Nope, AOL will not work without the software. All you can do to reduce the bloat is use an older version. It's a proprietary dialer/connection manager and a proprietary mail system. You can't just get the connection manager, it's all or nothing. You CAN use the AOL mail system through the Web if you connect using another provider.
If you have AOL DSL, you CAN set up a router with a dedicated screen name and use that to connect without the software - and use standard Internet apps, but the only way to check your mail is with the Web interface as already discussed.
Bottom line, the only way to actually log on to the service and have full functionality is with the software.