Thresholds of Vision:
Mel Bochner and the Space of Painting
by Robert Stalker
Mel Bochner, Surface Dis/Tension,
silhouetted composite gelatin silver print, 1968.
In some ways I always thought of myself as a painter
. . . a painter who just didn’t happen to paint.
Mel Bochner’s “return” to painting in the 1980s caught many by surprise. After all, hadn’t Bochner, like a lot of artists who came of age in the 1960s, long since turned his back on painting? Indeed, the work that established Bochner as one of the earliest and most significant Conceptual artists—exhibits comprised of “working drawings,” diagrams, note cards, even masking tape—seems, at first blush, preoccupied with questions (not to mention materials) far removed from those that have traditionally concerned painters. And yet, as Bochner himself has insisted, underpinning much of his rather wide-ranging artistic output is “an analytical attempt to rethink painting’s functions and meanings.” The obvious intimation of cinematic space in the very paintings that marked Bochner’s “return” to the genre suggests that central to Bochner’s project of rethinking painting’s functions and meanings is a consideration of the relation between the space of the picture plane and that of the cinema screen. The sequential ordering of the image in Threshold (1982) or the tumbling blocks depicted in such paintings as Freefall (1987) seem to break down the illusion of cinematic movement into a pictorial representation of individual film frames projected simultaneously. During the ‘60s Bochner rarely availed himself of the tools and materials we would normally associate with painting; nevertheless, the relations between pictorial and cinematic space fascinated him even then, finding an exceptionally provocative expression in two related works from this period, the film New York Windows(1966) and the magazine piece Alfaville, Godard’s Apocalypse (1968).
Made in collaboration with the painter Robert Moskowitz, the little-known film New York Windows, represents one of Bochner’s earliest attempts to think about the relations between painting and moving image. Having met while Bochner was working as a guard at The Jewish Museum, Bochner and Moskowitz embarked on a film project when a mutual friend lent them a 16mm movie camera and some unexposed film. After some initial experiments, the two shot a 12 minute black and white silent film entitled New York Windows.The film received its first public screening at the Projected Art exhibition at the Finch College Museum in 1966 and, unfortunately, has rarely been screened since. (According to Bochner’s studio, who generously gave me on-line access to a DVD version of the film, no known print of the film now exists.) Comprised of 10 static shots of New York shop windows, the film explicitly plays the space of the picture plane, whose most common metaphor of the window is literalized in the film, against the representational space of cinema.
The ten shop windows that form the putative subject of the film were all chosen, as Bochner later said, “on the basis of the artificiality of their displays”—a standing female mannequin brandishing a whip surrounded by stuffed tigers, a blown-up movie still of a couple running, a display of muscle and physique magazines. The individual shots are held for 1 or 2 minutes; the stationary camera and stillness of the window displays temporarily lend each shot the quality of still photograph. (Bochner and Moskowitz were apparently influenced in this regard by the work of Walker Evans.) The film’s central image of the window, however, inescapably calls to mind Leon Battista Alberti’s centuries old metaphor of painting as an open window (aperta finestra), pushing the relation between picture plane and movie screen. (Moskowitz’s painting from this period,Untitled (1961), included in the Art of Assemblage show in 1961, was a kind of collage that incorporated the window shade from his studio directly into the canvas, similarly explores the metaphor of painting as window.) In making the window frame virtually identical to the film frame, New York Windows conflates the window, the picture plane, and the movie screen, bringing together what Bochner calls in a contemporaneous catalogue statement entitled “Seriality and Photography” (1967) “conflicting conceptual and visual orders.”
The film adds yet another layer to these conflicting visual orders by capturing the wraithlike images of moving traffic and bustling passersby reflected in the shop windows. The movie thus suggests yet another space of vision, that of the mirror. Shot at 24 fps but intended to be projected at 16 fps, the film, as Bochner has said, slows “the procession of disembodied reflections to a funereal pace.” The contradictory spaces of vision evoked by window, screen, and mirror, along with the film’s concurrent absorption in the eerie stillness of the window displays and the dreamlike movements of cars and people, create a rather vertiginous and unreal sense of space. The inclusion of the occasional pedestrian passing between the camera and shop window further complicates the confusing sense of space set up by the film. In a note on the film written immediately after the film was made but not published until recently, Bochner states: “The window pane, now congruent with the movie screen, becomes the debased counterpart of the painter’s picture plane, simultaneously transparent and reflective.”
