From the Archives: John Ashbery on ‘Primary Structures,’ in 1966

Installation view of “Primary Structures,” 1966, at the Jewish Museum, New York.


In remembrance of the curator Kynaston McShine, who died earlier this week at 82, we’re turning back to the May 1966 issue of ARTnews, which included a short review of “Primary Structures” by John Ashbery. One of McShine’s most notable exhibitions, “Primary Structures” has gone down in art history for sparking an interest in Minimalist sculpture. Ashbery’s review follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Young Masters of Understatement”
By John Ashbery
May 1966

Sol Lewitt’s untitled wood construction, a 6-foot cube, is among the works by British and U.S. sculptors, all characterized by drastic simplicity of means and frequent use of vivid color, grouped under the title “Primary Structures,” at the Jewish Museum, New York [April 17-June 12]. Perhaps the “movement” originated in the work of the late David Smith, whose influence crossed the Atlantic via British sculptor Anthony Caro and his younger disciples like William King and Philip Tucker, then returned here to join forces with more purely conceptual artists: Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre. Like many recent movements in the arts it looks backward as well as forward: the influence of Constructivist monuments like Malevitch’s architectural models, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Schwitters’ Merzbild and the environmental sculptures of Kiesler and Moholy-Nagy is apparent not only in the over-all purity but in the metaphysical nuances which it is supposed to convey and in many cases does. The artists’ work demands “a more total use of our senses,” “allows inventive freedom and intensity of experience beyond the ordinary,” “is an affirmative statement,” “steps into the environment to become another felt presence,” is “an attempt to order in reality the sensations we have of our own physical existence.” The show makes a brilliant case for this hitherto diffuse and largely undocumented school.

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