Mel Bochner: Lecture

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Mel Bochner

Institute of Fine Arts Lecture


mel bochner: selected writings

Tonight, I would like to talk about some ideas and issues which have interested me for a very long time, and how, in new mediums and new contexts, they continue to thread their way through my work. In 1997 I began rereading Wittgenstein’s ‘Remarks On Color’. In the last year of his life Wittgenstein, inspired by Goethe, set down a series of ‘remarks’ on color. Color as a philosophical subject dates from Newton’s discovery in 1672 that refracting white light through a prism divides it into its component colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. But, equally important was his discovery that passing them through the prism again, turns the colors back into white light. Goethe, writing 100 years later, argued against Newton’s premise.   ‘That all colors mixed together produce white is an absurdity which people have credulously been accustomed to repeat for   a century, in opposition to the evidence of their senses’. Of course Newton was talking about physics while Goethe was talking about subjective experience. Wittgenstein’s solution   to these two antithetical ways of thinking about color was   an appeal to what he called the ‘logic’ of color terms, i.e., their role in ‘the language game’. The closest thing to a conclusion he arrived at was this: ‘We do not want to find a theory of color (neither a physiological nor a psychological one), but rather   the logic of our color concepts.’ While reading through ‘Remarks On Color’, I came across   one of Wittgenstein’s rare self-reflexive comments. Fascinated by its opacity, and the ambiguity of its shifting referent, I decided to make a painting of it. This series, collectively titled   If the Color Changes, deals with the conflict between color-as -experience versus color-as-grammar. The opticality of the painting’s color is intended to throw one’s eye and mind out   of sync, slowing reading down, making you work to extract the meaning from the text. However, the longer you think about this text the more elusive the meaning becomes. When he   says ‘if the color changes you are no longer looking at the one   I meant’, the ground is suddenly pulled out from under you.   How did the color change? Who, or what was the agent? Was   the change perceptual or grammatical? An underlying theme of these paintings is the question of translation, not only from one language to another, but also from the verbal to the visual. I juxtapose the German and English texts to create a slippage between the texts, a space in which to problematize reading. What is the difference between looking at a painting and reading it? The color diverts the text from it’s duty to meaning, collapsing the mental space between reading and seeing. But color also creates a visual meaning, one that survives the consumption of the narrative. It has always

been important to me that the visual and material aspects of   my work continue to engage the viewer even after they think they have “gotten the idea”. In 2002 I came across a new edition of Roget’s thesaurus. Not only did it include very up-to-date vernacular and slang, but outright obscenity as well. Because the thesaurus is used by children from grade school on up, that signaled a dramatic change in what is considered ‘ordinary’ language. I wanted to explore what had happened to the boundaries of public discourse – linguistically and politically. Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) was a man of the Enlighten­ ment. Besides compiling the first systematic thesaurus, he was a Doctor of Medicine, invented the slide rule, and discovered the ‘persistence of vision’ principle that eventually led to the invention of motion pictures. A stickler for round numbers Roget wanted to divide the world of language into precisely 1000 categories, by imposing grand, rationalistic classifications on it, like ‘Mind and Ideas’, or ‘Behavior and the Will’. One of the greatest disappointments of Roget’s life was that he was unable to whittle the number of categories down to less than 1002 (the most recent edition has ballooned up to 1075). But   it’s impossible to impose external limits on language because there is no place to stand outside language. In the analytic philosophy of Frege, Russell, early Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle, the definition of a word must lay down necessary and sufficient conditions for its application. But in Wittgenstein’s later work, often referred   to as “ordinary language” philosophy, he repudiated that   view and attacked it as a “misguided craving for generality”.   He believed that philosophical problems would dissolve if   one paid close attention to the ordinary, everyday usage of words. It was on this issue that he introduced the concept of “language games”, since games are not defined by any necessary or sufficient conditions, but by a complex network of overlapping and criss-crossing similarities which he called “family resemblances”. There is no single thread running through all games, but rather a series of intertwined strands like a rope. This is a perfect description of the thesaurus, the ultimate form of anti-essentialism, a Pandora’s box of language. The thesaurus presents each word as an endlessly branching tree of family resemblances, planted in a neighborhood of overlapping meanings. The thesaurus not only offers an overview of the communal uses of a word, but also, implicitly, an archaeology of those uses, since as new editions are published, words are always added, but rarely discarded. For this reason these paintings seem to spark personal associations with specific words and expressions across


a wide generational cross-section of viewers. As the art historian and critic Mark Godfrey has noted: ‘At the [2004] Whitney Biennal I tried to pay attention to what people were saying in front of these paintings. The whole room became a kind of social space. Viewers were reminded of people they know. One person said “oh, your father uses that word a lot”. They were wandering around, looking at them and saying things like “that must be an English phrase, or I think that comes from such-and-such place”. People recalled a lot of personal memories when they looked at them.’ In the ‘thesaurus paintings’, no matter how similar they may appear, every word is painted a different color. Choices are made sequentially one word at a time, in a way I think of as improvisational. There is no plan or color study which precedes the painting. I have no idea what the painting will look like until I paint the final comma. Certain words are painted so close in value to the ground that they virtually disappear. Other colors seem to sizzle, or jump off the surface, subverting the narrative flow. As your eye begins to roam and your mind begins to wander, individual words start pulling away from the background. Freed from any conventional left-to-right reading, the words are free to recombine along new vectors producing unintended combinations and unexpected meanings. I think of the space this creates as a more Borgesian space, analogous to what he calls a “garden of forking paths”.   As a sense of the endlessness and circularity of language seeps into these paintings, an abyss opens up. There is no program governing my choice of words. It has been pointed out that I have a penchant for the suffix ‘less’ – as in Meaningless and Useless. But beyond acknowledging a penchant for the more downbeat side of language, I prefer to leave interpretations of meaning and intention to others. Words can come to me from anywhere and everywhere: my reading; thinking about the state of the world; a casual comment by a friend; a conversation overheard on the subway; or sometimes they just seem to pop into my head from nowhere. I stockpile words in notebooks which I constantly refer to, but I usually don’t know, beyond the painting I’m currently working on, what the next word will be. When I come across a word that interests me I begin by copying out the entries, gradually eliminating and rearranging them, both for sound and sense. After seeing the first group of thesaurus paintings, a poet friend observed, ‘These paintings prove that there is no such thing as a synonym.’ Voice is an important issue for me. In the Wittgenstein paintings I was interested in cannibalizing the voice of the other. In the ‘thesaurus paintings’ I am interested in the question of who is speaking. What is the difference between the same words


