Brand Minimalism

Buzz Spector and Susanne Ghez, with (on floor) Carl Andre's 144 Pieces of Zinc, 1968, 12 by 12 feet overall. 


Visitors to Chicago’s Renaissance Society in the winter of 1980 encountered a concise exhibition with a provocative thesis. “Objects and Logotypes: Relationships Between Minimalist Art and Corporate Design” was a polemical juxtaposition of two strands of postwar American culture that, at first blush, could hardly seem more opposed. On the walls hung examples of corporate logotypes, the iconic forms that were meant to project, with a single amalgamation of text and image, a coherent identity for sprawling multinationals like the Aluminum Company of America, Chase Manhattan Bank and International Minerals & Chemical Corporation. The Minimalist objects arranged in the gallery included a steel box by Donald Judd, one of Sol LeWitt’s modular aluminum sculptures and a zinc floor piece by Carl Andre.

Installation photographs reveal an undeniable formal connection between the symbols of American capitalism and the artworks championed by progressive critics in the 1960s for their uncompromising aesthetic. Reductive forms, stark geometries and rigidly consistent proportions prevailed across the exhibition. But could it truly be the case that artists ensconced in New York’s SoHo were speaking the same language as the profit-minded creative types of Madison Avenue?

In an essay published in conjunction with the show, curator Buzz Spector argued that the relationship examined in “Objects and Logotypes” was founded on more than coincidental resemblances. Analyzing texts by sympathetic critics of Minimal art along with excerpts from seminal graphic-design studies, Spector located a shared rhetorical foundation undergirding the morphological similarities. References to precise systemic compositions and “all-encompassing” gestalt perception echo through a series of essays, from art historian William C. Agee’s comments on Judd’s sculpture to a treatise by designer Lester Beall to artist Robert Morris’s writing about his own work.

In Spector’s account, corporate identity programs and Minimal sculpture are both strong “reflectors of social values,” even though the artists and designers may have radically different attitudes toward those values. The nuanced relationship he posited between Minimal artists and the surrounding corporate culture was founded neither on gestures of ironic appropriation nor on an explicitly antagonistic position. Instead, the visual and material imprints of corporations were, in Spector’s view, inescapable conditions of aesthetic discourse in mid-20th century America. Having been exposed to the “ubiquitous presence . . . of the CBS ‘eye,’ IBM’s girder-like initials [and] the pristine mechanics of Alcoa’s ‘A,'” Spector wrote, Minimal artists “assimilated the hard-core message of the successful logotype.”

If branding strategies have become only more ubiquitous—though softer around the edges—in recent years, Spector’s project can be taken as a prescient model for understanding the complex, often shifting relationship between art and corporate culture. In that spirit, A.i.A. asked Spector, now dean of the college of art in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, to revisit his 1980 exhibition in conversation with art historian Alex Kitnick. —William S. Smith

ALEX KITNICK  What was the impetus behind “Objects and Logotypes”? What inspired you to take on this project?

BUZZ SPECTOR  I was still a grad student in the MFA program at the University of Chicago when I first broached to Richard Shiff, who was then a member of the art history faculty there, the idea of writing about connections I saw between the protocols of Minimalism and those of corporate design logotype usage. Shiff was one of three faculty advisors on the essay, which was part of my MFA thesis paper in 1978, and it was Richard who brought the manuscript to Susanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society, encouraging her to let me put together an exhibition.

KITNICK  Would you say that it came out of your own artistic practice? Was Minimalism something artists were working through—or struggling with—at that point?

SPECTOR  In my case, the correlation I saw came out of my background as a graphic designer. I studied design as well as art as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale [1966-72]. The design program at SIU was less about graphic design, however, than about design as a category of visual philosophy. Buckminster Fuller was the intellectual center of that program, and he characterized our study as “comprehensive anticipatory design science.” Fuller’s model was to look for connections across disciplinary boundaries, a unique way of thinking about things at the time.

KITNICK  Was this particular connection—pegging Minimalism to corporate design-made in a spirit of critique, or were you rather trying to identify something like a Kunstwollen? Dan Graham, of course, had thought through similar connections in works such as the photos-and-text project “Homes for America” [1966-67]. It’s interesting, too, that Graham had a show at the Renaissance Society a year after yours.

SPECTOR  The comparison I drew wasn’t simply morphological but attitudinal. I worked as a graphic designer for a few years in the interval between undergraduate and graduate school, and among the resources I encountered in the several design studios where I was employed was the TRADEMARKS/USA folio I mention in my essay. The discursive language used by many of the designers included in this exhibition catalogue [1964, National Design Center, Chicago] showed concerns with space and presence that parallel those of the Minimalist artists.

Another step toward realizing the import of this connection was a freelance design project I worked on in 1974-75, the “Anti-Object Art” issue of TriQuarterly, Northwestern University’s literary magazine. “Anti-Object Art” was guest-edited by John Perreault and included contributions from many of Conceptualism’s and Minimalism’s key figures, including Daniel Buren, with whom I corresponded about the technical specs for his stripes, to be printed in such and such a PMS color at such and such a registration on the pages. I even sent paper samples to him in Paris so that he could color test the green ink he wanted for his pages. Joseph Beuys, Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Adrian Piper, Les Levine, Marjorie Strider and Ira Joel Haber were among the other contributors.

