By Lecia Bushak, REA Intern
Are words objective? Is language effective in transmitting thoughts and ideas… or is it just as ephemeral as the thoughts that support it? These are questions that Mel Bochner has explored in his art for the past 40+ years. After receiving a BFA from Carnegie Mellon, he studied Philosophy at Northwestern and later taught Art History at SVA, as well as served as adjunct professor at Yale University. He is the kind of guy who exemplifies the artist as both writer and philosopher, and whom you might expect to see with a Thesaurus under his arm (you’ll see why below).
Bochner is one of the most influential Conceptual artists to emerge from the 1960s. Analytics, seriality, numbers, and language suddenly came to the forefront of art-making during this time. Minimal works that emphasized the logical, philosophical, and mathematical rather than sensual perception, beauty, and aesthetic pleasure became the ideal form of art. Bochner explores such arenas in his work–but what differentiates him from most Conceptual artists is his emphasis on color and visual affect. These things are usually shed from Conceptual or Minimal works to enhance the importance of the idea rather than aesthetics. But Bochner is able to smartly tie the two together.
In her review of the show for Art in America, Eleanor Heartney wrote: “In Bochner’s work, perception constantly trumps idea, reaffirming the artist’s belief that the sensuous is an essential element in even the most conceptual art.”
Bochner seems to be drilling into the heart of what words mean and how they erect our perceptions of ideas/feelings, our relationships with other people, and society. In Portrait of Eva Hesse, Bochner used words to construct the portrait of fellow artist and sculptor Eva Hesse. He chose to center the piece around the word “wrap,” referring to the rounded objects often comprising her sculptural work. The words circling the center are all synonyms of “wrap,” constructing a verbal–yet visual–“portrait” of her. Each word brings to mind a different concept, idea, or feeling–and we link them in some way to Hesse and/or her work. Each word is a new perspective, a lens through which we try to define her as a person–yet no one word can fully and accurately encapsulate her person as a whole.
Perhaps Bochner’s fascination with language in art stems from his experience writing for art publications in order to support himself in New York City when he first moved there in 1967. Back then, artists didn’t write about their work or other artists; fine art and writing were two completely separate disciplines. Bringing writing into art and vice versa was considered an impure meddling of the arts, so Bochner was criticized by other artists for “turning to the dark side” and producing art reviews, criticisms, and philosophical/conceptual texts. Now, however, it’s quite normal and actually expected of artists to write–about their work, about other art, and about ideas in general. Bochner was one of the first to begin that tradition.
This leads us to what many consider his “manifesto”–Language is Not Transparent, 1970. Direct and straightforward, Bochner declares language as being ephemeral, subjective and often inaccurate when it comes to communicating or portraying thoughts and ideas. Yet even in this earlier piece, Bochner is drawn to an aesthetic approach–the graffiti-esque scrawl on the black block of paint, the paint drips that lead the eye down to the floor, etc. Where purists might find a problem with mixing aesthetics and concept, Bochner proves that doing so can actually be quite successful.
Catherine Wagley on the Art:21 blog writes: “[L]anguage isn’t transparent and, if it ever brings you to meaning, it takes a lot of detours on the way.”
I find his later works even more appealing than his earlier works, simply because of my guilty pleasure of staring at pretty colors. His concepts remain just as strong in his later days, as he continues to explore words and their synonyms, but also brings color into the picture: How does color affect the meaning of the word and also our perception of it? He complicates his original concept by bringing in aspects that both attend to the senses and the intellect (we might have gotten bored rather quickly if he had stuck to the Conceptualist dogma of stark aesthetics).
The later works, on top of being both conceptually provocative and aesthetically pleasing, play with my mood and emotions as well. The words themselves, such as in Irascible (above) and No (below), somehow pointedly “get” to a certain part of me that’s not quite rational, but which has certainly felt all of those things before: whether it’s listless, crabby, or just plain old “blah.” Somehow, comparing and contrasting the synonyms for a certain feeling like “lazy” or “irritable” intrigues both my brain and my emotions. For an artwork to be strong in all three (often conflicting) areas of aesthetics, concepts and emotions, it is, in my mind, a successful piece.