“The Language of Less: Then and Now,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Dan Flavin (American, 1933–96), Untitled (for you, Leo, in long respect and affection) 3, 1978

Collection-based shows are always problematic because, to an even greater extent than in other exhibitions, the story they tell is limited and skewed by the parameters of a single institution’s holdings. However, every exhibition narrative is necessarily biased, and the particular kind of limitation intrinsic to the collection show is at least upfront and obvious.

In some instances, these limits can in fact create a useful lens through which to disrupt more familiar stories of an idea or time period. In the case of The Language of Less: Then and Now, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the all-too-pat historical understanding of “Minimalism” as a masculine, New York-based movement is troubled by the exhibition’s more global and gender-balanced approach.At the same time, both the objects on display and the labels or wall texts accompanying them provide a clear introduction to the ideas behind the push towards simplified forms in the 1960s and beyond that is still broadly referred to as Minimalism. The exhibition (which is split into larger and smaller halves of historical and recent art) therefore offers fertile ground for the thoughts of those already familiar with the history of contemporary art as well as anyone looking for a means of developing an appreciation of Minimalist objects.

Robert Smithson (American, 1938–73), Mirror Stratum, 1966

Smithson―who is perhaps still best remembered for his earthwork project in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty (1970)―is featured prominently in the exhibit with two rarely seen works, Mirror Stratum (above) and an untitled aluminum wall sculpture from the Stenn Family collection. Both pieces exemplify the artist’s interest in the repeated forms which comprise the basis of both natural structures and ancient architecture.

Mirror Stratum, a corner piece consisting of a series of square mirrors stacked in order of decreasing size, is particularly evocative of both the Mayan pyramids and crystalline formations that frequently loomed large in Smithson’s thinking and production. As such, the work exemplifies a kind of Minimalist production based on simple arrangements of repeated, industrially produced objects that manage to poetically suggest a far-reaching range of subject matter.In addition, just as Flavin’s light sculptures (above) command not only the space physically occupied by fluorescent tubing but all of the area filled by their light, Smithson’s stacked mirrors produce a reflected pattern on the wall that extends far above the objects themselves. While this is consistent with a common Minimalist concern with an object’s ability to activate and define the space around it, the effect is also specifically related to what the wall text describes as Smithson’s interest in mirrors as a material that was both “physically present and immaterial, a quality that puts the viewer on heightened alert.”

Foreground: Alan Sonfist (American, b. 1946), Earth Monument to Chicago, 1965–77 [core samples from beneath the city of Chicago ordered according to color and material]. Background, center: Charlotte Posenenske (German, 1930–85), Series DW Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes), 1967.
Posenenske’s cardboard sculpture is actually composed of interchangeable components. The single work can therefore appear in various but limited arrangements depending on the choices made by whoever displays it. The assembled versions represent a collaboration between the artist—who was responsible for the character and number of the individual components—and the past, present, and future installers who determine its overall form.While American Minimalists like Donald Judd also created sculptural compositions based on the arrangement of individual units, these units are typically either identical or mathematically related in size and require installers to follow very particular directions dictated by the artist. They therefore lack the variability and interactivity encouraged by Posenenske’s production.

On wall: Richard Tuttle (American, b. 1941), Purple Octagonal, 1967. On floor: Franz Erhard Walther (German, b. 1939), Netz (Net), 1963.

Walther’s fishing net shares the grid aesthetic of classic Minimalism. However, as a found and interactive object dependent on its placement within a gallery space for its status as art, it also possesses a heightened gestural quality that clearly bridges Conceptualism.

Tuttle also sought an open quality that is lacking in the contemporary production of many of his compatriots working within the Minimalist paradigm. Here, his dyed canvas lacks a clear top or bottom (and front or back) and can be installed anywhere in a room.

