Magazine article Artforum International

Mel Bochner

Magazine article Artforum International

Mel Bochner

Article excerpt

CONCISELY, SUCCINCTLY, PITHILY, "Mel Bochner: Strong Language" opened with two works, both titled Self/Portrait--the first, from 1966, ink on graph paper; the second, from 2013, oil on canvas. In each, the words SELF and PORTRAIT sat atop parallel columns of synonyms, with EGO beside PORTRAYAL, ONESELF beside HEAD, and so on, a sequence that yielded nonsensical yet evocative phrases such as ONENESS DELINEATION and SPIRIT MIRROR. The painting's proportions were somewhat longer and its word lists a tad shorter, but the works' correspondence was unmistakable, as was the curatorial conceit. "Strong Language" straddled two disparate bodies of Bochner's work: his pen-on-paper notations and magazine pieces from the late 1960s and his more recent paintings of words filched from Roget's Thesaurus. Like the freshness seal on a juice bottle, the Self/Portrait pairing offered quality assurance, a preemptive confirmation that, though distinct in medium and separated by decades, the exhibition's contents shared a common consistency and reflected a continuous self.

The catalogue for "Strong Language" stresses how that self's biography intersects with the Jewish Museum's history, from Bochner's brief stint as a guard between 1963 and 1964 to the institution's purchase of the painting The Joys of Yiddish, 2012. As a critic, we're reminded, Bochner visited the museum in 1966 to review the landmark exhibition "Primary Structures," penning a brashly prescient precis of Minimalism's rejections and refusals. "Such words as 'form-content,' tradition,"classic,"romantic,' 'expressive,' experiment,"psychology,"analogy,"depth,' 'purity,' feeling,"space,"avant-garde,"lyric,"individual,' 'composition,' life and death,' sexuality,"biomorphic,' 'biographic'--the entire language of botany in art--can now be regarded as suspect." It's jarring to find this passage quoted amid the lush foliage of curator Norman L. Kleeblatt's catalogue essay, where "highly personal" works possess "autobiographical associations," and each project is termed "an outgrowth" that "evolved" from one prior. Suspect, no? How did an artist stridently opposed to the "language of botany in art"--which is to say, the grafting of an expressive subject onto an artwork's meaning--here become so entangled in its vocabulary?

This strikes me as the show's central dilemma, its drama, even. Had the Jewish Museum elected to mount a full retrospective--with Bochner's "measurement" pieces, his wall drawings, or virtually anything from between 1971 and 1997--the botanical premise of the artist's unchanging essence might have crept in unnoticeably, or at least convincingly. Instead, the common denominator of language is tasked with aligning two seemingly incommensurable figures: the Bochner who brandished the antihumanism of late-'60s art and the Bochner who now executes canvases so painterly that Kleeblatt calls them "bravura." (Definitely suspect.) This isn't just a quirk of breezy curat-ing. In recent sophisticated scholarship, too, we see a push to recover the "feeling" and "psychology" that Bochner and his cohort claimed to expunge, whether it be art historian Eve Meltzer deploying affect theory to detect trace elements of subjective emotion in Conceptual art's linguistic turn or James Meyer listening to the chatter around Donald judd's dispute with collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to locate a "minimal unconscious. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.