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Mel Bochner

Über die Autoren

Mel Bochner

Achim Borchardt-Hume ist seit 2009 Hauptkurator der Whitechapel Gallery in London. Hier kuratierte er zahlreiche Ausstellungen und Projekte, darunter Keeping It Real: Works from the D. Daskalopoulos Collection (2010), Walid Raad: Miraculous Beginnings (2010), Wilhelm Sasnal (2011), The Bloomberg Commission: Giuseppe Penone (2012) und Think Twice: Collection Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (2012). Zuvor war er bei der Tate Modern, der Barbican Art Gallery und der Serpentine Gallery tätig. Im November 2012 übernimmt er die Ausstellungsleitung an der Tate Modern. Briony Fer ist Professorin für Kunstgeschichte am University College London. Sie hat zahlreiche Arbeiten zu Themen der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts und zur Gegenwartskunst veröffentlicht, darunter die Bücher On Abstract Art (1997), The Infinite Line (2004) und Eva Hesse: Studiowork (2009). João Fernandes ist seit 2003 Direktor des Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, nachdem er seit 1996 dessen stellvertretender Direktor gewesen war. Von 1987 bis 1995 forschte er am Instituto Politécnico do Porto und war dort als Professor für Linguistik tätig. Von 1992 bis 1996 arbeitete er als freiberuflicher Kurator. Er kuratierte die portugiesische Repräsentanz bei der ersten Johannesburg Biennale (1995), der 24. Biennale von São Paulo (1998) und der 50. Biennale von Venedig (2003). Beiträge von ihm sind in Büchern und Katalogen vieler Museen und anderer Kunstinstitutionen erschienen. Mark Godfrey ist Kurator für internationale Kunst an der Tate Modern, wo er die Retrospektiven von Roni Horn, Francis Älys, Gerhard Richter und Alighiero Boetti kokuratierte. Er ist Autor der Bücher Abstraction and the Holocaust – das ein Kapitel über Bochner enthält – und Alighiero Boetti, beide bei Yale University Press erschienen. Derzeit bereitet er für 2014 Retrospektiven zu Richard Hamilton und Sigmar Polke vor; zuletzt veröffentlichte er u. a. Essays über James Welling, R. H. Quaytman, Frances Stark und Abraham Cruzvillegas.

www.hirmerverlag.de

HIRMER

Ulrich Wilmes ist seit 2008 Hauptkurator am Haus der Kunst München. Von 1988 bis 1991 war er Kurator am Portikus Frankfurt am Main, von 1991 bis 2000 Kurator für zeitgenössische Kunst am Lenbachhaus in München, seit 1995 stellvertretender Direktor ebendort. Von 2000 bis 2008 war er stellvertretender Direktor am Museum Ludwig in Köln. Er kuratierte zahlreiche Ausstellungen und ist Autor vieler Veröffentlichungen über internationale zeitgenössische Kunst und Künstler wie Mel Bochner, Chuck Close, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Dan Graham, Cristina Iglesias, Jörg Immendorff, On Kawara, Ellsworth Kelly, Per Kirkeby, Matt Mullican, Gerhard Richter, Ulrich Rückriem, Ed Ruscha, Wilhelm Sasnal und Lawrence Weiner.

Mel Bochner (geb. 1940) gehört zu der New Yorker Künstlergeneration, die sich in den 1960er Jahren mit dem seinerzeit ausgerufenen »Ende der Malerei« auseinandersetzte. Bochner war einer der Ersten, die Sprache im Bildraum einsetzten, weshalb Benjamin Buchloh, Kunsthistoriker an der Harvard University, seine Working Drawings von 1966 als »die wahrscheinlich erste wirklich konzeptuelle Ausstellung« bezeichnete. Nachdem er in den 1980er Jahren zur Malerei zurückkehrte, erreicht er mit seiner neusten Werkgruppe der Thesaurus- Bilder eine Symbiose von Sprache und Farbe, die intellektuell anspruchsvoll und zugleich visuell überzeugend ist. Die vorliegende Publikation beleuchtet Bochners Umgang mit Farbe in seinen vielschichtigen und provokativen Annäherungen an Fotografie, Installation und Malerei in den letzten 45 Jahren.


if the colour changes

ridinghouse w h i t e c h a p e l g a l l e ry haus der kunst s e r r a lv e s


Contents

Foreword  11

Achim Borchardt-Hume

Colour My Mind  14

Briony Fer

Ulrich Wilmes

Abstraction/Corruption  26 Mel Bochner – Between Reading and Seeing  34

Theories and Encounters: Mark Godfrey On Mel Bochner’s Sculpture   48 Against Communication: João Fernandes Language in the Work of Mel Bochner  58

