The Whitechapel Gallery has just opened the first major survey show in Britain of Mel Bochner, one of an influential group of New York-based artists who, from the 1960s, pioneered conceptual art. Over the last five decades the term ‘conceptual’ has been used for an extraordinarily wide range of artists and artworks, but the movement’s central premise has remained the same: the concept any artwork conveys is as important, if not more important, than the object that conveys it. Bochner has argued that the objects he makes could best be described as ‘delivery systems’ for concepts.
Mel Bochner, 'Blah, Blah, Blah', 2011. Oil on velvet (10 panels). Overall: 284.5 x 533.4 cm. Courtesy Two Palms, New York. © Mel Bochner.
Bochner’s contemporary Sol Le Witt famously declared in his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1968) – the closest the conceptual school of that time had to a manifesto – that the ‘The piece need not be built’; the idea itself was sufficient. Peer Lawrence Weiner published a book Statements that year that described artistic projects rather than actually producing them. Texts explaining an artist’s ideas, often written directly on the gallery wall, became the manifestation of artworks. In the same way that previous artists had varied the colour, consistency and texture of paint to change the representation of an object on a canvas, conceptualists have experimented with the spelling, grammar and presentation of language in order to change the representation of their idea.
Mel Bochner, 'Sputter', 2010. Oil on canvas. 203.2 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy of the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection. © Mel Bochner. Like Le Witt and Weiner, whose works are better known to British audiences, Bochner has spent his career exploring the potential and failure of language to communicate ideas. Although the Whitechapel dedicates room in the exhibition to his explorations of mathematical concepts and theories of painting and photography, the works that leave the greatest impression – grouped mainly in a large final gallery – are an ongoing series of text pieces, known as his ‘Thesaurus Paintings’. With the help of Roget’s Thesaurus, the artist develops list of synonyms or multi-word expressions of the same idea. These lists of words are then painted in oil and acrylic on canvas or velvet in a variety of different colours.
Contempt (2005), for example, is a two-metre-wide canvas with a green-turquoise background, on which is painted – in an ordered fashion, seemingly with the use of a stencil – 32 words in capital letters that equate to ‘contempt’: the first six read ‘contempt’ (in beige), ‘spite’ (in dark green), ‘malice’ (in dark red), ‘loathing’ (in orange), ‘condensation’ (in lilac), ‘belligerence’ (in dark blue). Although these words mean much the same thing, their colours completely changes the viewer’s prior perceptions of them. ‘Sadism’ seems to carry far less bite as a written word when in light blue, and here Bochner exposes some of the difference between written and verbal language, as ‘Sadism’ said out loud or in the mind still seems to maintain some of its threat. The words affect the colour as much as the colour affects the words. Beige, always in my mind an innocuous tone, seems more pernicious once twinned with the word ‘contempt’.
Mel Bochner, 'Master of the Universe', 2010. Oil and acrylic on canvas (2 panels). Overall: 254 x 190.5 cm. Collection Anita & Burton Reiner, Washington DC. © Mel Bochner. In other ‘Thesaurus Paintings’ Bochner moves ever more micro, painting different syllables and single letters in different hues. In Nonsense (2009), Bochner has applied colours on letters of different adjacent works, so that ‘ber’ of ‘jabber’ is linked visually to the ‘wa’ of ‘twaddle’ and the ‘o’ of jumbo through white paint. The viewer finds the words increasingly hard to read the more kaleidoscopic their letters become: the idea that might correspond to any word becomes remote. In Master of the Universe (2010), the background of each line changes colour as well as the letters. In the words of the curator at the Whitechapel, Achim Borchardt-Hume: ‘words dissolve into patterns, horizontal word chains into diagonals and zig-zags of colour that dart across the paintings surface. The initial impulse is to read the words, yet the longer we look at the paintings and become absorbed by our visceral responses to colour and all that it entails – contrast, light and weight – the more the written word takes a back seat.’
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine