Tag Archives: conceptual art

Colors, Concepts and Typography in Mel Bochner’s Fine Art

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, Split Infinity

Portrait of Eva Hesse, 1966

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.

Language is Not Transparent, 1970

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.

Even if you're not much of a Conceptualist, you've definitely felt like this before. Bochner is almost making fun of that lazy part in all of us--in a sympathetic way.



81 DAYS: Ai Weiwei’s Rise to Celebrity Artist-Dissident

By Lecia Bushak, REA Intern

About a month ago, on June 22, 2011, the famous Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei was released from captivity, 81 days after being arrested by Chinese authorities for unspecified “economic crimes.”

Mr. Ai is an artist in many ways — he is a sculptor, an architect, and a designer; he is a conceptualist and an installation artist, but he is also an outspoken political activist who is highly critical of the Chinese government.  And his incarceration has now rendered him one of the most famous modern rebels.  Has his status as dissident overshadowed his legacy as artist?  I say no; Mr. Ai’s political philosophy and artwork are fundamentally tied together.  He is a living exhibition of the “rebel-artist,” one who steers away from the banality of aesthetics and towards the concept, often controversial, behind his art.

Departing from the safety of aesthetics, an artist’s ideas can become dangerous.  Especially to one-party regimes intending to smother opposition and the free flow of ideas.

That’s why Mr. Ai was arrested on April 3, 2011, at Beijing Airport on his way to Hong Kong, and disappeared for 81 days.  During the months Ai was missing, he quickly became a symbol of rebellion to the Western art world and international observers who demanded his release.  Months later and no longer imprisoned, he has accepted an invitation to teach at a university in Berlin, although he cannot leave China until June 22, 2012 – he must remain under surveillance for one year, and will most likely suffer continuous badgering from Chinese authorities if he continues creating art.

But what about this man’s artwork itself, the cause of all the political hubbub?  Can one artist truly hold so much power in an idea — when he photographed himself breaking a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty vase (above), or flicking off Tiananmen Square (below)?  The actions behind these famous photographs are sudden, dramatic—childish even, so obviously churlish acts of rebellion that we are left to wonder whether Mr. Ai tried to remain subtle even a little bit, whether he was at all worried about the consequences of his ideas.

The “rebellious” works are, of course, only a fraction of the body of work Ai Weiwei has produced over the years.  He is well-known for his work on the design of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ Bird’s Nest stadium, and other beautiful sculptural works of lighting such as Fountain of Light.  He is, furthermore, entirely capable of subtleties and nuances in his works despite the author’s above point, as seen in his sculptural and installation works below; Sunflower Seeds and Moon Chest.

Perhaps the world needs artists like these, the ones who will, in short, flick off a camera and get arrested.  The world needs to rally their support behind someone who isn’t afraid to use art as vehicle for dissidence.

I’ll hand it to Peter Aspden of Slate“This explains the intensity of feeling surrounding the arrest of Ai Weiwei. Culture has become a forum for the West to express its misgivings over the resurgent East. The art world can say things that the business or political communities, more pragmatic in their concerns, can’t afford to say.”

Scroll below to see photos of Ai Weiwei’s work.

Sunflower Seeds (2010): Every single one of these tiny sunflower seeds were hand-fired and painted individually, and about 100 million of them were placed on the ground at Tate Modern in London.   As Adrian Searle says in his review of the show, “Every unique seed is homogenized into a sifting mass.”

Bird’s Nest stadium design: In 2003, the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron submitted and won the design for the 2008 Beijing Olympics stadium.  The design was inspired by Chinese ceramics—giving it a “bird’s nest” appearance.  Ai Weiwei served as “artistic consultant,” to the team, principally architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

Moon Chest (2008): Exhibited at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, Moon Chest is comprised of eight Huanghuali wooden pieces that allow visitors to peer through large circular holes in the wood.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2011): In London, Ai Weiwei installed reproductions of the Zodiac sculptures that once surrounded the 18th-century fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan, but were destroyed in 1860 by British troops.  Ai is quoted to have said, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value.”

World Map (2009)

Cube Light (2008)

Rooted Upon (2009)