Plates  69

Mel Bochner

Inside the Process: City University Lecture  172 Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper  Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art  176 Misunderstandings – A Theory of Photography (1967–1970)  178 Institute of Fine Arts Lecture  180

List of Works  186

Exhibition plans  189

Biography and Bibliography  196

Acknowledgements and Credits  204


Installation view, National Gallery of Art, Washington, dc, 2011

12 

ac h i m b o rc h a r dt- h u m e


Colour My Mind ac h i m b o rc h a r dt- h u m e

Unless you find yourself in a public place in the presence of bystanders, I suggest that you read the following aloud: MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, TOP DOG, HEAD HONCHO, KING OF THE HILL, NUMERO UNO, THE BIG ENCHILADA, THE BOSS, THE DECIDER, RULE WITH AN IRON HAND, GOTCHA BY THE BALLS.1

Notice the deep intake of breath required for its recitation, the strange downward cadence that leads from the adoration worthy of a Marvel comic hero to the colloquial derision of somebody you fear yet cannot help but respect, and ends with the aggressive smugness of having asserted your own sense   of superiority. Now read this: AMAZING! AWESOME! BREATHTAKING! HEARTSTOPPING! MIND BLOWING! OUT-OF-SIGHT! COOL! WOW! GROOVY! CRAZY! KILLER! BITCHIN’! BAD! RAD! GNARLY! DA BOMB! SHUT UP! OMG! YESSS!2

Here, the voice ascends from the overused exclamations of enthusiasm to more intense expressions of approval to youthful street slang, finishing in the near-orgasmic expression of success – the moment for which late Capitalist culture asks us   to strive at all times. And finally, try this one: OH WELL, THAT’S THE WAY IT GOES, IT IS WHAT IT IS, WHAT CAN YOU DO?, WHAT WILL BE WILL BE, DON’T GET YOUR HOPES UP, SHIT HAPPENS, NOTHING EVER CHANGES, JUST LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT … 3

This time around, we exhale as we utter the words, the body mirroring the sense of deflation conveyed by an increasingly phlegmatic set of popular idioms for persuading oneself to compromise. ‘Amazing!’, ‘Oh Well’, ‘Gotcha By the Balls’. Language is performative, as is painting. Both are bound by complex sets   of conventions that we learn to decipher, but of which in everyday life we are not consciously aware. Language can be spoken, recited, written and read. Most of us are experienced   in all of the above activities. They are what we do to communi­ cate, to connect with others, to create a social bond. The act of painting is usually performed by one person only, the artist. Then another type of performance takes over: that of looking. The first to look is the artist, generally in his/her studio. Once a work is exhibited publicly, others join in, bringing to a work their own subjective readings. Mel Bochner’s recent ‘thesaurus paintings’ intertwine an unusual number of the performative acts described above, playing the conventions of painting off against those of language, reading against looking, with colour providing the vital bond between the two. These paintings can be read –   quite literally – as much as viewed; they can be recited aloud like a piece of poetry or theatre, or read quietly to oneself. The latter is closer to the way we look at them as paintings, silently retracing the complex web of Bochner’s compositional manoeuvres. At this point, words dissolve into patterns, hori­ zon­tal word chains into diagonals and zig-zags of colour that dart across the paintings’ surfaces. 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. Bochner ceaselessly probes language and its workings by jotting down word chains in his notebooks. Often, the starting

13


Untitled (5-Part Progression), 1966 Spray enamel on cardboard 15.2 × 22.9 × 7.6 cm | 6 × 9 × 3 in

Cantor’s Paradox (Double), 1966 Paint on cardboard and balsa wood 25.4 × 15.2 × 7.6 cm | 10 × 6 × 3 in

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3/2/1, 1966 Metallic spray paint on cardboard,   balsa wood and styrofoam 8.9 × 22.9 × 6.4 cm | 3½ × 9 × 2½ in

3-Way Fibonacci Progression, 1966 Paint on cardboard and balsa wood Five elements, installed: 25.4 × 12.7 × 68.6 cm | 10 × 5 × 27 in

75


Transparent and Opaque, 1968/2008 12 silver dye bleach prints Each: 63.5 × 80.6 cm | 25 × 31 ¾ in

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83


Color Crumple (#2), 1967/2011 Silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminium 243.8 × 137.1 cm | 96 × 54 in

90 


Color Crumple (#3), 1967/2011 Silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminium 243.8 Ă— 99 cm | 96 Ă— 46 in

91


Language Is Not Transparent, 1970 Acrylic and chalk on wall 182.9 × 121.9 cm | 72 × 48 in

