Maximalism isn’t an academic term, a historical category, or by some accounts, even a real word. But it’s like obscenity, in the famous nondefinition offered by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964: We may not know what it is, exactly, but we know it when we see it. Done right, Maximalism should feel slightly illicit — like something we shouldn’t see or do, but take secret pleasure in all the same.
That’s the vibe at the Institute for Contemporary Art right now, where “Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art and Design” opened on June 26. Hectic, overstuffed, gaudy, and head-spinning, the show may come to define the term rather than the other way around. Maybe it should. “Less Is a Bore” is just the kind of unruly, boundary-flouting brouhaha the art world needs now and then.
Curator Jenelle Porter gives us a gleeful mash-up, mixing big-names with those all but lost to history: There’s a wall drawing by Sol Lewitt, the godfather of Minimalism, super-ego to the Maximalist id, alongside Valerie Jaudon’s “Pantherburn,” a lush canvas of thick and shimmering maroon paint inscribed with curvy patterning, and Jasper Johns’s naturalistic mark-making beside an angular, leopard-spotted sideboard by Ettore Sottsass.
Inserting square-peg outsiders alongside old favorites has become kind of de rigueur in recent years, as cracks in the stay-in-your-lane exclusions of art history widen, and the seepage grows. But “Less Is a Bore” feels like a flood, a burst dam of explosive color and bypassed artists and moments whose category-defying adventures left them on art history’s outs.
Our quest for coherence, especially in the cultural world, has always meant narrowcasting; narratives aren’t narratives if they spread widely instead of sharpening to a point. The exclusions of such points is Porter’s point, I think, a counter-narrative to the shopworn tale.
Categories? “Less Is a Bore” throws them all out the window, whether era, medium, technique, or anything else. The result is an exhibition that looks less like a museum and more like the world: Messy, disjointed, hard to understand, and exultantly glorious.
A little recent art history 101 clarifies the blank being filled: Postwar Abstract Expressionism — Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Still — became a sensation, brimming with rough gesture and outsize angst. An antidote was proposed in the early ’60s Minimalism, which favored heady notions, simple materials, and clean, clean lines (Lewitt built structures from cubes, Carl Andre stacked fire bricks). Minimalism begat conceptualism, whose aim was to dematerialize art itself, as in Lawrence Weiner’s aphoristic wall texts or Bas Jan Ader’s meanderings in the darkness of a Los Angeles night. By the late ’70s, it had spawned its own counter-movement in Neo-Expressionism: big, loud canavases by the likes of Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And so the story goes.
If it seems a thin line to describe what happened over a span of 30 years, you’re right (many of the artists here were part of the Pattern and Decoration movement, itself a response to the dryness of Conceptualism, which you probably haven’t heard of because, until very recently, it’s been little acknowledged). That’s what happens when history gets boiled down to meat from gruel, important and not. But important is all a point of view, as we’re now reminded almost daily, and history isn’t quite so immutable as we like to believe.
“Less Is a Bore” may lean a tad toward the academic — Modernism versus Post-Modernism, essentialism versus the messiness of context — but really, it’s about those exclusions and who gets to choose. Porter’s point-counterpoint between well-known and unknown is just one of the ‘yes, buts’ to be found here, a thorough response to the clean lines most textbooks follow. “Maximalist” isn’t just cheeky (though it’s surely that): It’s an immodest proposal to amend the official list of -isms to include another whose boundaries aren’t so clearly drawn.
It’s no coincidence that many of the works here were never sold (Jaudon’s 1979 piece, a gorgeous deconstruction of the physical pleasure of paint, remains in her personal collection, Porter told me). That’s what happens when transgressors buck the norms, and “Less Is a Bore” has plenty of them.
The mano a mano at its heart draws from architecture — one of the show’s projects is to explode the barriers between art and design, functional aesthetics and not — which pits Mies van der Rohe’s high-Modern “less is more” edict against architect Robert Venturi’s disdain for it (“I am for messy vitality over obvious unity,” he wrote in 1966).
Venturi was the deacon of architecture’s decorative movement, which gave way to Post-Modernism, a high priest of indulgent color and form to Mies’s monastic practice of elegant purity. He’s represented here by, of all things, rolls of his Grandmother wallpaper — floral and pale pink, marked with a repeating three-stroke tag. To make things even less precious, Porter places two of Lucas Samaras’s “Chair Transformations” — curling and vibrant, like living things coated in rainbow confetti — right on top of the unrolled sheets. It makes for a collage of rampant color, form and decor — a collision of the decorative and functional, pushed to an extreme.
Nearby, Robert Kushner’s inky tapestries from 1978 — dark-stained, semiabstract and at least one of them toying with the repetitive floral patterning of industrially made printing — are so thickly colored you’d expect them to be wet to the touch. A few steps away is Joyce Kozloff’s “Tile Wainscott,” more than 20 feet of roughly hand-made panels build in a buffet of references too broad to catalog — I counted Islamic, Japanese, and Azulejo motifs. Close by is a divan made in 1983 by Nathalie Du Pasquier, with its black and white angular graphic print that looks ripped from a Duran Duran video; it’s positioned for viewing in front of a colossal, ravishing painting by Robert Zakanitch. It’s a sticky mess of thickly painted repeating forms of fruit and foliage in deep oranges, yellows, and greens. It feels like excess and rot. It’s spectacular. You’re overwhelmed. And this is only room one.
It feels fitting, somehow, to surrender to “Less Is a Bore” like that. A laundry list of its many dozens of works is, for one thing, impossible, and for another, unwarranted. This show makes its point experientially; its lack of guidance, its chock-fullness, is part of its point. But even in stew so thick, Porter offers sly asides: Frank Stella’s brawny, 10-foot tall “Brazilian Morganser, 5.5X,” from 1980, feels made because he could — a superstar artist at his peak with an in-house metal shop to serve his creative whims. Right beside it, Polly Apfelbaum’s “Small Townsville,” an impossibly beautiful spiral of fabric patterns, stained in delicate ink, is its antithesis in all but its embrace of color and vitality. Apfelbaum’s work packs up in a shoebox; Stella’s in multiple large crates.
The pairing hints at a pecking order, a gender imbalance that’s always been a dark feature of artistic production — and still is. Was Pattern and Decoration deemed too feminine to be a full-blown movement alongside the machismo of its peers? Maybe. Whatever the case, “Less Is a Bore” less fills in the blanks of incomplete history than it does flood its margins with explosions of color. It gives permission for joy. It is, dare I say it, a whole lot of fun. It colors way outside the lines, and that’s a good thing.
LESS IS A BORE: MAXIMALISM IN ART AND DESIGN
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Sept. 22. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org