Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting.

Attributed to Barnett Newman (sometimes Ad Reinhardt), the above quote alludes to the primacy of painting in modernist art history. Newman suggested that sculpture is visually forgettable, but also that painting’s increasingly large scale demanded more gallery space. Although nowadays sculpture is most often bumped into in order to take a selfie, Newman’s quote still resonates in the contemporary museum’s placement of sculpture.

From readymades to installations, the concept of the sculpture and its relationship to the spaces around it shifted radically in the twentieth century from the object on the pedestal to an engagement with the phenomenological and material world, what Rosalind Krauss called the “expanded field.” Many of minimalism’s forms even literalized Newman’s criticism of physical obstruction  by enlarging sculpture to the scale of architecture.

By placing works on the floor, artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre challenged (or dared) viewers not to trip over or step onto their works. Their works created more of a physical hazard for the gallery-goer than she posed to precious objects on elevated pedestals. In short, minimalist sculpture made the viewer more aware of the physical field of the gallery and less engrossed in the visual. At least, this is what happens when installed in certain gallery spaces. In recent years I have noted the placement of minimalist sculpture in major museums following large renovations or new constructions negates these challenges to the viewer.

Robert Morris, Untitled (L-Beams), 1965 and Tony Smith, Die, 1962 installed on a balcony of the Whitney Museum’s new building in the Meatpacking District in New York City. Photo by Nic Lehoux. Image via

Minimalist sculpture increasingly migrates to atriums, passageways, and balconies–to in-between spaces where museum-goers take physical, mental, and visual breaks from exhibitions in galleries. Rather than dominating white cube gallery space, minimal forms in these new homes become architectural backdrop. They enhance rather than dominate their spaces, becoming visual curiosities for those on the go rather than conceptual jungle gyms for viewers to tackle.

In the Whitney’s balcony space for example [above], Robert Morris’s Untitled (L-Beams) take on the role of furniture, mimicking the style of the minimal bench beyond and enhancing a resting space for viewers to take in the sites of the city and regroup before entering the next floor of the museum. While placing these works in large, airy spaces allows for greater circulation around them (a physical movement Morris cites as central to the work), it diminishes their implicit critique of the gallery space. Indeed, we could even argue that they become architectural embellishments that enhance institutional prestige. Compared to the original installation [below], the forms on the Whitney’s balcony seem less dominating and–paradoxically–more contained in the open air.

Original gallery installation.

In the newly-reopened East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., minimalist sculpture finds itself in another in-between space, the massive open air atrium. Famous for its domineering Calder mobile, this space links various special exhibition and historical galleries, much like the balcony spaces of the Whitney Museum. The artwork in this space is overwhelmingly large (though not site-specific, like Ronald Bladen’s atrium-filling The X, 1967, at the Corcoran), and often breezed by. The sculptural presence seems out of context and filling a void, much like the derided “plop art” that graced agoraphobia-inducing modernist plazas. Even the large-scale abstract paintings, though eye-poppingly colorful, seem decorative in the massive spaces.

Tony Smith, Die, 1962 (foreground and Carl Andre, The Way North, East, South, West (Uncarved Blocks), 1975 (background) installed in the newly renovated East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo by Annie Dell’Aria

Tony Smith’s Die is particularly interesting here. This sculpture (of which there are 4) has lived previous outdoor lives, both in an exhibition in Bryant Park in 1967 and in the artist’s own backyard. To a scale that is (to paraphrase the artist) neither object nor monument, Die stands formidably both inside and outside of the gallery. Nevertheless, the massive open spaces of the Whitney and National Gallery seem to undercut the domineering scale of the work implied by its punning title (Die refers simultaneously to the 6-foot depth of a grave, the roll of a die, and the die-cast process). Our encounter with Smith’s strange monolith becomes hastened in the movement of the atrium and balcony spaces–we breeze past it as we shuffle to see special exhibitions, paintings, and installations.

By looking at sculpture’s transitional presence within museums, can we also come to understand its transitional presence within twentieth century art? These minimalist forms, though rendered inert in their new, airy homes, are hinges to help us understand much of installation art, conceptual art, and even video art.

Or, perhaps, this migration of minimal sculpture to the spaces in-between is yet another example of avant-garde tendencies being tamed by the museum or by the logic of collection. Nevertheless, their situation within these new spaces generates new relationships with viewers that run counter to their traditional reading in art history, making them decorate rather than disrupt the spaces they occupy.