Minimalist art must be seen, not explained


WHAT DO YOU call even less than a little bit? Recently I was reminded of the allure of the ultra-minimal by the work of Bethe Bronson, a master's degree candidate at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

I have written before about my own difficulty coming to terms with the obscure visual language of post-modern art and of my quarrel with the incomprehensible jargon in which so much contemporary art criticism is couched.

It is one of the ironies of contemporary criticism that the movement known as minimalism -- a style characterized by extreme restraint in the use of color and form, and the employment of simple geometrical, often repetitive, motifs -- has inspired some of the most arcane, convoluted commentary ever commited to paper.

Robert Storr, a curator in the Museum of Modern Art's painting and sculpture department, has deplored the kind of post-modern criticism that is so intoxicated with "the joy of jargon" that it drives ordinary people away from new art.

How to talk comprehensibly to people who are not artists or art critics and motivate them to seek out new works is one of the most daunting tasks of arts journalism today.

I can think of no better place to start than at an exhibit like Bronson's, which ran last month at the Institute's Thesis Gallery. could well serve as a kind of primer on post-modern visual language.

Bronson's pieces represent a feminist response to the austere formalism of the (mostly male) minimalists of the 1970s.

That style de-emphasized the importance of content. It assumed that such elements as line, shape, color and form constituted their own self-contained aesthetic vocabulary.

By contrast, the post-modern feminist artists sought to reintroduce the idea of content. To the formal conventions of minimalism, these artists added references to women's physical and emotional experience. By adding these new elements, they hoped to reconnect their works of art to the social, historical and TTC psychological situation of the person who created it.

Bronson's work achieves a similar reunification, but by opposite means. Instead of elaborating the conventions of minimalism with feminist references, she pares down even more.

For example, she has created a series of works called "shrouds." These works consist of pieces of muslin soaked in wine or honey and tacked to a wall with three fasteners in such a way that they suggest various triangular shapes -- a pointer, a crucifix, a woman's pubis.

Bronson attaches the muslins to the wall while they are still wet. ++ Then she allows the fluids they contain to drip down the wall to the floor.

The result, when dry, fossilizes, as it were, the processes of ebb and flow over time that characterize human life and experience.

Another work, titled "Spit Bubble," is a huge enlargement of a photograph of a spit bubble on the lips of the artist's 11-year-old son.

One can see nothing of the boy's face or expression, only the dark orifice of the mouth, which seems hinged open by the translucent fluid. The image suggests both the turbulent womb and the evanescence of creation.

By such economy of means, Bronson manages to achieve stunning effects. This "superminimalism," for want of a better term, works on the principle that if less is more, then even less than that is, paradoxically, greater still.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to convey in words the emotional impact of such works. One has to encounter them, and each person necessarily will engage in a highly personal, wholely unique dialogue with the work during that encounter.

That is why contemporary art really must be seen in order to be understood. To my eye, for example, Bronson's work is a noteworthy evolution of the feminist critique of male-oriented minimalism. But that is not why it speaks to me.

It speaks to me simply because it seems beautiful and true on its own terms. And that, I suspect, is probably all we can or should expect a work of art to do.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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