KITNICK  I agree that there might be morphological and “attitudinal” similarities—I’m taking that term to refer to something like a working style—between Minimal artists and corporate designers, but what about the experiential differences between their outputs? Obviously one’s spatial encounter with a Donald Judd sculpture is going to be rather different from one’s engagement with the International Paper Company logo, no?

SPECTOR  Yes, the spatial encounter is different, but not disconnected from the control of surfaces within which logotypes—or any other symbolic array—operate. When I assessed Judd’s wall works (remember, Judd’s Chinati Foundation was not yet public) by referencing his installation protocols, I found a striking similarity to the ways in which the designers I was familiar with also managed spatial configurations of exterior wall-mounted or even freestanding signage, in addition to where the logo was to be printed on corporate letterhead.

KITNICK  I’ve always wondered why Frank Stella was not included in the exhibition. For me, the deductive structures that gave shape to many of his 1960s paintings often approach the status of a corporate logo. Abstraction tilts over into iconography. I think the old logo for Central Parking Systems actually is a Stella painting, or at least could have been.

SPECTOR I did think about Stella as I was writing. There was a large Stella “protractor” painting in the lobby of the University of Chicago’s Smart Gallery at the time, and I eventually decided that Stella’s use of color was unbounded and irrational, not in tune with the aspiration to total control that I saw in the other artists I was considering.

KITNICK  Well, his earlier paintings, perhaps the “Aluminum” series, would have made more sense. In the end, were you trying to argue that designers were artists, or that artists were designers, or rather something in between: that a similar logic had taken over both camps?

SPECTOR  The “Aluminum” paintings would have been right for the project, but I hadn’t then seen them in person. In any case, the connections I was concerned with weren’t about practical issues of artists and designers behaving similarly but about the ways in which spatial, structural and attitudinal expressions were being employed toward strikingly oppositional ideological ends.

KITNICK  So you were trying to mark a difference between these two worlds? The show wasn’t about a conceptual melding?

SPECTOR  You say it well when you point out a similar logic, but what words embody that logic? I saw the desire for total control of the object, or logotype, in physical space as soliciting a certain subliminal assurance in the consciousness of viewers.

KITNICK  It’s a provocative and somewhat eerie thesis. Minimalism was often thought to radically open out onto real space, but here you suggest that it also incorporated some of the logic of the “real world.” Can you say something about the reaction to the show? What did people make of it? To be honest, I was slightly surprised that you were able to secure the loans for the artworks. I wouldn’t imagine that many of the artists were on board with your reading.

SPECTOR  My friends were quite divided over the project; some felt that I was somehow accusing the artists of being corporate sell-outs, while several local designers thought I was championing a somehow superior commercial practice over that of working artists. The loan of works is itself an extraordinary story.

KITNICK  Can you say something about the process?

SPECTOR  I sent copies of my essay to Andre, Judd, LeWitt and Morris. Only Morris responded, and with great hostility. He told Susanne Ghez that he would not permit the loan of his work to the project. Neither would he permit reproduction of his work. It was no coincidence, a short time later, that Castelli Gallery, which represented Morris at the time, suggested to Susanne that this project was such a bad idea that if she went ahead with it the gallery would not lend work to future Renaissance Society shows.


SPECTOR  I don’t know how enthusiastic Susanne may have been about “Objects and Logotypes” before these exchanges, but afterward she was totally determined to make sure I had the best available examples of Minimalist art for the installation. Her efforts were heroic, and the major Andre and LeWitt pieces were in the show because she convinced institutional lenders of the importance of the topic. The smaller Judd wall reliefs were borrowed from Young Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, prompting my longtime friendships with Donald Young and Rhona Hoffman.

KITNICK  Do you continue to think about the relationship between art practice and corporate aesthetics? Today, interest in the corporation seems to be less about the trademark—in a sense, I think that strong, graphic logotypes are much less ubiquitous today—and more about the organization of the corporation, its facelessness, its shifting quality. As an educator, do you see any of this in the work of your students?

SPECTOR  I have continued to think about this sort of value malleability over the years. After “Objects and Logotypes,” I was inclined to view Hans Haacke’s work of the time—especially his corporate quote wall plaques—as evincing similar concerns. John Knight’s logo-oriented concept pieces and, of course, Dan Graham’s installations and texts struck me that way, too. In recent years, I’ve been more and more aware of how a quality of oblique reserve infuses corporate identity programs, with or without a conventional logotype as an associative device. Screen media allow for more fluid and sophisticated forms of branding as well as offering slogans or tunes to attract attention, and the young artists I work with in art school bring lifelong experience of this ideological inscription of space to a wide variety of practices.

KITNICK  Do you have any thoughts on what a sequel might look like today? Would it be an exhibition?

SPECTOR  Artists and designers alike construct symbol systems as energy complexes, not just as configurations in two or three dimensions. If I were to return to this subject as a contemporary curatorial project, I would make more reference to the role photography played in endowing Minimalist works with affect. The installation shots are more visually dynamic than the sculptures themselves in real space. Look at any Carl Andre floor piece in a photograph and its perceived transmogrification from a square into a trapezoid seems much more dramatic than it does in a live encounter, where your perspective is always changing with your position. The photo’s “aerodynamic” effect moves the mind’s eye from elemental matter on the floor toward existential flight in the space of the image.

BUZZ SPECTOR is an artist and professor based in St. Louis.

ALEX KITNICK is an art historian and critic based in New York.