In February, I received a note asking if I would be interested in writing a piece for this section, where contributors pick one work of art to respond to. The choice would be mine.
I am an editor and a writer. I work with words: mulling, puzzling, changing, clarifying, restructuring, making order and—it is to be hoped for—something of value.
Leaping to the fore, and for me never far from the fore, is Mel Bochner’s Language Is Not Transparent (1969). First in 1969, and because it can’t be overstated and is not subject to infiltration, penetration, final elucidation, or comprehension—in numerous iterations eluding being counted, although a system of numbers could be devised whereby the number of times…
Language Is Not Transparent is not the beginning but very close to the beginning of Bochner’s art work. He’d found himself inclined to Wittgenstein, the philosopher he’d studied and admired. In an interview with Border Crossings in 2019, he’d said you don’t really get ideas out of Wittgenstein, you get a manner of being. He’d further said that Wittgenstein couldn’t be summed up, that you couldn’t know where he was going to go, that he never stopped going over and over the same idea, looking at it from every perspective. What mattered most to him about Wittgenstein was his relentlessness.
No one can quarrel with this being an evident form in the long-standing, ongoing, and significant work of Mel Bochner. This way of being, of keeping everything open—the endless ellipsis which is a sign itself for incompleteness, for carrying on. And more on closing off, and with a little interior musing, Bochner asked, with Picasso as the model, why limit yourself? Here stating/starting another tautology of linguistics, he’d said about Picasso: he did whatever he did because he had kept open the possibility of doing it, concluding his own job was to keep open as many possibilities as he could.
Going back, back to “The Domain of the Great Bear,” a piece that Bochner and fellow artist Robert Smithson had done for the magazine Art Voices in 1966, their project had been to explore for themselves and provoke others to think about art and the boundaries that attempted to define it. Was “The Domain of the Great Bear” a constructed set of pages, not a typical investigation of a topic—published in an art journal—a work of art? In the foreword to Bochner’s Solar System & Rest Rooms, Yve-Alain Bois plays with and clarifies the possibilities of work (as in art work) and job (as in task) in the Bochner/Smithson boundary-stretching magazine piece. He writes, “They were declaring among themselves (and to their friends) that it was this questioning of boundaries that made of their piece a work of art—or to say it otherwise, that the work of art (as in the ‘job of art’) is to question, abolish, or expand boundaries.” So, here, on the job is Mel Bochner pushing the edges, boundaries eliminated, leaving it open—the idea whose beginnings you can’t finger, whose presence or location you can’t settle on.
Do you hear the strains of what could be an anthem? The gently coiling, light and seductive voice of Paul Simon, “slip sliding away, slip sliding away; you know the nearer your destination the more you’re slip sliding away.”
I read/saw Language Is Not Transparent, referring to the four rubber stamped notecards from 1969, and was absorbed, maybe suspended, experiencing in no particular order that I can recall—and probably because the apprehensions were at once shifting and simultaneous—the tickle of pleasure at the impenetrability of the message, the aggravation because it was, the panic of being trapped, with the exit light flickering somewhere over there.
As Bois pointed out, Bochner, writing and reviewing art exhibitions for a short period and reading the art criticism of others, found himself growing increasingly frustrated and disenchanted with the language which was neither the artwork itself, not its elucidation, nor even an invitation to enter into and engage with it. The near impossibility, maybe just the limitations of language alone communicating the event of an artwork had him recognizing that language was not transparent, was, if not opaque, then a screen, a baffle, a clouded glass between an idea and its apprehension, or seeing and comprehending.
Think of an appointment with your optometrist. You are in a dimly lit room. You stare ahead at a square on the wall. Something cold rests just above your nose. A lens clicks into place. The first one clearer, or this? This, click, or this? You look, you see. Is there an idea in this? But there is some kind of apprehensive outcome and you say, second better than first, third better than second, and you leave with your vision inside a set of frames. This, however, is not art, and language—carrying meaning set on a sustaining support—remains transparent.
An interesting contrarian choice for Mel Bochner to select language, words as his medium, harkening back to Marshall McLuhan’s saw, maybe. But is the medium the message? Not without its sustaining support, as Notecard (No thought exists...) (1969) tells us. And as Bochner had said, “There is no art which does not bear some burden of physicality.” To which Yve-Alain Bois added, “There is no art, and there is no language.”
The desire to synthesize, to compress, make available as a soldered, welded conjunction of idea and language, maybe into art, must have been the prod to Bochner’s seminal essay, “Excerpts from Speculation (1967–1970),” published in Artforum, May 1970. He writes a possibility: wall works, marks done directly on a wall. “They cannot be held, only seen. As such they are neither copy nor paradigm. Art of this nature is not secondarily present. Its uniqueness (single placedness) is its co-existent unity with its own appearance.” Does that first, four-card work, Language Is Not Transparent get at it?
If Language Is Not Transparent, an increasingly obscured and obliterated stamping of the statement on cards is, in fact, a screen of misunderstandings, misreadings, misspokenness, how about on a wall, black paint dripping down, running on, suggesting as Bochner says, “the fluidity of language and the draining of its possible meaning,” the words in chalk riding on the paint. What about Blah, Blah, Blah? I’m looking at five paintings, oil on canvas, from his 2014 exhibition, Strong Language, which I saw at the Jewish Museum. These, 2008, 2009, 2012 in varying tones of blue, the letters mostly light against denser grounds of blue. A snowstorm, a rush, a flurry, an increasingly insistent assertion. One syllable. Someone had the temerity to ask him what these paintings mean. His response was considered, full, including that “they seek to escape the gravitational pull of bullshit. They say nothing but can mean anything, everything, something, nothing.” A perfect companion following Language Is Not Transparent.
I like the dialectical seesaw Bochner straddles comfortably with his long legs, always able to touch down but not necessarily so for the viewer/reader on the other end, being held up in the air, riding one of the artist’s gentle ripostes, his mildly acerbic word plays, just the occasionally insincere thank-yous—the reader/rider trying to join in, follow along, get it, Gotcha!
With head-hurting effort you could maybe peel back, lift off the layers, unravel the paint skeins and drips and get to some understanding why, now particularly, we have to pay attention such that it does make our heads hurt. Language Is Not Transparent has always been a seminal, significant artwork. It was important because you had to pause and consider and think and think better. But now, in this present fraught and readily wicked time when language, communications, intentions, and waylaid attempts at truthfulness are murky, opaque modes of operation, it is necessary to recognize that while multiple in meaning, words can be deeds. We need to speak, understanding the recognition that language is not transparent, can be a scrim or screen between utterance and action. We’re not inhabiting a speak-easy booze-can world. Bochner’s work is emblematic, a blazon of a statement. Get it.