In spite of the fact that Mies van Der Rohe's dictum that “less is more” was uttered in 1959, the fifties were not a very minimalist time in my home. Perhaps the very fact that he felt the need to offer this piece of advice for designers and decorators is related to the historical moment with its postwar boom built at least partly on consumption of things we didn't, strictly speaking, need, but things which must have met some aesthetic hunger, no matter how ill-informed. The boom, combined with my mother's desire to move solidly (if fictitiously) into the middle class, meant this was a time when things were important. For my wealthier aunts, more was more, a condition my mother aspired to, though we never went in for doilies or knickknacks. My mother's watchword might have been elegance: an octaganal class plate, a very tasteful Madonna with fragile hands. Her living room and dining room were painted a complicated shade of grey: I still remember how hard it was to find carpet to match.
But the pride she took in things was unmistakable in how she arranged a table or decorated a Christmas tree with nothing but blue lights or in her knowledge of which colours were in style. For my part, I painted, sanded, painted, steel-wooled, and painted a small white bookshelf that has just recently moved to my daughter's apartment. It held the books I'd been given every Christmas and birthday (sometimes by one of the wealthier, more educated aunts). But I had begun to frequent a small shop in the street behind Grand Rapids' main shopping avenue. My allowance bought me pairs or trios of tiny porcelain deer, rabbits, cairn terriers, and once a tiny Tinkerbell with the thinnest wings.
Half a block down the street from my home was St. Joseph's Seminary, surrounded by urban forest. Here, play was simple. You climbed the trees to spy on the seminarians walking two by two in their swinging black cassocks, talking of meaning, talking of the spiritual, the ineffable. Or you made “forts” in the shrubs. While forts for girls could sometimes be surprisingly domestic, with bits of carpet or a plastic tea set, these were not. They were made only of talk and curiosity. In a time when TV and movies romanticized the sexual unavailability of the priest, we were curious about their talk and about the apparent simplicity of their lives which involved the same clothes worn day after day, an old crennelated building, and lots of reading. What would such a life be like? In turn, the seminarians found girls hanging out of trees amusing, and perhaps even as puzzling as we found them.
When I visit museums or galleries that attempt to give us a glimpse of the decor of the late fifties or early sixties, it see this kind of tension between too much and too little. The lava lamp is perhaps the synecdoche for this contradiction between my mother`s elegant grey walls and the fussy Madonnas, between my carefully-sanded white bookshelf and the scattered menagerie frolicking there.
The toe-in-the-water minimalism of the fifties and sixties makes a kind of historical sense to me. There was, as I have suggested, the post-war boom, which has given me my favourite recipe for bread--bread that has everything you hadn`t been able to put in it during the war, things like milk and butter. But there were also the edicts of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, as well as the desire for a kind of space-age sleekness.
But unless I`m in some kind of denial, I don`t fully understand my yearning for minimalism now. My closets get emptier, more and more boxes go off to Community Living. I feel a week isn`t complete unless I`ve taken something out of my house and parked it in front of the AdHum elevators, or passed on a book to someone whom I knew would like it. My most recent clothing purchase is two white cotton shirts, which make me think about Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo, the Bogart movie with the simplest, most essential, unpretentious wardrobe worn by them both: khaki pants and white shirts.
Consciously I know that I`m getting ready for the big move in ten or fifteen years time when I may find the stairs difficult, but that doesn`t explain the aesthetic pleasure minimalism gives me. I`m working some minimalism into the way I spend time, choosing to meditate or even (pretend to) nap. Not doing, but simply being seems like a minimalism essential to my life at this point of busy classes, crisis in the academy, being 62 and reaching toward some important decisions about how much longer I will work or how I will pare down my life and give it a shape that is both meaningful and serene. I suspect that unconsciously I`m getting myself ready for an even bigger move, that there is some calm leaning toward death, wanting the rehearsal of being less encumbered, wanting for the last twenty years of my life to be deliberate about saying `this stays; this matters`and `that goes; it`s getting in the way.`