From the delights of decluttering to the stillness of Kyoto’s rock gardens—an intriguing deep dive into the many manifestations of minimalism.
In this lively debut, freelance writer Chayka (New York Times Magazine, n+1, Paris Review, etc.) explores the universal desire for a “different, simpler…more authentic world” as evinced in the austerity of minimalism. Feeling overwhelmed by materialism, many of us believe “less could be better than more—in possessions, in aesthetics, in sensory perception, and in the philosophy with which we approach our lives.” The author’s book draws on examples from throughout history, as seen through the lens of four common qualities: reduction (seeking simplicity through getting rid of things), emptiness (including the minimalism of architect Philip Johnson), silence (exemplified by composer John Cage’s 4’33”), and shadow (reflecting the ambiguity of Japanese Buddhism). In Chayka’s view, the trendy lifestyle minimalism made popular by Marie Kondo and celebrated on SoHo storefronts (“Fewer, better”) is the least of it. Sorting through your house will not bring “happiness, satisfaction, and peace of mind.” The author’s main interest is in the deeper minimalism of visual art, music, and philosophy that works “against” strict rules, offering no advice or solutions but confronting “existential questions on how to live in the modern world.” The best of minimalism, argues Chayka, is found in “the fundamental miracle of our moment-to-moment encounter with reality” in the “quietly meditative” paintings of Agnes Martin, the metal boxes (“just there, without content”) of artist Donald Judd, and Japanese philosopher Shuzo Kuki’s (1888-1941) writing on “iki,” the acceptance of uncertainty. Chayka discusses the lives and works of these and other minimalists, and he chronicles his visits to museums, Zen gardens, art installations, and a sensory deprivation spa, where he discovered the pleasantness of nothingness. The book is so thoughtful and absorbing it is quibbling to wish there were more photos and some consideration of literary minimalism.
A superb outing from a gifted young critic that will spark joy for many readers.