In 1968 the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag became the first European museum ever to hold an exhibition of Minimal Art, a new American movement based on the use of simple geometrical shapes. The exhibition featured large sculptures designed by American artists like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd but generally constructed by the museum carpenters. These artists thought that the idea behind the artwork was the most important thing. Its execution could be left to someone else. This constituted a radical break with the past and a direct attack on the centuries-old belief in the artist as an individual genius. At the show in The Hague, the ‘minimalists’ exhibited a cool, impersonal kind of art with no external references or symbolic meaning. Over the next few months, the Berlage Cabinet will contain a display of works on paper by these iconic artists.
The exhibits show that the work of the minimalists was by no means confined to sterile geometric abstractionism. They include Sol Lewitt’s carefully documented tears in sheets of paper, a typewriter poem by Carl Andre and examples of work by Lawrence Weiner, in which the execution of the idea is not necessarily essential and where language assumes the functions of sculpture.
Right from the start, the term ‘Minimal Art’ was controversial. Various artists objected to it because they felt it did not cover the work they were doing. The term may indeed have been too limited but it did reflect a collective attempt to use a process of reduction to get at what was essential in art. That was the foundation on which the artists concerned built a new kind of art and made themselves a major source of inspiration for later generations. Because the movement viewed the idea as the artwork and acknowledged the possibility than someone other than the artist could execute it, Minimal Art was to become one of the taproots of Conceptual Art.
The Minimal Art exhibition of 1968 was put together by Enno Develing (1933-1999). As a research assistant at the museum, Develing took a keen professional interest in the movement and brought a number of its exponents to The Hague. They included Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt. The Minimal Art exhibition was followed in 1969 and 1970 by solo shows by Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, with whom Develing was personally friendly. The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag was an obvious place to exhibit Minimal Art. After all, the minimalists were working in the tradition of twentieth-century geometrical abstractionism established by Mondrian and their work formed a perfect complement to the architecture of Berlage. It was not for nothing that Sol Lewitt felt that the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag was the finest museum building in the world.