OK I admit it: I love Mel Bochner. Well, I love Mel and his work, though I haven’t seen him in years. I probably first became aware of his work in the early 70s, when visits to galleries and Soho were ritualistic, and his shows at Sonnabend always received attention. Or so it seemed to me then.
The Spring Street restaurant was to New York in the 1970s what the Cedar Tavern had been to the 1950s. Spring Street was one of the first bars in the newly burgeoning neighborhood called Soho. We drifted down there on late nights after hours, since it was not far from our dorms at NYU, looked dangerous, and was reportedly a “gay bar” late at night. A few years later, I was part of the scene, working for a 57th Street dealer who represented artists living in Soho. After openings at Leo Castelli’s or John Weber’s gallery, or any Saturday opening, people (meaning artists, writers, and a few gallery folk) congregated at Spring Street. The conversation there, over roast chicken and white wine--we discovered chardonnay there--was animated, jovial, boisterous, opinionated, and often about the latest book or catalogue discovered on the tables at Jaap Rietman’s bookstore on Spring Street. None of the cynicism that came to be the “style” of the 80s was in evidence: it was all-black outfits, post-modern theory, and urban angst.
In previous generations, the power of art could be expressed by means of paint and brush by the likes of de Kooning and Rothko. For Bochner in the 1970s, that power was ascribed to the word and the use of that word. He was certainly not alone in the use of language as art--Ed Ruscha, Joseph Kosuth, and Jenny Holzer have also used text as their subject matter--but his written and verbal statements looked at language not as a descriptive mode but more as a measure of place and space. As he states in a 1971 lecture:
In my work the subject matter is the contradiction between physical space and mental space. How do our concepts of the world differ from the world itself?
Do artists ask those kind of questions today?-- LOL
Later, in an interview published in a 1985 Carnegie Mellon University catalogue, Bochner states:
I didn’t see why perception had to be tied to objects. Objects were never the things. I was particularly involved with-it was really feelings and ideas. And the feelings and ideas did not necessarily reside in objects. They resided in the artist’s approach to things—how things were thought about. That was what I was trying to find a way to communicate. It was my attempt to find my own identity
Bochner and his generation of artists played with the notion of what art was, what it could be, how it is done, accomplished, installed, recorded, discussed, written about, and studied.
Bochner was an art star in his own right in the 70s, as he deserved to be, a figure whose work is far more important than the appalling and, yes, even embarrassing hi jinx of the so-called YBA’s and their forbearers, or the all-but forgotten Neo Geo painters and sculptors of the 80s and 90s. Does anyone remember the toilet seat scandal or the endless speculation about appropriation or the East Village scene that disappeared into the history books, perhaps merely as a footnote, and onto a website or two? Through it all, Bochner simply continued his own investigations and probably watched, like we all did, a parade of characters and events that was entertaining at times, but mostly just confusing.
A dear collector friend in Los Angeles owns a great large painting by Bochner from the 80s. It is a strong, geometric arrangement and was a stunning surprise when I discovered it hanging on the wall of his West Hollywood house a few years ago (opposite an equally stunning early Ralph Humphrey I had urged him to buy years earlier). He knew that the Bochner had something and wanted it “badly,” as he put it.
In the Bochner is a playlet about the progression of forms, but what I find most engaging about this picture, and those like it, is its sense of time and rhythm, as if the progress of reading from left to right charts an activity that is simultaneously mental and physical. There are the kind of structural acrobatics you might see in Malevich and others of the Constructivist movement. Paint, texture, color, line are all expressed in fine detail; each element plays a significant role in the overall scheme of the picture. These ideas were first developed as wall paintings—yes Bochner was a close friend and admirer of Sol LeWitt—simple, rational, mathematical forms. Over the years, Bochner translated these images and thoughts into much more dramatic and linear configurations in charcoal and pastel drawings and intensely colorful, shaped canvases with titles like Vertigo, Breach, and Implode that suggested motion and speed, direction, and a certain tension or friction at hand.
As a student, I was won over by Bochner’s essays and reviews that appeared in Arts Magazine or elsewhere. I was taken by the raw values of working with stones and tape, tools that seemed less about making art than describing knowledge, or rather ways in which to translate knowledge about things in the world through visual means to a viewer in a gallery or museum setting. I appreciated the challenge Bochner declared through his conceptual stance, a radical departure from the usual tool kit of artists working in the vein of Abstract Expressionism or Pop. Bochner has always worked to achieve a delicate balance between what he described as feelings in partnership with ideas. He deploys an array of ideas--abstraction, words and numbers, letters and phrases-- as well as means by which to express these ideas in a coherent, cogent manner notable for its elegance and simplicity, in works that are minimal and spare.
For years I’ve collected books, pamphlets, and catalogues on Mel’s work, from his Primer, published in 1973, to a brochure of a drawing show in the early 80s in Dallas, Texas, to a more recent edition on drawings published by his long time supporter, the art dealer Lawrence Markey, in the late 90s, to one on photography published by Yale University Press in 2002 for a show at in Boston and Pittsburgh.
To a bibliophile such as myself, the first encounter with a new monograph or catalogue is sometimes better than first time-sex with a new lover. Me, with the new book, on my bed, a down comforter, the lights low, and on every fresh page something exciting to read, new pictures to look at, new things to learn, to think about….
The bibliographic recognition of Bochner’s contribution to contemporary art practice and theory continues with several new shows and books: Mel Bochner Language 1966-2006, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, and a new book, Solar System & Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007 published by MIT Press in 2008.
As reference works, these are terrific surveys of two distinct elements in Bochner’s work. The Chicago book focuses on language and the use of words as works of art--there would be no Bochner without the word. The MIT book explores Bochner the artist as critic, writer and theoretician. As serious and demanding as Bochner’s writings are in this edition, he also demonstrates the humorous side of this life in art as illustrated in a small 1966 notebook drawing call “Minimal Art – the Movie.” On it are penned two lists: one of the names of minimalist artists, the other a list of actors “cast”to play each artist in the movie. Dan Flavin is played by Jackie Gleason; Kirk Douglas would portray Carl Andre, and Eva Hesse is forever remembered because of Monica Vitti! years later, Bochner’s humor goes public. On a large, fifty-two foot long signboard called The Joys of Yiddish, Bochner lists a dictionary of terms that are used to describe people, that is the public, made up of disparate characters. The crowd includes the nudnick and pisher, and the kibbitzer and gonif. Once again, he brings together his ideas and feelings! Oy!
Mel Bochner, The Joys of Yiddish, enamel on plywood, 2006.
Equally successful in this volume is the collection of articles and interviews, which includes reviews of shows, including the important Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in the mid 60s, to late Cezanne and Bonnard, discussions of film and photography, and conversations with various writers and critics such as the late John Coplans, Charles Stucky, and James Meyer. Bochner writes about his peers-- Donald Judd and Robert Mangold, for example--and the art world he is operating in. Yes, it is all very New York-centric, but this was long before the world-wide-web and the globalization of everything.
With any luck, the next book to enter the Bochner bibliography will be a monograph that brings all parts of his ouevre together and presents to a younger audience the accomplishments of a man who helped develop American conceptual art. It’s good to have the books, but where is the long overdue retrospective of Bochner’s work? It would be daring to see rooms of his counting and measurement pieces using stones and chalk, rooms of graphite drawings and prints, casein wall paintings and paintings on canvas, representing over 40 years of thinking and working, presented to a public that thinks it knows contemporary art.
Michael Klein operates Michael Klein Arts in New York and is an artist’s agent and private dealer.