Bochner's Measurement Series
By James Meyer
This essay appeared originally in the catalog for the exhibition Mapping: A Response to MoMA at American Fine Arts Co., New York, NY.
21 January-18 February 1995. Published by M. Rose Publications Inc. © 1995
Mel Bochner, Actual Size (Face), 1968.
A rectangular piece of paper, stapled to the wall. Black tape lines its leftand top borders; the sheet’s dimensions appear in black letraset (36” x 48”). A line of tape stretches across the sheet’s center, marking its length yet again.
Like so many of Me1 Bochner’s works, 48” Standards (#1), the first of what would become the Measurement Series (1968-1969) is vexingly simple: a sheet of bland, brown paper and its dimensions. Now to say this “simplicity” belies an extreme complexity (and I want to claim it does) is to repeat the very defense voiced by supporters of pared-down geometric work throughout the century, from Loos’s“Ornament is Evil” to Mies’s “less is more” to Greenberg’s writings on Newman. This could well be called the “defense of minimal,” and indeed, by the mid 60’s, the whole geometric shapes and serial formulas of Morris, Andre, Judd, and LeWitt came to be called “Minimal Art.” Bochner, emerging in these years, provided, in his art and published criticism, one of the strongest readings of minimalism, highlighting, extending, and in many ways rejecting its “tenets.” At least three features of minimal work, constitutively related, are taken up in the Measurement Series: the thematization of artistic process, art as epistemological inquiry, the foregrounding of the work’s situation or context. The present discussion will focus on these concerns.
In December, 1966, Bochner, a young instructor at the school of Visual Arts in New York, placed four identical books on pedestals in the school’s gallery. He entitled the installation, Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not NecessariIy Meant to be Viewed as Art. Each book contained photocopies of preparatory drawings for artist’s projects: Flavin’s proposals for his light installations; LeWitt’s sketches of white lattices; Hesse’s numerical progressions; Andre’s studies for his poetry; plans forJudd’s Progressions, and even a bill for fabrication costs. In short, the Working Drawings are a site of overlap between the minimal and post minimal paradigms: to lay bare the processes of artistic production--the serial and modular techniques of minimal practice--Bochner co opted the latest technology of mechanical reproduction. TheWorking Drawings are the first “Xerox books,” a format which, “dematerializing” the visual work into a reproducible idea, became a hallmark of late 60’s conceptualism.1 Moreover, the foregrounding of constructive and cognitive processes in Bochner (and LeWitt) was the “conceptual” analogue to the materialist and temporal thematizations of process of Morris, Serra, Hesse, LeVa, and Nauman, although this relation should also be characterized as an overlap (Hesse was also obsessed with serial logic, while Bochner ‘s investigations of perceptual and cognitive process would, after the Working Drawings,incorporate material entities, even if of the most incidental kind: pebbles, pennies, match sticks, shards of glass).
Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art, 1966.
The Measurement Series continued these investigations. After the first of the 48” Standards--a single sheet of paper and its measurements—Bochner mounted two sheets and measured the space in-between; now the wall itself was incorporated into the work, an expanse to be measured. In the important 36” Latitudinal Projection, presented at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in 1969, a 36” x 36” square sheet provided the standard for mapping the dimensions of an entire room. Measurement: Room also at Friedrich, and Measurement: Circle 360 Degrees (1970, Galeria Sperone), the culmination of a series of measurements of arcs, went a step further, presenting the dimensions of the gallery itself. Like the projects of Judd, Andre, Flavin and LeWitt, Bochner ‘s Measurement works set up an a priori standard or shape that would produce the outcome of the “work”. In Bochner’s case, however, the ultimate source for this thematization of process were surely the practices of Rauschenberg, Johns, and the early Stella. Raushcenberg’s early blueprints of human bodies, tire print, and Factum I and II, Johns’s Number Series and Stella’s Black Paintings (whose stripes were determined by the edge of the canvas or proceeded concentrically from a preset pattern) offered a powerful critique of the subjectivist authorial model of abstract expressionism. “For me,” Bochner observed retrospectively, “the use of self-generating procedures to make art was a liberation from the limitations of my own ego. It represented an escape from individualism by the objectification of process. I remember believing that it may be the means of achieving Flaubert’s dream of the annihilation of the author.”2
Johns was influential in another direction. His critique of the expressionist model and insertion of language in the pictorial field resuscitated the Duchampian legacy of the anti-retinal, critiquing the late modernist insistence on a “pure” secularity. “When I first came to know Johns’s work I saw that I could stop painting,” Bochner has observed.3 By the early 60’s, Johns had transformed painting into a self-consciously epistemological inquiry, a “conceptual art” buoyed, in part, by the writings of the late Wittgenstein. What is the line between seeing and knowing? How do we define what we see or know? How do the linguistic systems we use determine this knowledge, or render it distant, strange? How do we communicate what we mean? Works like the Maps and According to What juxtaposed different representational codes, causing the coherence and clarity of each system to collapse. In an homage to Duchamp, rulers and compasses, “objective” tools of epistemological and spatial definition, were also introduced; Robert Morris followed suit.4 And so Bochner:
The first measurement “piece” I did was because I was unable to put anything on the paper. Nothing at that moment seemed meaningful enough to note. I had two sheets of paper on the wall which I was just looking at. Suddenly I saw the space between them. I saw that it was as much the subject as the paper. I measured the distance and drew it on the wall. . . . When I took down the sheets of paper I had the measurement alone. It puzzled me. It still puzzles me. What does it mean to have 25 inches drawn on the wall?5
In contrast to Johns’ and Morris’s investigations, which incorporated rulers within a painting or relief, abstracting and thematizing measurement, Bochner’s analyses were conducted on the wall, beyond the confines of the object. In other words, Bochner’s works were mediated by the minimal investigation of whole shapes and their perception in the gallery, an investigation initiated, during the mid ‘60s by Morris himself.6 Certainly, like minimal work, Bochner ‘s Measurementsheightened the spectator’s awareness of the gallery site. However, introducing a numeric analogue or description of the measured area, Bochner transformed Morris’s analyses of the phenomenological conditions of the gallery into a conceptual critique of the art institution. The sheet of brown paper informed this transition:
The brown paper began as just a convenience, something that was always around the studio. It came in sizes, 3 feet by 4 feet, which are the standard measurements of most building materials. I slowly came to realize that these measurements are so deeply imbedded in our experience that they regulate our perception, yet remain completely invisible.7
The standard size of the sheet of paper, Bochner suggests, at once reflects and reproduces the standardized scale of modern architecture and its furnishings (of endless interest to Le Corbusier and Mies), a scale Bochner ‘s works would expose. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Buren, Weiner, Asher, Graham, and Matta-Clark also analyzed the specular and ideological conditions of the late modernist “white cube.”8 Abstract painting—once an exemplar of “resistance,” now the commodity fetish par excellence--becarne a particular object of critique. Buren’s rolls of striped canvas were easily cut and mounted for a given context, inside or outside the gallery; Weiner’s 36” x 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall (1968) foregrounded the function of the “neutral” white exhibition site in conferring pedigree and value (in postwar years, the Museum of Modem Art, the Whitney Museum, and other institutions established this as the appropriate backdrop for modernist masterpieces). Bochner’s 48” Standards (#I) must be understood within the context of this activity. While Buren replaced the artist’s canvas with his reproducible roll, and Weiner removed the canvas’s support out from under itself, Bochner exchanged canvas for commercial paper. Each of these artists presented not the painting but its trace, a token of its absence, a cipher.
Bochner’s Measurement works narrate, with a seeming inevitability, a transition from the canvas to paper, from paper to expanses of wall, from the wall to the three-dimensional, “pure” space of the modernist gallery. They recuperate, for the postwar era, the legacy of institutional analysis of Russian constructivism and Duchamp: the context of the work is the “work.”
1. The most famous of the reproducible conceptual texts was the Xerox Book published by Seth Siegelaub and Jack Wendler in 1968, which included projects by Andre, Barry, Huebler, Kosuth, LeWitt, Morris, and Weiner.
2. He adds: “On [the latter] point, however, I was probably mistaken.” Letter to the author, January 13,1992.
3. Bochner quoted in Robert Pincus-Witten, “Mel Bochner: The Constant as Variable,” in Postminimalism into Maximalism (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1987), 103.
4. The relevant examples are Johns’s Painting with Ruler and “Grey” (1960), Good Time Charley (1961), and Device (1961-1962). Morris produced several works incorporating rulers from 1962-1964, and his Metered
Bulb measured the wattage used to power an electric light. One particular work of Morris’s, formerly in the Scull Collection, bears particular mention. A square relief with the word LOCATION at center, surrounded by four arrows pointing in named directions (CEILING, FLOOR, and WALL FEET) and accompanied by odometers, anticipates the logic of the Measurements,
5. Quoted in Brenda Richardson, Mel Bochner: Number and Shape, exh. cat. (Baltimore Museum of Art, 1976), 12.
6. See Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture I and II,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art (New York: Dutton, 1968), 222-235.
7. Mel Bochner, “‘Unpublished Interview with Elayne Varian,” New York, NY, March 1969.
8. The finest discussions of this activity are to be found in the many texts of Benjamin Buchloh, including, most recently “From an Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique: in L’Art conceptual-une perspective, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1990), 41-53.
James Meyer (seen here at Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty) is the Winship Distinguished Associate Professor of Art History at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is currently an Associate Curator of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art.