t notice before, it’s such a gift. Thank you very much for the recommendation.

      There is also a splendid Persian incense burner in the same wing. It’s shaped like a lion! September 13, 2016 at 8:01am Reply

  • Sylvia: Oh I so hope I can get to the Met this year…fingers crossed. I enjoy your Persisan references….roses, cooking etc…..its not a part of the world I know.

    I have another recommendation…it’s the History of the World in 100 objects, Neil McGregor offers insightful narratives on glorious & seemingly non decorative artifacts from the British Museum with contributions by designers …its a BBC radio 4 podcast! A great way to spend your time pottering away in the garden! September 13, 2016 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: I love programs like these, so I definitely have to check it out. Thank you.

      Persian cooking is custom designed for perfume lovers, I think! September 13, 2016 at 1:47pm Reply

      • rainboweyes: I was going to recommend it too – a great book! September 16, 2016 at 7:38am Reply

        • Victoria: I already bought it, and you’re right, it’s excellent. September 16, 2016 at 9:29am Reply

  • Karen 5.0: Thank you for the fascinating post! If you have not already read the lovely biography, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal, I highly recommend it. Martin was one of the first Minimalist painters – though she balked at being identified with anyone or anything (often even herself!), and followed Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern thought intensely. September 13, 2016 at 11:06am Reply

  • Karen 5.0: Thank you for the fascinating post! If you have not already read Nancy Princenthals’ excellent biography, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, I highly recommend it. Martin was one of the first Minimalist painters – though she balked at being identified with anything or anyone (often including even herself!). She followed Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern thought intensely. September 13, 2016 at 11:11am Reply

  • maja: At the same time and in the same lace, Omar Khayyam was writing his minimalist but so meaningful rubaiyyat.
    Thank you for a wonderful post. September 13, 2016 at 4:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes! He was also a mathematician, and in Iran more famous for his science work than his poetry. September 14, 2016 at 10:15am Reply

  • Aurora: I totally agree with you, how well you express it Victoria. The bowl is beautiful and I was reminded that my uncle, the painter Mohammed Khadda, was very influenced by calligraphy. One can see one of his large paintings at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris which is well worth a visit. September 14, 2016 at 5:38am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve been to the Institut du Monde Arabe a couple of times, but now I want to return and look for Mr. Khadda’s work. I look online for his paintings, and I was instantly mesmerizing for their power. The combination of abstract art and calligraphy is striking, and it makes me realize that it’s a very interesting, fruitful blend. Arabic calligraphy with its fluid rules and plays with the dots and lines is made for abstraction. Even futurism! I also loved his color palette, earthy and yet refined. Thank you very much for introducing me to another artist to admire. September 14, 2016 at 10:20am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Beautiful indeed, Aurora! Wonderful colours and rhythm in his paintings (i googled).
        Are you talented as well? September 14, 2016 at 11:54am Reply

        • Aurora: Oh, great you had a look at his paintings, and lithographs, no I don’t have talent, but enjoy drawing as a hobby. September 15, 2016 at 5:56am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: One of the best hobbies, Aurora! develops your faculties of observation, sharpens your eye.
            Maybe you are modest? talent runs often in the family. September 15, 2016 at 6:03am Reply

      • Aurora: I should have guessed you were already familiar with the Institut! So glad your wonderful post reminded me of my uncle’s works and that you enjoyed looking at his paintings. September 15, 2016 at 7:56am Reply

        • Victoria: A couple of years ago they had a great exposition of Indian miniatures. But I really need to return and explore more. September 15, 2016 at 8:02am Reply

  • Solanace: Hi Victoria! Thank you for another beautiful article. The Islamic art section at the Louvre was one of my favorites places in Paris. The way meaning and form converge in those writings is mind blowing. Now I’ll keep my eyes opened for Nishapur ceramics – as well as for Indian snake charmers! You are always making my world bigger and more enchanting. September 14, 2016 at 3:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. Yes, the Louvre has a splendid collection. I also love the Asian art at the Musée Guimet, but it has more of the East Asian art focus. September 15, 2016 at 8:06am Reply

  • rainboweyes: This is a truly gorgeous piece of art. I love minimalist ceramics, especially Japanese designs by contemporary artists. September 15, 2016 at 2:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Which are some of your favorite artists? September 16, 2016 at 9:29am Reply

      • rainboweyes: I’m sure I posted my reply here already but somehow it seems to be gone…

        I love Matsui Kosei’s work and I also admire the fragile vessels created by Akio Niisato… September 16, 2016 at 4:05pm Reply

  • Annikky: I don’t know how I missed this post, but I absolutely have to say that since I saw a bowl like this in the museum in Doha, I have been obsessed with 10th century Iranian ceramics. These are some of my favourite objects of all time. Amazing stuff, such elegance and sense of proportion. September 20, 2016 at 8:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I remember the reproduction of the photographs of these ceramics in one of those old Soviet art albums (I guess, from the period when Iran was still a friend of the USSR), and when I came to the US and saw them for the first time, it was such a revelation. The photos, including mine, really don’t do them justice.

      The Met also has some fabulous Persian bowls inspired by the Chinese ceramics, elegant, paired down, lyrical. If a bowl can be described as lyrical, those are it. 🙂 September 20, 2016 at 9:54am Reply

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