Words Matter, A Lot

Mel Bochner’s ‘Strong Language’ show challenges our notions about reading and seeing.

05/20/2014
Culture Editor
Photo Galleria: 
Bochner’s “Language is Not Transparent.” Will Ragozzinno/The Jewish Museum
Bochner’s “Language is Not Transparent.” Will Ragozzinno/The Jewish Museum

Mel Bochner’s new show at The Jewish Museum involves a lot of reading. The more than 70 drawings and paintings are lists of synonyms, portraits conveyed with words, texts with philosophical leanings and emoticons, too.

Bochner, 73, has long been interested in the use of text as image: Back in the 1960s he was making works of ink-on-graph-paper; his more recent large-scale work, involving strokes of painted color — what chief curator Norman Kleeblatt calls Bochner’s  “turn to the painterly” — is no less textual. Throughout the exhibition “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” the artist challenges the viewer to think about differences between reading and seeing, between focusing on the words and experiencing the work of art.

“If the Color Changes,” a series of paintings made between 1997 and 2000, features a quotation about the perception of color from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. “To observe is not the same thing as to look at or to view,” the quote begins and wanders into the conundrum of describing color in words. In each painting, Bochner writes out the Wittgenstein lines in German and overlays the English translation, so that neither text is easy to read. The paintings’backgrounds vary, from a light wash to one with globes of bright color behind the letters. In each different words stand out. 

Bochner is a painter of ideas. “One of the underlying themes of these paintings,” he explains in an essay in the exhibition catalog, “is the question of translation, not only from one language to another, but also from the textual to the visual.”

Painted on a wall is another phrase that animates his work: “Language is Not Transparent.” This is a work he first created in 1970 and has repeated many times. In an interview, Kleeblatt explains, “Bochner turns painting into an experiment in the visual manifestation of language.”

The exhibition — Bochner’s first major solo museum exhibition in New York — opens with his “Self/Portrait” (2013). Here, there are two lists of words painted in white letters on black under the words “self” and “portrait,” with words like “oneness” and “being” on the left, and “profile” and “mirror” in the right column. An earlier version, “Self/Portrait” (1966), features the same list in smaller scale, penned on graph paper. The viewer learns little about the painter from either “Self/Portrait,” but can feel his connection to words and that he may have a sense of humor. (One biographical detail: In 1964, when he moved to New York City from Pittsburgh, Bochner worked as a guard at The Jewish Museum for about a year, until he was fired for napping behind a Louise Nevelson sculpture.)

His portraits of other painters, his friends, done in the 1960s, are also portraits in words — of Sol LeWitt, Marcel Duchamp, Eva Hesse and others — with lists of words and shapes conveying a sense of each artist’s work and sensibility

Bochner’s later lists of words burst with a kaleidoscope of color — primary colors and intense, brilliant variations on green, purple, orange, plus some more muted shades. For inspiration, he turns to the thesaurus, a “warehouse of words.” In 2001, soon after the publication of the sixth edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, he began a series featuring lines of synonyms; it is the centerpiece of this show. The artist takes a word like “Nothing” or “Meaningless” (the names of paintings done in 2003) and paints related words from the thesaurus, each another color; some words pop and others almost disappear. In “Silence!” (2011), each letter is a different color, and phrases seem to shout in highly contrasting tones.

Bochner’s choice of words begins with proper, formal words, and then shifts to vernacular, and by the bottom of the piece, the words become more vulgar. Commas separate the words, and some words are hyphenated to fit on a line — he arranges them with attention to both sense and sound. The first line of “Money” (2005) reads, “Money, Moola, Mazuma, Gelt,” and the last line is “Assets, Filthy, Lucre, $,$,$.”

“I’m trying to evolve a narrative that leads from the first word to the last,” he writes. He doesn’t think of these works as poetry, although he recognizes that his structure is governed by certain formal constraints.

Invoking thesaurus creator Peter Mark Roget, Bochner writes that “there is no such thing as a synonym,” that no two words can mean the exact same thing. So just as color can’t be precisely described, neither can words.

He describes the process of painting as improvisational, making choices of color as he goes along, with no idea of what the final painting will look like until he completes it. The letters — all capitals — are all done by hand, and they’re beautiful, well-proportioned forms with rounded edges. It’s surprising to hear him say at a recent press event that he’s not interested in typography.  After all, he made up this font, and uses it repeatedly.

Bochner, who grew up in an observant home, turns to Jewish themes in “The Joys of Yiddish” (2012), with phrases drawn from Leo Rosten’s 1968 book. These words were also painted on the outside of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, (a museum housed in a Nazi-era structure built to showcase German) in a 2013 installation. In “Jew” (2008), the yellow letters are written in a quicker, slanted hand, on a slate gray background that looks like a blackboard. A visitor says she’d like to erase these words, which are vile. Bochner created this work based on a racist Internet site he found that shocked him, both for its content and its similarity to his working method of tracking synonyms.

Other pieces also include letters that are less perfectly drawn, even with drips of paint in deep shades of blue, like the “Blah,Blah, Blah” paintings, where those are the only words that appear, as though the painter needed a break from all the banter.

In a final gallery, another version of “Silence!” (2012) is oil painted on velvet, with off-white letters applied thickly to a light background, this time whispering. Nearby, on a smaller monochromatic canvas, he asks, still playing with ideas about the visual and the verbal, “Do I have to draw you a picture?” (2013).

Speaking at The Jewish Museum just before the show’s opening, Bochner said, “My ideas come from everyday experience — what I see, what I read, what I talk about.” He went on, “An artist goes into the studio everyday; you want to have the feeling at the end of the day that you’ll know something you didn’t know. It doesn’t happen every day. Or else, I’m just a manufacturer of small goods.”

“Mel Bochner: Strong Language” is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (92nd Street) through Sept. 21, 2014. Thejewishmuseum.org.

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