The History of Squares and Cubes in American Art
By Elizabeth Mangone, MCMA Curatorial Intern, Summer 2020
Visual artists found many ways to cope with the events of the 20th century. Some, like the Surrealists or Dadaists, made art that reflected the chaos and confusion of war and unrest. Other movements, such as the de Stijl, Bauhaus, or Russian Suprematism, sought to simplify art into geometric shapes and straight lines. It was out of the geometrically focused movements that an interest in squares and cubes developed. These movements originated in Europe for the most part, but as artists migrated to the United States in the interwar and post-war periods they brought their styles with them. These simplifying styles led to the introduction of squares as a primary form in American art, which eventually evolved into an interest in cubes.
Bauhaus is a movement that is especially known for simplifying shapes in the search for the best possible aesthetic. Although most notable for its effect on architecture and handcrafts, a number of painters and sculptors also emerged from the movement. Josef Albers was one of the first Bauhaus artists to immigrate to the United States. In 1950 he began what is probably his best known series, Homage to the Square, in which he painted meticulously arranged, carefully colored squares that sit inside each other as they decrease in size.1 This series became Albers’ life’s work, only ending with his death in 1976. This series is also the first notable occasion of squares as the central focus in a piece of American artwork.
(Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Apparition, Oil on Masonite, 1959)
Minimalism was another movement that focused on simplified forms. Artists from this movement focused on repetition and simple geometric shapes. Tony Smith was an American Minimalist known for geometric sculptures. One of his projects was a series of sculptures, all of which were titled Die. The first sculpture was created in 1962 and the last was made after the artist’s death in 1980.2 The sculptures are 6 x 6 x 6 feet steel cubes fabricated to the artist’s detailed specifications. These measurements were extremely important to Smith, and were based on the proportions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man from 1487.3 Donald Judd was another American Minimalist who created cube sculptures. His series of untitled works commonly included repetitive cubic forms, as can be seen in Untitled, created in 1966.4 These works were meant to defy any attempt at deeper understanding and force the viewer to accept the sculpture at face value. The Minimalist movement helped push simple shapes off the 2D surface and into the 3D world.
Left – Tony Smith, Die, Steel, 1962)
Image Credit – http://www.tonysmithestate.com/artworks/sculpture/die-1962
Right – (Donald Judd, Untitled, Stainless Steel with Amber Acrylic Sheets, 1966)
Image Credit: https://juddfoundation.org/artist/art/
Contemporary artists working with geometric forms have focused on the cube as a vessel for the artist’s mark-making rather than the primary focus of the piece. Matthew Clay Baumgardner was an American artist who worked in many styles, including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. He began a series of cube sculptures in the late 1970s, which he worked on periodically until his death in 2018. Most of the work from the series was created after 2010. The cubes were created by layering a “mud” medium of the artist’s own creation which consisted of powdered pigments mixed into a thick acrylic base. After each layer Baumgardner would incise marks into the piece and allow it to dry. Both the marks seen on the surface and unseen underneath were important to the piece’s meaning.5 With a style similar to Baumgardner, Stuart Arends is another American artist who creates cubic sculptures, which he refers to as boxes. Arends has stated that the reason he gravitated towards boxes was that “the artist’s hand, the artist’s touch has to be [in the piece]”and he felt that two dimensional work didn’t allow for that.6 His boxes are made to intentionally show the artists’ mark on the piece and defy the idea that art is a window to another place. The Marietta Cobb Museum of Art houses a piece by Arends in their Permanent Collection, which can be seen below.
Stuart Arends, Box with White Square, wood, 1987.
MCMA Permanent Collection [1996.003.002]