Talking about Art

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I was in Chicago visiting my son. We avoided the shopping madness on friday by going to the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art). Their current special exhibit, The Language of Less (Then and Now), is an interesting juxtaposition of minimalism from its early years compared with recent incarnations on the fine arts’ version of the KISS theory. Florid embellishment, Rococo excess and ornamentation was gradually eschewed by modernists starting as early as the late 1800s until the trend culminated in the stark minimalism of the 1960s.

“Less is more.” “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” These quotes, the first attributed to one of three or four people depending on how you define first, and the second to Albert Einstein, but who knows the exact quote, are the philosophical backbones which make minimalism powerful and captivating, yet conversely, creates a dangerous pitfall that much of the art doesn’t merely slip into, but often wallows. Too frequently it falls flat, as in the literally flat work of zinc and lead tiles laying on the floor. The metals are beautiful, and made more so by the contrast of their alternating pattern. But a square of alternating tiles in your bathroom is not art. Putting it on a museum floor doesn’t transform it into something greater.

“. . .but not simpler.” That may be the key denominator separating a successful minimalist piece from one that lays there in the gallery being nothing more than pretty, or doing nothing more than making one ask, What? Or worse yet, not even stirring a question, but letting one walk past with dismissive indifference. An outstanding example of successful minimalism is the painting by Mark Rothko. At first glance it’s simply a panel with two blobs of color floating over a third background color. Boring. But, invest a few more seconds to look below the surface, allowing its richness, subtleties and depth to rise up into one’s awareness. Give it a prolonged moment of contemplation and its blank stillness begins to rumble. Hidden in the apparent void is a complexity that defies words, yet rings as pure as a Tibetan bell. The deceptive simplicity of Rothko’s color field work is refuted by its inner complexity which imparts a fathomless quality. In many ways, it’s analogous to minimalist music that sounds horribly monotonous unless one listens closer. With focussed attention the music will reveal an ever changing color field of sound. Interestingly, his stated goal was “to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.” This goal clearly radiates through his paintings. It is art that works. It communicates. It gets its point across directly, without any extra explanation. No plaque required.

Few of the pieces, then or now, actually spoke with any conviction. Yet the exhibit is highly engaging. When the point of a piece I viewed was lost on me, I’d read the plaque next to it for a brief description about the artist and the piece. In contemporary art settings these snippets never fail to enlighten or amuse. The imagination that goes into writing these synopses is staggering. First, from a linguistic angle, they marry words and ideas that baffle the mind. They’re a miracle of non sequitur mania. Second, the relationship between the words and the art is as disconnected as their logic. You could switch one plaque with the next and never know it.

How do they come up with this stuff? Barring serious psychopathy, the next most obvious cause would be psychotropic drugs. You think I’m joking. I’m not entirely serious, but I wish I were. The real cause is not likely a neurochemical imbalance or a deliberately induced altered state, rather, it’s something much more difficult to explain : art education. It takes a whole pile of obfuscating post-graduate intercourse to learn how to write obscure absurdities with flair and do it with a scholarly flourish only years of intellectual inbreeding can provide. You think I’m joking again. Not really, but I wish I were. However, I am very thankful for those who can write in such a manner. I haven’t had so much fun in an art museum in years.

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