mel bochner: selected writings

spoken aloud or spoken by the silent voice inside your head? Or as Paul Valery put it, ‘Who speaks and who listens in the interior speech? If there is a voice there is an ear… The “I” is two by definition. The existence of speech from self to self is already the sign of a cut.’ The tone of these paintings has something to do with the evolution of language in contemporary public discourse, from the polite and respectful to the nasty and insulting. There is an implicit narrative in that downward spiral that these paintings attempt to track. Each painting begins with the more formal words and then devolves into words and phrases that refer to the body and its functions, from the prim and proper to the crude and vulgar. To me it’s related to the philosopher Alain Badiou’s observation that “in the world there are only languages and bodies”. Vulgar: This is one of an on-going group of paintings on black velvet begun in 2004. After the careful sign painter’s handlettering of the previous paintings I wanted to directly engage with the gross materiality of oil paint, to have its physicality and messiness add a layer of unpredictability to the meaning of the words. I’m often asked if these paintings are meant to be funny. Am I trying to be funny? That question always reminds me of the following exchange in Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas between Henry, played by Ray Liotta, and Tommy, played by Joe Pesci:









You’re really funny. What do you mean funny? You mean funny ‘ha ha’? You mean funny the way I talk? What? It’s just… you know. You’re just funny. Funny how? What’s funny about it? Tell me how I’m funny? Funny like a clown? I amuse you? I’m here   to fucking amuse you? What do you mean, funny? How am I funny? You know, how you tell a story. No, I don’t know. You said it. You said I’m funny. How am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me what’s funny. Get the fuck out of here, Tommy. Motherfucker! I almost had you there.

In 2002 I was invited, in collaboration with the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, to design a garden for the Carnegie Mellon University campus, which gave me my first opportunity to put my ideas about language into a public space. Inscribed in tile on the back wall, is a quotation from Wittgenstein. It has been transcribed word-for-word in reverse

order, probably the oldest and simplest form of encryption, or secret writing. My thought was to provide something like a caption, a text to accompany the garden, but one that critiques the very idea of those “elevated sentiments” engraved on institutional facades around the world. The quotation, when read backwards, reveals itself as a metaphor for the garden as both a physical and conceptual labyrinth. The title of the piece   is You Can Call It That If You Like. The Joys of Yiddish was designed specifically for the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, to be installed during the construction of their new building. Yiddish is the original ‘ghetto’ language, developed to cope with a foreign and often hostile reality. It reflects an ironic, skeptical, and frequently scatological view of human nature, unrefined and indifferent to polite taste. Initially the Spertus was afraid that highlighting such ‘inappropriate’ language on a 8' × 50' signboard in heart   of downtown Chicago, in the middle of Michigan Avenue, was   a more transgressive public statement than they wanted to make, but they eventually came around. Personally, I find the words quite funny: KIBBITZER, wise guy KVETCHER, chronic complainer K’NOCKER, braggart KUNI LEMMEL, simpleton NUDNICK, nag NEBBISH, sad sack NUDZH, pesterer GONIF, shady character DREYKOP, someone who gives you a headache CHAZZER, greedy person CHAIM YANKEL, nobody ALTER KOCKER, cranky old man MOISHE PUPIK, contrarian MESHUGENER, crazy person TUMLER, prankster TSITSER, useless bystander SHMOOZER, gossip SCHMO, fall guy SHLEMIEL, social misfit SHLIMAZEL, born loser SHVITZER, show-off PISHER, someone who still pees in his pants PLOSHER, blowhard PLATKE-MACHER, troublemaker

common use, says a lot about the assimilation of Jews into American society. There is, however, a subtext to this piece. Yellow and black were the colors of the armbands that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear. In the United States viewers may not get that association right away. But at the opening dinner, the director of the Jewish Museum in Vienna told me that in Austria the symbolism of the color would be understood immediately, and antagonize both the right and the left. I see this as a political work, but I don’t want to put it in quotation marks as ‘political art’. Its best when the politics slip into the cultural stream unannounced, greatly increasing the possibility that the work might alter the status quo by reframing the terms of the discourse. Nietzsche said ‘One should speak only where one must not be silent… Everything else is chatter.’ But the ‘seasickness’ of which he often spoke is induced by the fact that even where one must speak anything one says is still vulnerable to being misunderstood or simply ignored. To say something or to remain silent is indeed the question, but how to say it, when and where to say it, are also questions that must be addressed. Whether in the public or the private domain, my recent work attempts to confront the ideologies and hidden agendas of language. Because, as recent history has painfully taught us,   all abuses of power begin with the abuse of language.

Lecture delivered at nyu Institute of Fine Arts, September, 2007

That many of these words have been anglicized and entered


To Count: Intransitive, 2011 Melted ceramic on low-iron glass Ten glass panels ranging in size from   4 × 1.2 m to 4 × 1.5 m | 13 × 4 ft to 13 × 5 ft





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