Michelle Stuart (American, b. 1938), Turtle Pond, 1974

One commonality shared by many Minimalist artists is a concern with systems, often represented by the repeated forms of the grid. As noted by the exhibition’s curators, Stuart maintains this interest in “vast systems,” but turns instead to concrete models present in nature rather than the rigid, abstracted form of the grid. The complex, varied surface of Turtle Pond is actually a rubbing of soil, yet it suggests any number of subjects, from the pond of its title to the expanse of the universe.

Daniel Buren (French, b. 1938), Zu Unterstreichen (To Underline), 1989

Although To Underline was made in 1989, its origins lie in the 1960s when Buren began making paintings on striped awning. The found structure imposed by the pre-made stripes (a technique initially explored in the late 1950s by Frank Stella in his Black Paintings) helped to create a unity between individual paintings while drawing attention to the dimensions of each canvas.

Foreground: Richard Serra (American, b. 1939), Prop, 1968 [lead antimony]. Background: Bruce Nauman (American, b. 1941), Untitled, 1965 [fiberglass and polyester resin].
 Like many works in the exhibition, both Serra’s and Nauman’s objects traverse the floor and wall, suggesting a merging of painting and sculpture. In juxtaposition with one another, these deceptively simple works also offer evidence of diverging and surprisingly complex personas: Serra’s daring, stiff, austere, carefully calculated, and potentially dangerous installation seems almost aggressively (or perhaps stereotypically) masculine beside Nauman’s colorful and humorous, but also pathetically flaccid and delicate, sculpture.

Carol Bove (American, b. Switzerland, 1971), Polka Dots, 2011 [bronze, steel, concrete, and shells] in front of Harlequin, 2011 [Plexiglas and expanded sheet metal]
Carol Bove (American, b. Switzerland, 1971), Untitled, 2011 [peacock feathers on linen]
Filling the first gallery of the “Now” section of the exhibit, Bove’s objects clearly reflect Minimalism’s fondness for the repeated form of the grid as well as industrial materials and a consciousness of the surrounding space. However, unlike her predecessors, she also often incorporates delicate, natural materials—such as feathers and shells—into her works.

Oscar Tuazon (American, b. 1975; lives and works in France), I gave my name to it, 2010 [steel plate and fluorescent lamps]
Tuazon’s use of fluorescent lights is clearly reminiscent of Flavin’s light sculptures. However, in I gave my name to it, the fluorescents’ placement under a steel plate on the floor both muffles the light produced by the fixtures and creates a tension between the delicacy of the lamps and the weight of the metal. More generally, Tuazon’s production tends to relinquish Minimalism’s concern with pristine form based on industrial production in favor of a rougher, more do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Additionally, The Language of Less compliments the content of the monographic exhibitions currently on view in the museum’s other galleries, including the smaller “MCA DNA” shows dedicated to Gordon Matta-Clark and Dieter Roth, both of whose works from the 1970s are indebted to ideas which had started to percolate the decade before.The introduction to Minimalism outlined in The Language of Less provides a particularly helpful background for the exhibit dedicated to Canada’s Iain Baxter& (b. Iain Baxter, United Kingdom, 1936), whose often humorous objects and installations are clearly rooted in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, many of his works poke fun at the production of his contemporaries or recent predecessors, and so make little sense without a background in other artists of that period.

IT (collaborative name of Baxter, Elaine Hieber, and John Friel), Extended Noland, 1966 [velvet ribbon on fabric]
IT, Pneumatic Judd, 1965 [inflated vinyl]
Iain Baxter&, Television Works, 1999–2006 [Acrylic paint on reclaimed televisions; reclaimed pedestals and reclaimed metal wall brackets]
Baxter&’s oeuvre likewise suggests comparisons with the conceptual production of his compatriot, Ron Terada, whose show Being There is also up until January 15. The integrated nature of the MCA’s exhibitions creates an unusual and somewhat meandering narrative of the last 50 years that nonetheless reaffirms the importance of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their descendants in North America and Europe. The Language of Less is on view through April 15, 2012 (Then) and March 15, 2012 (Now).

Go to http://mcachicago.org/exhibitions/now for a list of the MCA’s current exhibitions and links to their descriptions.

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