The Language of Less: Then and Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art

The MCA brings together multiple generations of minimalist artists.

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  • Photograph: � MCA Chicago

    Alan Sonfist, Earth Monument to Chicago, 1965-1977.

  • Photograph: Horace Aand

    Jason Dodge; In L�beck, Germany, Marlies Scholz wove a piece of cloth. She was asked to choose yarn the color of night and equaling the distance (12 km) from the earth to above the weather, 2008.

  • Installation view of work by Leonor Antunes in "The Language of Less (Then and Now)" at the MCA, 2011-12.

  • Jackie Ferrara, Stairway, 1973.

  • Installation view of work by Oscar Tuazon in "The Language of Less (Then and Now)" at the MCA, 2011-12.

  • Photograph: � MCA Chicago

    Richard Serra, Prop (detail), 1968.

  • Installation view of work by Carol Bove in "The Language of Less (Then and Now)" at the MCA, 2011-12.

  • Photograph: Fran�ois Doury

    Franz Erhard Walther, Netz (Net) (detail), 1963.

Photograph: � MCA Chicago

Alan Sonfist, Earth Monument to Chicago, 1965-1977.

Minimalist art often elicits a blank stare and a “so what?” But less is more in this exhibition, which MCA chief curator Michael Darling organized to showcase the museum’s permanent collection alongside temporary, site-specific installations.


Darling says he decided to tackle minimalist art to counter criticisms that it’s “cold” and “inhuman.” “The Language of Less” convinces us that minimalism isn’t too intellectual or unemotional by presenting the breadth of approaches to the movement. The show’s first half, “Then,” revisits the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The second half, “Now,” explores interpretations by five contemporary artists, each about 40 years old.


Ambitious in its scope, “Then” includes 35 artists, ranging from the expected (Donald Judd) to a remarkable number of women, such as Jackie Ferrara, Charlotte Posenenske and Jo Baer, to surprises like Gerhard Richter and Alan Sonfist.


While most minimalist artists use industrial materials, Sonfist assembles his Earth Monument to Chicago (pictured, 1965–77) out of “earth drillings” taken from around the city. He displays these soil samples, which have a seductive tactile quality, on a white platform, arranged by gradations of brown, tan and gray. As scientific tools, core samples reveal what the Earth was like generations ago; Sonfist grounds the viewer—literally and figuratively—in a particular moment in Chicago history. Sonfist does what the best minimalist artists achieve: He executes a concept in the most straightforward and elegant way possible.


Like the older minimalists, the “Now” artists pare their work to its essential elements, but they seem less concerned with industrial materials and craftsmanship than their forebears, and they fuse minimalism with other movements. Jason Dodge’s conceptual installation appears to be full of ordinary household objects. But each item has a title that gives clues to its meaning as well as the process used to create it. A folded blue blanket is titled In Lübeck, Germany, Marlies Scholz wove a piece of cloth. She was asked to choose yarn the color of night and equaling the distance (12 km) from the earth to above the weather (2008).


The titles reflect Dodge’s interest in how science helps us determine our place in the universe. Like so many artists in “The Language of Less,” he communicates in what Darling calls “a restrained quiet diction that invites contemplation of complex ideas.” Will we take the time to slow down and appreciate the (minimal) gesture?


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