Bilge, blarney, bunk. Mel Bochner has been exploring the intersections of linguistic and visual representation for over 45 years. The excellently verbose exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (through April 2012) includes 43 thesaurus-inspired paintings and drawings, including Money, Die, Useless, Obscene, and Sputter; a new monochrome painting (Blah, Blah, Blah); and four major diptychs that have never been exhibited before (Master of the Universe, Oh Well, Amazing!, and Babble). His "Portraits" series of the 1960s is also on display and the show includes several pieces that have been buried in Bochner's studio all these years. Bochner has said in interviews no one was interested in buying his work back in the day.
The "Thesaurus" series began with small word-based pieces in the 1960s. Using ink on graph paper Bochner made experimental portraits based on synonyms found in Roget's Thesaurus. The shapes, words and compositions of these drawings are titled with names (including Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, and Robert Smithson) of friends, acquaintances and influential artists from the early days of the Minimalism and Conceptual Art. What a pleasure to see this early work that has had such a huge impact on contemporary art.
Private Collection © Mel Bochner 2011
Fast forward to the 21st Century when Bochner, now a very successful artist and esteemed professor at Yale University, returns to Roget's as the subject for a new series of paintings. In the early years, Bochner's move away from painting was a response to the painting-is-dead conversation. At the time, language as subject was a new frontier, and Bochner, looking to make something that had never been made before, became a pioneer of language-based Conceptual Art. In the lively and amusing "Thesaurus" paintings, Bochner's engagement shifts from questioning boundaries to a more formal exploration of color and facture.
The paintings aren't as experimental as his earlier work, but in the course of his 45-year career, Bochner, who once worried that there was nothing left to paint, has managed to carve a deeply original niche for himself. As Roberta Smith wrote in a 2006 NYTimes review, "The new Bochners unleash something malicious, sharp and funny that has always lurked beneath the surface, conveying the rage of life while maintaining the artist's characteristic surface of elegance, intellect and formalism. In a sense they are Expressionistic works, filled with pain, and grinning and bearing it." The newest paintings, like blinking neon signs, demand instant attention, but require a slow and careful read to fully apprehend their meaning.
"In the Tower: Mel Bochner," National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Through April8, 2012.
The Diamonstein-Spielvogel Lecture Series: A conversation with Mel Bochner on March 11, 2007.
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