Is Maximalism the Most Overlooked Art Movement Ever?

A new show at ICA Boston might just be the remedy.

by Nadja Sayej
Jul 11 2019, 4:20pm

Just when you thought minimalism was eternally in vogue, a new art exhibit proves otherwise, and it has the best title: “Less is a Bore.” The Boston ICA recently opened this group show, touting the movement's gaudy print, clashing colors and dizzying designs. Curator Jenelle Porter, who worked alongside assistant curator Jeffrey De Blois, says the inspiration partly came from interior design magazines and how fake they are.

“Every time you look at Shelter magazine, it’s like, people don’t even live in these houses,” said Porter. “It’s so plain, it’s not my taste. Minimalism portrays a kind of wealth, that the less you have the more refined you are, but we all have maximalist tendencies.”

It all started by looking at the Pattern and Decoration art movement from the 1970s, an American art movement from the 1970s and 1980s, which includes works by Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff and Gloria Klein. It’s what Porter says, “has been somewhat forgotten.” But is maximalism an art movement, per se? “It wasn’t ideas of maximalism that guides these artists. I consider it an under-recognized approach, more than an art movement,” said Porter.

The exhibition, running until September 22, features artworks by Kehinde Wiley, Sol LeWitt, Polly Apfelbaum, Jasper Johns and the Memphis Group. Among them, here are five key pieces in the exhibit that bring life back to the gallery walls, from patterned wallpaper to a grandma’s tablecloth and Memphis Group furniture.

Ettore Sottsass, Casablanca Sideboard, 1981, wood and plastic laminate, 90.5 x 59 x 15 3/4 in., collection of Keith Johnson and Celia Morrissette, Urban Architecture New York, photo by Aldo Ballo, courtesy Memphis

Ettore Sottsass, founder of the Italian postmodern design collective the Memphis Group, made some of the most outlandish furniture in the 1980s, which defined the design of the decade. “Maximalist design can’t always be calming, it can make people uncomfortable,” said Porter. “You have to be comfortable with discomfort.” This piece is what she calls “bringing back history into the vocabulary of design,” and asks: “Why is everything being stripped away? Decoration and ornamentation is very human.”

Nathalie du Pasquier, Untitled, circa 1984, marker and collage, courtesy the artist.

Nathalie du Pasquier was another Memphis Group designer in Italy, pioneering works with color, pattern and repetition for clothing design, textiles and furniture throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today, she works as an artist in Milan. “She did amazing things with patterns, and did a lot of patterns with Memphis,” said Porter. Here at the Boston ICA, she created a custom wall piece based on one of her designs; a city grid with buildings made into a wallpaper. “It’s a decorated grid,” she said.

Stephanie Syjuco, Cover-Up, 2016, from the series Cargo Cults, pigmented inkjet print, 20 x 16 in., courtesy Catharine Clark, San Francisco

This self-portrait photograph shows Filipina artist Stephanie Syjuco dressed up in a variety of patterned clothing, many of which oppose each other in dizzying compositions. “It’s from her series where she goes shopping at malls, buys things and photographs herself wearing ethnic prints that hail from all over the globe,” said Porter. “She then returns all the clothing to the store. You can see she leaves the tags on. Dressing up in disguise in standard consumer apparel, she’s putting a charged object back on the rack, nobody really knows that.”

Robert Venturi, Scott Brown Associates, Grandmother, 1983/2019, pigment on cotton sateen, 56 in., made in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Photo by Will Brown.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi is mainly known for his buildings (many which call to mind pastel-hued towers that might belong in a Wes Anderson film), but his design work goes beyond that. “He made a floral pattern borrowed from someone’s grandmother’s tablecloth,” said Porter. “Then, he added Jasper Johns hatch marks that was popular in the 1970s, it’s an atmosphere. I wanted to show it just as fabric.”

Joyce Kozloff, 'If I Were An Astronomer: Boston,', 2015, mixed media on canvas, 37 x 55 in., courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York

A key artist in the Pattern and Decoration movement, artist Joyce Kozloff is known for her pattern-based textiles, collages and paintings from the 1970s to the present. By using mostly floral patterns that call to mind vintage tablecloths, they’re all intricately handmade. “The tiles in her work reference Middle Eastern and Chinese patterns, anywhere but the west,” said Porter. “They’re places where the histories are older, it’s a way to pay homage to other cultures, all are equally important.”

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