Minimalist Art emerged as a powerful force in America in the 1960’s as a response to the heroic, gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism. Artists like Donald Judd, whose work is pictured above, used industrially and mass produced materials to make sparse, simple geometric forms free of elements that would suggest the presence of the hand of the artist. Indeed, many Minimalist works were executed in factories and workshops, with the artist only involved in conceiving the idea and directing its execution. Aluminum, acrylic, concrete, light bulbs, and steel were among the materials used to make sculptures that were reduced to the most simple geometries, often repeated serially through space. Minimalist painting eliminated representational imagery and illusionistic pictorial space in favor of a single unified image, often composed of smaller parts arranged according to a grid. The term minimal is also used to describe dance, music, architecture, poetry and other aesthetic forms pared down to only the most essential elements.
Much of what made Minimalism notable was its use of industrial materials. Minimalist perfumery positions itself against the dominant tendency towards flowers and naturally occurring aromas in favor of industrially produced chemicals. Aldehydes, for example, are what make Chanel No. 5 the powerhouse that it is, allowing the organic ingredients like rose, ylang ylang, and sandalwood to express themselves on the skin in a whole new way. The Molecules series created by Geza Schoen of Escentric Molecules each contain just a single aromatic synthetic molecule. Molecule 01 contains Iso E Super®, the tradmarked name of aromachemical 7-acetyl, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8-octahydro-1,1,6,7-tetramethyl naphthalene. Iso E imparts a woody, resiny odor that creates a soft “skin” smell. There are no flowers, no real resins or woods present. Molecule 02 contains ambroxan, which produces an amber scent, while Molecule 03 contains vetiveryl acetate, a chemical substitute for the scent of the hardy grass known as vetiver.
Escentric Molecules literally went minimal by choosing single aroma chemicals for each of the Molecules fragrances, but there is another class of perfumes that use organic as well as inorganic ingredients to recreate the manmade odors of everyday modern life in stark, linear compositions. Comme des Garçons excels at this formula with the Odeurs series. According to the Comme des Garçons website, Odeur 53 contains notes of “The Freshness of Oxygen, Flaming Rock, Freshly Mowed Grass, Wash Drying in the Wind, Sand Dunes, Pure Air of the High Mountains, Flash of Metal, Nail Polish.” There is a lot of airiness in this fragrance, marked by a cold, hard edge, like stainless steel meeting fabric softener. Odeur 71 contains “Smell of dust on a Hot Light-Bulb, Warm Photocopier Toner, Hot Metal, A Toaster, Freshly Welded Aluminium, The Ink in a Fountain Pen, Fresh Pencil Shavings, Wood and Moss, Bay Leaves and Bamboo, White Pepper, Hyacinth, Lettuce Juice.” These lists of notes read like poetic odes to our age of machines and megacities.
We all want different things from perfumes, but mostly we want to smell pleasing to others and ourselves. These abstract works take perfumery to a different level, redefining and challenging its limits. Natural ingredients are becoming more difficult to find and therefore more expensive. The perfume, beauty and pharmaceutical industries, in their relentless pursuit of exotic plants and animal-based products, are destroying forests and native habitats the world over. Perhaps making perfumes using exclusively synthetic ingredients to tell stories about our 21st century digital and industrialized present would be the only way of saving us from ourselves.