Mel Bochner and Robert Moskowitz, Still from New York Windows (1966).
In 1968, Bochner pursued these tensions between painting and cinema in one of his most bewildering works, the magazine piece Alfaville: Godard’s Apocalypse, initially published in Arts Magazine. Occupying a curiously liminal space between commentary and “genuine” art work, a “genre” that Bochner originated several years earlier with Robert Smithson in their piece for Art Voices entitled “The Domain of the Great Bear” (1966), Alfaville takes as its ostensible subject Godard’s science fiction detective film Alphaville: A Strange Case of Lemmy Caution (1965). (The misspelling in the title of Bochner’s piece resulted from an error on the part of the magazine’s typesetter). The piece takes the form of a grid containing within its individual “blocks” both written text and images: eclectic quotations, plot summary, observations on the film’s technique and themes, and images ranging from stills from Godard’s film and Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, to an Ed Ruscha photograph of a parking lot to a photograph of William S. Burroughs, who, in his fedora and trench coat looks a bit likeAlphaville’s noir hero, Lemmy Caution (played by the American ex-patriot actor Eddie Constantine). While the piece offers an oblique commentary on what Bochner perceives as Godard’s “old conventions of ethics and rationality,” the article’s puzzling form engages, much as New York Windows did, the curious tensions between stillness and motion opened up by the conflation of different frames of vision.
The odd grid-like structure of the piece evokes at once the cinematic and the pictorial, creating the kind of dizzying sense of space induced by New York Windows. On the one hand, the arrangement of the text into individual blocks of writing casts off the traditional imperative to scan the page from left to right, allowing the reader to move vertically or horizontally, creating a sense of motion. On the other hand, the disorientation induced by the unusual structure tends to distance the reader from the text, compelling the visual apprehension of the page layout in its entirety. That this conceptual and perceptual instability was at least part of the article’s point is suggested by Bochner’s comments in a recent interview: “The grid lulls the reader into believing there must be an order to the text. But after a number of frustrating wrong turns, it becomes evident that the grid is not going to work as a road map. The ‘uneasiness’ comes from the realization that you are caught in a labyrinth and are going to have to find the way out by yourself.” The arrangement of text and image in the form of the grid undermines the temporality of traditional writing, creating a kind of “para-cinema” from what Yve-Alain Bois calls its “montage structure.” The grid’s relation to cinema is further suggested by Bochner’s inclusion of the following quote from Godard: “My films are blocks.” (While Godard has certainly made statements like this, Raphael Rubinstein, who first exhibited Bochner’s Alfavillein an art context, warns that some of Bochner’s attributions may be fictitious.) Rather than supplying a set order, the grid allows for a quasi-cinematic montage of various juxtapositions of the grid’s blocks.
If the grid-like structure of the piece encourages a quasi-cinematic experience, it also evokes painting. Most immediately, the grid suggests the high modernist tradition of Mondrian, Malevich, and Albers, to name a few, painters who all famously worked with the grid. Reaching further back in art history, however, the grid might also summon the Renaissance velo-grid, a device used to aid painters in the mapping of a three dimensional real-world space onto the two-dimensional space of the picture plane. Either way, the grid’s evocation of the picture plane turns the text of Alfaville from words to be read into, to borrow Robert Smithson’s famous phrase, “words to be looked at,” subtly anticipating in this regard Bochner’s wall paintingLanguage is Not Transparent (1970). Alfaville’s arrangement or shaping of the text on the page foregrounds the materiality of language, looking forward to the way that, as Bois has pointed out, the “pseudo-expressionist gesture” of the later mural shows “that the material form in which language is uttered does have an effect on its signification.” The piece’s deployment of the grid thus creates the kind of irresolvable tensions between motion and stasis, transparency and opacity, that Bochner explored in New York Windows, evoking at once the different spatio-temporal dimensions of painting and cinema.
The line dividing Bochner’s early “Conceptualist” phase of the 1960s and his more recent “return” to painting in the 1980s may not be as definite as some have supposed. The fascination with the relations between pictorial and cinematic space that characterize the paintings Bochner began producing in the 1980s finds its incipient expression in works such as New York Windows and Alfaville. “I’m interested in painting as a text that is continually rewritten,” the artist has said. Rewriting that text for Bochner has involved bringing the cinematic into provocative, at times quite disconcerting, collision with the space of painting.
Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.