Mel Bochner

Mel Bochner

The Jewish Museum

Mel Bochner, Dollar Hash Exclamation Plus, 2011. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 45 x 60 in. Courtesy of Peter Freeman. Artwork © Mel Bochner.

April 29, 2014

Mel Bochner: Strong Language
May 2–September 21, 2014

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue 
New York, NY 10128
Hours: Saturday–Tuesday & Friday 11am–5:45pm, 
Thursday 11am–8pm

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Across a selection of more than 70 works, Mel Bochner: Strong Language focuses on the artist’s career-long fascination with the cerebral and visual associations of words. In his spectacular recent paintings, Bochner juxtaposes the vernacular and the proper, the formal and the vulgar, and the high versus the low, using terms often appropriated from Roget’s Thesaurus.

A founding figure of the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s, Mel Bochner (b. 1940) has taken an unusual turn toward painterly expressiveness during the past two decades. The exhibition will present a broad selection of works—from often-witty early Conceptual examples to vibrantly colored and lushly executed recent paintings—which show the artist’s engagement with the possibilities of language as image, medium, and content.

The use of words as sources for painting stems from Bochner’s interest in philosophy on the one hand and humor and popular culture on the other. Bochner’s use of the Thesaurus was pursued with increasing interest following the release of its latest edition, in 2001. Using a variety of techniques—paint on canvas and velvet, drawing, printmaking, wall installations—the paintings riff on words and meanings in countless permutations. For Bochner, the thesaurus is “a warehouse for words”—a mine of readymade text for his billboard-like pictures. Bochner uses word games, incongruities, and even visual slapstick to draw the viewer into linguistic, phenomenological, and social puzzles.

In his recent paintings, Bochner has explored painterly elements of high-key color, thick facture, and virtuoso brushwork. These works offer myriad pleasures for the eye, playing pictorial approaches against literary associations. Visual and verbal snares await the viewer, who is forced to negotiate a path between the opticality of color, the materiality of paint, and sometimes transgressive language.

Within the Western philosophical tradition, Bochner has long been interested in Jewish thought, with its emphasis on text, language, and wordplay. Yet the words he selects are hardly elevated or sacred—in fact, they are often mundane and secular. As in Roget, the formal and elegant and the colloquial and crude are lumped together. Bochner captures the language of the street, in which sources from Yiddish, queer theory, and hip-hop jostle one another.

The artist’s double vision proposes a unity between two sets of discrete symbolic systems—word and painting; the philosophical and the commonplace. Mel Bochner: Strong Language offers sensual delight, intellectual ferment, and an opportunity to reflect on this seminal artist’s exceptional contribution to the art of our time.

Mel Bochner: Strong Language is organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator of the Jewish Museum, with Stephen Brown, Assistant Curator at the Jewish Museum. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press have co-published a 144-page catalogue by Norman L. Kleeblatt with a text by Mel Bochner. The exhibition design is by Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award winners, Tsao & McKown Architects.

Also on view 
Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Mel Bochner
May 2–October 12
In 1970, Mel Bochner created Theory of Boundaries on a wall in the Jewish Museum for the exhibition Using Walls (Indoors). It comprised four red squares: one rendered with precise lines, the other three made with imperfect or gestural strokes to form a border. The whiteness of the wall between each shape emphasized its straight or distorted edges. At the center of each square was a “language fraction,” written by the artist in chalk—word combinations that hinted at ideas of placement and displacement. Bochner used the wall like a notebook, offering notes toward a visual proposition.

Four decades after Theory of Boundaries, Bochner returns to the Jewish Museum with Mel Bochner: Strong Language, a survey of nearly 70 works. In conjunction with this exhibition, the Museum presents his commissioned painting Blah, Blah, Blah (2014). This is the second installment of the revived series Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings. As one of the artists in the original Using Walls exhibition, Bochner now takes part in the Museum’s exploration of its past as a source of curatorial and artistic inspiration.

Blah, Blah, Blah, a seven-panel painting on velvet, continues the artist’s ongoing use of text as image. It belongs to a larger suite of works centered on this repetitious phrase, a weary, inarticulate expression of boredom and jaded irritation. Other works feature the word BLAH written over and over in azure swaths of paint. Drips, erasures, and smears suggest an attempt to silence a cacophony of pointless chatter.

Here, the BLAHS, stacked and uniformly aligned, are crafted in vibrant colors, using the artist’s signature font of rounded capital letters. Expressionist brushwork and thick facture distort their shapes, building a staccato pattern of legible and illegible words; the effect is of a chanting chorus of annoyed (or perhaps amused) voices. As in Theories of Boundaries, Bochner plays with notions of borders and negative space, with meaning and the gaps in meaning, with the relationship of the material to the ineffable: As knowledge is to practice…no thought exists without sustaining support.

Public programs related to Mel Bochner: Strong Language
Dialogue and Discourse: Mel Bochner and Norman Kleeblatt
Thursday, May 15, 6:30pm
In conjunction with the exhibition Mel Bochner: Strong Language, curator Norman Kleeblatt talks with the artist about the early days of Conceptualism and his recent paintings using words drawn from Roget’s Thesaurus.
Free with pay-what-you-wish admission; RSVP recommended.

This Is How We Do It
Thursday, July 17, 6:30pm
Norman Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator, speaks with Calvin Tsao, of Tsao & McKown Architects, on their numerous collaborations on exhibition design, including their most recent, for Mel Bochner: Strong Language.
Free with pay-what-you-wish admission; RSVP recommended.

A Closer Look gallery talks
May 5, 19; June 9, 23; July 7, 21
This in-depth exploration of select works of art in the special exhibition galleries occurs Mondays at 1pm.
Free with museum admission.

Additional programs inspired by Mel Bochner: Strong Language will be announced at a later date.

The artist
Mel Bochner (b. 1940) lives and works in New York City. His work has been exhibited at museums and art galleries around the world across six decades, including Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh, 1985), Yale Art Gallery (New Haven, 1995), Sonnabend Gallery (New York, 2000), Whitney Biennial (New York, 2004), Tate Modern (London, 2005), The National Gallery (Washington, D.C., 2011), Whitechapel (London, 2012), and now at the Jewish Museum. Bochner was born in Pittsburgh and received his BFA in 1962 from Carnegie Mellon, who also conferred on him an honorary Doctor of the Arts in 2005. Bochner moved to New York City in 1964 and worked as a security guard at the Jewish Museum while developing his art and his critical skills, having also been recruited by Dore Ashton to teach Art History at the School of Visual Arts. Later in that decade, he evolved several of the exhibition strategies now taken for granted, including using the walls of the gallery as the subject of the work and using photo documentation of ephemeral and performance works. His 1966 show at the School of Visual Arts, Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art, is regarded as a seminal exhibition in the Conceptual art movement, and was remade at the Drawing Center (New York) in 1998. Bochner began making paintings in the late 1970s—some colorful and containing words, others more clearly connected to his earlier Conceptual work.

Mel Bochner: Strong Language is made possible by the Melva Bucksbaum Fund for Contemporary Art.

Leadership support is provided by the Barbara S. Horowitz Contemporary Art Fund. Generous additional support is provided by Michael Kapland and Bonnie Postel in loving memory of their parents Dr. Jack Allen and Shirley H. Kapland, Suzanne F. Cohen, Alice and Nahum Lainer, Jill and Peter Kraus, and Judith Racht and Irving Stenn, Jr.

The exhibition is supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Public programs at the Jewish Museum are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Major annual support is provided from public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Mel Bochner at The Jewish Museum2
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April 29, 2014

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