The work of German artist, Astrid Stöppel, is referred to as “minimalism”—art that makes its statement in the briefest of terms, makes it clear and concise, and leaves the viewer stupefied with the lingering question, “Did I understand that or am I missing something?” It’s really no small wonder that one would regard her art this way. The answer is, “Yes you understood it just fine, and yes, you’re missing a great deal; that’s the point.” Minimalism is about economy of tools. Minimalist poetry uses an economy of words to express an idea, but often leaves the reader with the same question as Stöppel’s art does a viewer. Minimalist music employs brief musical phrases or motifs that are repeated with gradual changes, and I’ve seen many an educated listener shaking his head with perplexity. Minimalist art began as primarily a movement in sculpture using geometric forms, the idea being that the art changes depending on the viewer’s physical perspective, and it focused on that “alteration” component. In the realm of two-dimensional art, minimalism is quite a different creature indeed, and it is a topic for protracted discussion, and before I get into discussing some of its key features, let me make it clear that Astrid Stöppel has proved herself to be a master of the genre.
So, what exactly is minimalism as the term is applied to two-dimensional art? I could easily launch into an historical perspective, reactions to other movements, political statements and competitive artistic tensions, but such a perspective doesn’t really apply to Stöppel’s use of minimalism for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that she is a German artist, and the history of minimalism has its roots primarily in North America. Beyond that, though, the movement has evolved since its inception, so, artistically, the origins don’t necessarily apply. To understand minimalism as a general concept that would include its origins and all artists including Stöppel, we need to examine the concept from two different vantage points.
First, the clinical perspective from the basics of art appreciation: specifically, we need to understand what are the fundamentals—the “building blocks”—of art. It is my intention, in the next few weeks, to write an article discussing these “building blocks” in detail, so, for now, I will give just an overview.
The first building block of art is “line.” If you’ve ever tried to draw a stick man, then you are already acquainted with the idea of “line.” Put simply, it’s difficult to draw anything without the use of drawing a line.
“Shape.” In its simplest form, “shape” is a closed line creating any configuration, geometric or not. “Shape” is used primarily to express length and width in art.
“Form.” A “form” is the illusion of a three-dimensional object on the two-dimensional surface of a canvas, and it is used to illustrate length, width and, above all, depth.
“Space.” NOT the final frontier, but rather, the area that is made between forms. Often forms are themselves referred to as positive space in contrast to the area between forms, which is called negative space, but it is best for its ease to think of “form” and “space” as two different things altogether.
“Colour.” It’s hard to think of “colour” as a tool for creating art. It’s very much the counter part of words in poetry. As you wouldn’t really have poetry without words, so you wouldn’t really have art without colour in some form, for, even if a painting is rendered in grayscale, it can still be said that there is colour in the use of shades of gray. Even so, “colour” is a necessary tool in art even as words are necessary tools in poetry.
“Texture.” In order to differentiate between two different surfaces in a painting, “colour” is often not enough. The artist needs to suggest to the viewer a difference that he or she believes can be felt—the illusion of varying consistencies, illusions of tactile variations that are perceived visually. The viewer, however, should be convinced that, were he or she to touch the paint, the surface would feel different from one surface to the another.
“Rhythm.” The skillful placement and repetition of components that lead the viewer’s eye to jump rapidly or glide smoothly from one to the next is “rhythm.” It is often used to suggest motion across a canvas or within an area of space.
So these seven items comprise the contents of an artist’s tool box, all of which are needed for most movements in two-dimensional art starting as early as Egyptian art. Now, imagine that you wanted to build a house, but you wanted to prove that a house could be built and be safe and be dry inside even if you were to limit the tools that you were going to use. For materials, you would use wood and glass only. For construction, you would limit yourself to hammer and nails, and a saw. Ask yourself, “Can it be done?” Well, of course it can. Will the house look different from other houses? Yes. Will it be harder to build than other houses? Most assuredly. Will I be criticized for making the attempt? Indubitably. Will it be a note-worthy achievement? Absolutely. And this is precisely the goal of the minimalist artist: create works of art with a limited number of tools for the artist’s tool box. Abandon, for example, the use of shape and form and space and texture and use only line, colour and rhythm. What can you achieve with that? This is the essence of minimalism, and Astrid Stöppel is among the movement’s finest presenters.
