Lucas envisioned a World of Tomorrow dominated by black, white, and gray; hard-edged, massive, and inorganic forms, covered with a salty acne of apparatus. The film’s visual program was a departure from the saucers and occasional capsules writ large that sci-fi audiences had grown accustomed to, but its colorless symmetrical ships should have been recognizable to at least a small portion of its audience — those familiar with contemporary art.
In a 1967 essay on minimalism, Clement Greenberg, America’s most influential critic, could have been describing Star Wars: “Everything is rigorously rectilinear or spherical. Development within a given piece is usually repetition of the same modular shape, which may or may not be varied in size.” Greenberg rejected minimalism as pedestrian. “Minimal works are readable as art,” he wrote, “as almost anything is today, including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.” Perhaps because of its fantastic nature, the Death Star has never been recognized as an essential work of minimalism — but it is one. Its destruction has never been acknowledged as a turning point for modernism — but it was one.
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Thirty years ago, American film audiences pressed low in their seats as a massive white wedge of machine parts passed overhead. With the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars, the smooth, silvery flying saucers that had dominated postwar sci-fi became embarrassing reminders of an obsolete vision of the future.