The Language of Less (Then and Now) at the Chicago MCA has all the strengths and pitfalls of a greatest hits album. In the first three rooms, about 1,200 square feet each, you get a taste of everything: Donald Judd's boxes, Sol Lewitt's squares, Frank Stella's stripes, and works by Blinky Palermo in cloth, Richard Serra in lead, and Martin Puryear in wood. Most of the titles in the show are worth at least a page in an art history book, and the fact that I wasn't seeing them for the first time did nothing to lessen the thrill. Standing on top of one of Carl Andre's checkered metal sculptures, I took a photo of my own shoes, which should come in handy if I ever need to convince an NYU freshman that I'm thoughtful and cultured. Visitors get a well-balanced primer on Minimalism and Post-Minimalism with no glaring omissions or gaps. I recommend seeing it.
In the next three rooms are works by five latter-day artists: Leonor Antunes, Carol Bove, Jason Dodge, Gedi Sibony, and Oscar Tuazon. It's hard to say anything general about this part of the exhibition because I honestly couldn't figure out what they really have in common besides their ostensibly having an ancestry in the earlier set of rooms. There was a web of hanging leather straps by Leonor Antunes, misshapen pieces of construction site detritus by Oscar Tuazon, and a work of stacked sheets of cloth by Jason Dodge, 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.”
The art history references in Dodge's work are easy to find: the long title describing the making of the piece has a Conceptualist arc, and its sparing use of common materials recalls Arte Povera. The sculpture is a streamlined blue rectangular prism that could not have made without some knowledge of Donald Judd. Dodge's is a sophisticated, erudite work of art, but I couldn't really say why it belongs in the show. The five people in the contemporary portion certainly aren't the only ones currently making work that shows formal connections to the Minimalist legacy. I would have liked it if the curator had done more to show about how artists working today have core concerns that are different than they were half a century ago.
Instead, the rooms feel hasty, and, squared with the earlier half, truly rushed. The MCA isn't huge, and any museum looking to exhibit this kind of a show is going to need to accommodate a lot of big, delicate works of art made by artists with big, delicate egos. While I sympathize with anyone who laments the self-importance with which Serra or Judd went to extreme measures to get viewers to pay attention to them and only them, I've been educated to see Minimalism as a very vital response to one-stop shopping in American culture. It asked viewers to slow down and appreciate the discipline and beauty of the smallest differences in color and shape. I have come to admire these artists very much. Applying the collect-them-all treatment to their work in a compact, one-floor exhibition feels unfaithful.
This is an exhibition that begs comparison to Mass MoCA, where the walls in three floors of the museum will be occupied with paintings by Sol Lewitt until 2033. There, the works talk to you — immerse you — in a way that isn't possible in a less severe setting. Like any greatest hits album, The Language of Less aims to please, and it usually does. But it will never succeed in satisfying a true fan.