(I must point out that, philosophically, my description of minimalism contradicts, in some ways, what minimal artists said about the form. They wanted to do away with the virtuosic expression of the pigments and the poetic portrayal of story. Draw no attention whatsoever to the artist through the art. They wanted to do away with actual “achievement” almost to the point of removing the art from art altogether. These were the goals as originally stated, but, let’s face it, it’s hard to achieve those goals without “achieving” those goals, and so, I am merely looking for a way to express what minimalism appears to be, rather than what those who originated it wanted, to be more descriptive than prescriptive.)
Further below are a number of Stöppel’s works for you to view in light of this information. I will discuss some of them in detail near the end of this article. For now, let’s move on to the aesthetic perspective of minimalism and see how that applies to Stöppel’s art.
Imagine for a moment that you and I are walking through a forest in mid October just as the leaves are in their peak of beauty for the season. The air is cool and comfortable with a gentle breeze that ambles through the leaves creating a calming sound reminiscent of waves on the beach. The sun is shining brightly with very few clouds drifting above, and we are both in high spirits. You breathe in deeply and hold for a moment before releasing with a deeply satisfied sigh, and you claim, “Ah, I love that aroma! I wish I could bottle it and bring it home with me! Just that marvelous scent without all the debris that creates it, just that delightful fragrance. Wouldn’t that be great?!”
And I respond dryly, “You can take it home with you. It’s called air freshener.”
Moments later we stop in a glade and look out over a lake and see the multi-coloured deciduous trees with a variety of yellows, oranges and reds, combined with the rich blue of the sky and lake, and the deep greens of the various coniferous trees in the mix. We stand together several minutes gazing at the colours, how they mix and combine and accentuate each other and compliment each other. We notice that the yellows spread through the greens in almost a straight line, that the oranges and reds create intriguing patterns, and in the whole there is a sweeping sense of rhythm causing our eyes to swim over and over the scene again and again, and you say, “Ah, I love those colours! I wish I could bring them home with me! Just those wonderful colours without the trees and the leaves, just those delightful colours. Wouldn’t that be great?!”
And I respond dryly, “You can take them home with you. It’s called minimalism.”
Minimalism is the result of the artistic form of “the pick of the litter,” “the collected favourites,” the crème de la crème.” But, of course, someone will always suggest, “The upper crust without the centre of the loaf is never as good,” to which I would counter, “Ah, but it is the crust, not the centre of the loaf, that determines the loaf’s quality.” I don’t mean to suggest that on its own minimalism is that upper crust; that is not for me to determine. What I say is that the artist who creates minimalism uses only the upper crust—his or her favourite tools from the tool box—to create art. Minimalism is like the preservation of that favoured, savoured scent for the benefit of a more pleasant living space; it is visual air freshener.
In the world of Astrid Stöppel, minimalist art is created using primarily “line” and “colour.” Sometimes she’ll throw in “shape.” “Rhythm” becomes present almost by default in her work, not as one of her tools, but as the result of her application of the other elements. Her work is primarily two-dimensional both in the medium and in its appearance, and yet, because of her use of layering of colours, which, in my experience, is very rare in minimalism, there is still the very subtle sense of depth—an uncanny achievement on Stöppel’s part. Look carefully at the one called “Series of Colourful Circles.” Just let your eyes skim over the work and see if they don’t light anywhere. I’ll bet they do, and I’ll bet that it’s the same spot where my eyes seem to be drawn.
There are movements in art whose time seems to have come and gone. Consider the movement known as “De Stijl” (de schteel, meaning “the style” in Dutch), an early 20th -century movement that is still thought of highly, but you’d be hard-put to find an artist today who is perpetuating it. Minimalism, however, is a movement that will not be moved; it is here to stay, and yet, thanks to the minds and talents of people like Astrid Stöppel, even something as seemingly limited as minimalism is, can continue to evolve into a celebrated form. We need minimalism. When you consider the ever-increasing complexity of life in the world we have made for ourselves, Henry David Thoreau’s cry for “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” becomes an equally ever-increasing necessity to balance it. Minimalism is one way to achieve just that, to bring the emotional impact of the finest components of life to the forefront without the clutter that normally accompanies it, and Astrid Stöppel, is one of its greatest creators.
Click an image to see the full-screen slides. Also see below about the article’s writer.
About the Writer
A. J. Mittendorf does not have a degree in art, but he does have equal credits—perhaps more in art history, appreciation and interpretation, and he has continued to study art on his own since the end of his university days. He is a long-time educator, having taught high school and university courses in both Canada and the U. S. He is also a poet, an actor, and a musician with symphony experience. The arts are his passion, and he longs to keep all of them in the forefront of our society.