Here are some randomly-chosen phrases used to describe various Wes Mills drawings by critics writing for The New Republic,The New York Times, and Modern Painters:
“In one drawing there are three soft-edged grays moving across the page, each one echoed by a leaf-shaped, roughly overlapping spidery outline. In another drawing seven lines rise upward, merge into one, then drop down, creating a sort of mountainous form. ... Each unique, wispy image is imbued with a weight larger than its very small scale and lightness first suggest. The works vary greatly in their look and feel, but each piece conveys the one-to-one intimacy of a hand-written letter. ... Lines intersect, separate, and then join forces again. A sheaf of lines rises like mountain peaks; other forms crawl like snails. ... [There are] three shaded teardrop-shaped pats in a diagonal trail. ... [and] a horizontal curve peppered with a blizzard of tiny pencil marks.”
Mills, who makes his home in Missoula but is represented by the Joseph Helman Gallery in New York, is called a minimalist. Minimalism is an art form that favors sparseness, economy, precision, reduction, and a kind of purgation, an emptying out of anything lush or expressive. In writing, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Susan Minot are called minimalists. In music, Philip Glass and Steve Reich are among those who carry the title. The later compositions of the Estonia-born Arvo Pärt surely qualify as minimalist. Pärt calls this work tintinnabulation and he describes it this way:
“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”
Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, and Ad Reinhardt are other artists in the minimalist school, if it can be called a school, which is problematic. Minimalism in art is characterized as a reaction against the personal stamp of Abstract Expressionism, but how this reaction happens seems to be, ironically, entirely idiosyncratic. Each artist is a school, perhaps, and they know each other by what they are not.
Nihilism is one of the things that Minimalism is not. A painting might be completely black, but this is not an expression of anything beyond blackness. It is not an obliteration of something implied. “What you see is what you see,” in the words of Frank Stella.
Still – “Black is not as black as all that,” is how Ad Reinhardt speaks of his all-black paintings. These paintings are composed of “several close-valued blacks which require heightened perceptual faculties to perceive” (per the Berkeley Art Museum’s notes on Reinhardt). If this description brings to mind for you the September 24 cover of the New Yorker, forget it. That’s not Minimalism. The apparently uniformly-black cover by Art Spiegelman titled “9/11/01” revealed upon a closer look the one-notch-darker image of the World Trade Center towers—making it the exact opposite of the minimalist art works of Wes Mills, which are described by Jed Perl in March 20, 2000 issue of The New Republic as “delicate, unprepossessing abstract enigmas.”
The New Yorker cover lures us in with its apparent blankness, or maybe obfuscation, and then reveals, dramatically and conclusively, its point. A Wes Mills drawing lures us in ... and in.... and that’s that. The luring is the thing, there’s no point beyond it. But, interestingly, there is drama, and it’s “the tension felt between our need to identify and the ever-evasive quality of the works,” writes Lance Esplund in Modern Painters.
Mills’ work might inspire a kind of anger in some viewers with its seemingly extreme, almost perverse simplicity. (In Mills’ press packet there is one slide that looks scratched, a scratched slide of maybe an all-white canvas. Then you realize that the scratches are the art.) But I would agree with Perl that Mills’ work is not “fly-weight ... hardly-there ... chic, whispery nihilism.” Just how that’s true is beyond my abilities to describe. Perl’s article on Mills, though, gives courage to the novice art-looker, exhorting us to trust our responses.
“Too many people dismiss their intuitions before they see where they lead,” he writes. “I think that the educated public is overwhelmed by the thought of trying to make sense of hints, flashes, ambiguities—but that is a lot of what looking at art is about.”
There are definitely things to say about Mills’ art beyond “it looks like scratches.” In the descriptions given above, there are leaves, spiders, mountains, wisps, letters, sheaves, peaks, trails, blizzards and snails—a lot of items in the sensual world. Mills’ work takes us to “quiet little vistas,” writes Esplund, and they “invite analogies—bones, footprints, the phases of the moon.”
The Mills drawing I’m looking at is a square of soft, uniform, slate-gray with a white rent in the middle of it, or call it a splotch, but somehow it seems to be an opening in the gray, not a superimposition. There’s a pencil line softly laid over the white and it is hair-thin; in fact, I tried to brush it off. This one line might be akin to Part’s one note, or silent beat, or moment of silence. The drawing in its entirety, called “Bridge,” evokes weather.
“His deliberateness,” writes Perl, “can make a gallery goer look deliberately.” To really see Mills’ work, I think it needs to be looked at in an exhibit, hung, lit, and presented as something to be seen, carefully.