Mel Bochnerby David Markus
Peter Freeman March 27 – May 24, 2008
In the forward to the new Mel Bochner book, Solar Systems and Restrooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007 (MIT Press), Yves-Alain Bois tells us that “the job” of a work of art, as Bochner conceives of it, is to “question, abolish, or expand boundaries.” This attitude is apparent in Bochner’s writing about artists of the past (for instance when he describes Cézanne’s painting as challenging the visual conventions governing inside/outside relationships) as well as in his reflections on artists of his own period (his critiques of Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin largely concern the reworking of material and paradigmatic presuppositions). But Bochner’s career-long obsession with “boundaries” finds its fullest consummation in the artist’s own artistic oeuvre with the introjection of language into the material realm of art making. According to Bois, the watershed moment came in 1969 when Bochner created the piece “Language Is Not Transparent,” thus making visually and peformatively manifest an important revelation about the relationship between words and their material means of conveyance.
Over the next thirty years Bochner would continue to rethink parameters of artistic practice employing a variety of “supports” including photography, geometric painting, and diagrammatical grids made of masking tape, chalk, and pebbles. Throughout, his intention remained to use art as “a way of thinking about things.”
Since the mid-1990s, language has again taken precedence in Bochner’s work, no longer as a self-evident abrogation of previously adhered to boundaries, but as a complex system ripe for his peculiar form of visual contemplation. The new show at Peter Freeman finds the artist indulging his confessed “penchant for the more downbeat side of language” in a series of canvases that both ridicule and affirm the discouraging trajectory of contemporary linguistic usage.
These new works continue a long-running investigation into and expansion of the figure/ground relationship, a kind of hypostasizing of the formalist thematic standard into the larger realm of cultural and linguistic structures. Each painting is composed of a list of words and phrases borrowed from Roget’s Thesaurus. The pessimistic tone of the exhibit can be gleaned from the titles of the works. “Vulgar,” “No,” “Obsolete,” “Fool,” “Criticize,” “Uncertain,” “Blah,” and “Liar” all serve as the seeds for a barrage of synonymic iteration. The words are painted in monochrome across washy, expressive backgrounds, and, in contrast to Bochner’s previous works in this genre, seem arranged according to a carefully predetermined emotional arc—an observation supported both by the many critical reactions to the works attributing a “momentum” or “catharsis” to them and by the several small drawings accompanying the canvases in which the lists of words appear alongside arrows indicating their place of precedence.
The uncharacteristic emotion exhibited by these new canvases appears to follow from the direct inversion of procedures adhered to in the works that immediately preceded them. In Bochner’s earlier “Thesaurus Paintings,” fragments of text were painted in a wide variety of colors, and ordering took place according to an improvisatory selection process. In such works such as 2003’s “Meaningless” (featured in Solar Systems and Restrooms), each word is carefully individuated, and the spectator’s subjective musings are honored as integral to the creation of meaning. An expansion of associative paths is encouraged that contradicts the imposed categorical narrowness of the synonymic set, and the same “dizziness at the very center of decision making” that Bochner had once observed in Cézanne’s overlapping plates of color is articulated as a discontinuity between visual and symbolic recognition.
The newest works appear strikingly contrary in their aims. Bochner’s former intentions to “slow down” the automatism of reading so that one might reflect on the cognitive processes at play is here discarded in favor of an accelerating crescendo easily scanned from left to right as one cumulative tirade. In these loud, brassy paintings, the viewer is made to transgress the physical boundaries of the canvas not through contemplative divagation but as a result of the train-like inertia gathered en-route to the picture’s lower right hand corner.
Bochner’s idea, articulated in his Notecards of 1969, of context as “a synonym for back-ground…an opening out,” as well as his persistent ruminations on serialism and the manner in which systems enable meaning, encourage us to read the language foregrounded in his current work against the background of his own life and oeuvre. Given that a certain portion of the language in question overlaps with the vocabulary of artspeak, it is difficult not to wonder if these works are intended to enact a self-inoculation against any epithets viewers might be tempted to hurl at them. All the more so since Bochner had once famously taken an axe to the inane critical lexicon used to describe the early work of artists like Robert Morris and Carl Andre.
But reading Bochner’s litany of slurs merely as a sly allusion to his own past disgruntlement suggests a solipsism at odds with his career-long commitment to expansion of artistic paradigms. There is a larger context against which to read the sudden shift in the tone of Bochner’s works: the contemporary climate of politically consequential misspeaking and malapropism. “[As] recent history has painfully taught us,” Bochner said during a lecture at NYU last September, “all abuses of power begin with the abuse of language.” Bochner’s new paintings, composed of the language of abuse, and confrontational in their material presence, seem to protest against the entropic verbal landscape against which they are set. In his seminal work, “The Domain of the Great Bear,” Bochner poked fun at new paradigms of critical and creative practice by imitating the “Hemingway-esque” style of Donald Judd. Here, he “blah blah blahs” the vocabulary of power by transforming it into an absurd parody of itself. By inverting the aims of his previous work, by revealing synonymity as merely a tool, one that can be put to the service of variegation but which quickly dissolves, under the strain of excess, into uniformity, Bochner has once again shown that signification is tied to materiality—that “language is not transparent.”
DAVID MARKUS is last child of Generation X. A disaffected critic and belle-lettrist, he resides in NYC.