100 


No Thought Exists Without A Sustaining Support, 1970 Acrylic and chalk on wall 182.9 × 121.9 cm | 72 × 48 in

101


If The Color Changes (#2), 1997 Oil on canvas 91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in

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If The Color Changes (#3), 1997 Oil on canvas 91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in

113


Oh Well, 2010 Oil and acrylic on canvas (2 panels) Overall: 254 × 190.5 cm | 100 × 75 in

152 


153


List of Works   Exhibited in Mel Bochner at Whitechapel Gallery, London, Haus der Kunst, Munich and Museu de Serralves, Museu de Arte Contemporánea, Porto · Exhibited at Haus der Kunst and Museu de Serralves only ·· Catalogue only

·· 3/2/1, 1966 Metallic spray paint on cardboard, balsa wood, and styrofoam  8.9 × 22.9 × 6.4 cm | 3½ × 9 × 2½ in The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Stenn   Family Collection; through prior gift of Lucille E. and Joseph L. Block 2004.477.2 ·· Cantor’s Paradox (Double), 1966 Paint on cardboard and balsa wood  25.4 × 15.2 × 7.6 cm | 10 × 6 × 3 in The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Stenn   Family Collection; through prior gift of Lucille E. and Joseph L. Block 2004.477.1 ·· Untitled (5-Part Progression), 1966 Spray enamel on cardboard  15.2 × 22.9 × 7.6 cm | 6 × 9 × 3 in The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Stenn   Family Collection; through prior gift of Lucille E. and Joseph L. Block 2004.477.5 ·· 3-Way Fibonacci Progression, 1966 Paint on cardboard and balsa wood  Five elements, installed: 25.4 × 12.7 × 68.6 cm | 10 × 5 × 27 in  The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Stenn   Family Collection; through prior gift of Lucille E. and Joseph L. Block 2004.477.4 · Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art, 1966 Four identical looseleaf notebooks, each with 100 Xerox copies of studio notes, working drawings and diagrams collected and Xeroxed by the artist; displayed on four sculpture stands  Each binder: 30.5 × 30.5 × 10.2 cm | 12 × 12 × 4 in Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams, 1966/2003 48 silver gelatin prints mounted on board  Each: 27.9 × 27.9 cm | 11 × 11 in Glenstone Color Crumple (#1), 1967/2011 Silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminium  243 × 111.8 cm | 96 × 44 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York Color Crumple (#2), 1967/2011 Silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminium  243.8 × 137.1 cm | 96 × 54 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York

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list of works

Color Crumple (#3), 1967/2011 Silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminium  243.8 × 99 cm | 96 × 46 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York

· 5 Stones/4 Spaces (Hinge), 1972/2012 Stones and chalk on floor  Size determined by installation  Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc., New York

Transparent and Opaque, 1968/2008 12 silver dye bleach prints  Each: 63.5 × 80.6 cm | 25 × 31 ¾ in Glenstone

Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras, 1972/2010 Coloured glass and chalk on floor  144.8 × 132.1 cm | 57 × 52 in Collection of the artist

Four Smears, 1968/2010 Four silver dye bleach prints from handmade slides  Each: 50.8 × 50.8 cm | 20 × 20 in Courtesy Frankel Gallery, San Francisco

·· Non-Verbal Structures (RYB), 1973 Enamel on wall  Size determined by installation  Collection of the artist

· Smudge, 1968 Blue powder pigment on wall  43.2 × 99 cm | 17 × 39 in Private Collection

·· Three Five and Four, 1973 Charcoal and gouache on paper  96.5 × 127 cm | 38 × 50 in David Owsley Museum of Art, Ball State University, Museum Purchase, 1986.019.000

·· Actual Size (Hand and Face), 1968/2002 Two gelatin silver prints   Each: 55.9 × 36.2 cm | 22 × 14.25 in Private Collection, courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York Actual Size at Eye Level, 1969 Two framed photographs and red tape on wall  Size determined by installation Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, München ·· 48" Around the Room, 1969 Ink on paper  18.4 × 17.1 cm | 7.25 × 6.75 in Collection of the artist 48" Descending a Staircase, 2012 Vinyl on wall  Size determined by installation  Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), 1970 Ten offset lithographs and envelope  Each: 12.7 × 20.3 cm | 5 × 8 in Evelyn and David Lasry ·· Language Is Not Transparent, 1970 Acrylic and chalk on wall  182.9 × 121.9 cm | 72 × 48 in Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Modern and Contemporary Art Council Fund (m.2004.61) No Thought Exists Without A Sustaining Support, 1970 Acrylic and chalk on wall  182.9 × 121.9 cm | 72 × 48 in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of J.D. Zellerbach, by exchange, 2009.84 Theory of Painting, 1970 Spray paint on newspaper and vinyl on wall  Size determined by installation  The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Painting and Sculpture Funds, 1997

Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras, 1974 Charcoal and gouache on paper  96.5 × 127 cm | 38 × 50 in Collection of Jack and Betsey Dunham, New Haven, ct, us ·· Four Shapes, 1976 Pastel on paper  96.5 × 127 cm | 38 × 50 in Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Purchased with funds provided by Jill Kraus (m.2008.97.2) Two Planar Arcs, 1977 Acrylic on wall  Size determined by installation  Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Arts,   Los Angeles, ca If/And/Either/Both (Or), 1998 Oil and casein on canvas (28 panels)  Overall: 293 × 393 cm | 117 × 154 in frac Bourgogne Collection Event Horizon, 1998 Oil and acrylic on canvas (83 panels)  Overall length: 29.8 m | 98 ft; tallest panel: 71 cm | 28 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York ·· If The Color Changes (#1), 1997 Oil and alkyd on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Private Collection ·· If The Color Changes (#2), 1997 Oil on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Private Collection, Belgium ·· If The Color Changes (#3), 1997 Oil on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Collection of the artist


If The Color Changes (#4), 1998 Oil and acrylic on canvas  91.4 × 121.9 cm | 36 × 48 in Collection Lizbeth Marano

Obsolete, 2007 Oil on canvas  226 × 172.7 cm | 89 × 68 in Glenstone

·· If The Color Changes (#5), 1998 Oil on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Courtesy of Galerie Nelson-Freeman, Paris

No, 2009 Oil on canvas  152.4 × 114 cm | 60 × 45 in Brian J. McCarthy and Daniel Sager

·· If The Color Changes (#6), 1998 Oil and acrylic on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Collection of the artist

Nonsense, 2009 Oil on canvas  152.4 × 114.3 cm | 60 × 45 in Collection of Marc Selwyn, Los Angeles ca

·· If The Color Changes (#7), 1998 Oil and acrylic on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Collection of the artist

Sputter, 2010 Oil on canvas  203.2 × 152.4 cm | 80 × 60 in Courtesy of the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection

·· If The Color Changes (#8), 1999 Oil and acrylic on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Collection of the artist

Master of the Universe, 2010 Oil and acrylic on canvas (two panels)  254 × 190.5 cm | 100 × 75 in Collection Anita & Burton Reiner, Washington dc

·· If The Color Changes (#9), 1999 Oil and alkyd on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Private Collection

·· Notebook Studies for Oh Well, 2010 Ink on paper (four pages)  Each: 26 × 21 cm | 10¼ × 8¼ in Collection of the artist

·· If The Color Changes (#10), 2000 Oil and acrylic on canvas  91.4 × 116.8 cm | 36 × 48 in Private Collection, Greenwich, Connecticut

·· Oh Well, 2010 Charcoal on paper  101.6 × 66 cm | 40 × 26 in Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc., New York

Nothing, 2003 Oil on canvas  114 × 152.4 cm | 45 × 60 in Collection of Jill and Peter Kraus

·· Working Drawing for Oh Well, 2010 Ink and charcoal on paper  27.6 × 22.9 cm | 10 ⅞ × 9 in Collection of Francesca Bochner

Contempt, 2005 Oil and acrylic on canvas  152.4 × 203.2 cm | 60 × 80 in Suzanne F. Cohen

Oh Well, 2010 Oil and acrylic on canvas (two panels)  Overall: 254 × 190.5 cm | 100 × 75 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York

·· Mel Bochner and Michael Van Valkenburgh Kraus Campo, 2005 Rooftop garden 0.75 acres Permanent installation, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh

Amazing!, 2011 Oil and acrylic on canvas (two panels)  Overall: 254 × 190.5 cm | 100 × 75 in Midwest Private Collection

Obscene, 2006 Oil and acrylic on canvas  152.4 × 203.2 cm | 60 × 80 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York · The Joys of Yiddish, 2006 Enamel on plywood  2.44 × 15.85 m | 8 × 52 ft Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc., New York

Surface Dis/Tension (Recursive), 2012 Silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminium, cut into   16 parts   312.4 × 294.6 cm | 123 × 118 in Courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York Silence, 2012 Oil on velvet  160 × 119.3 cm | 63 × 47 in Collection of the artist

Blah, Blah, Blah, 2011 Oil on velvet (eight panels)  Overall: 284.5 × 426.7 cm | 112 × 168 in Courtesy Two Palms, New York Blah, Blah, Blah, 2011 Oil on velvet (ten panels)  Overall: 284.5 × 533.4 cm | 112 × 210 in Courtesy Two Palms, New York

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Mel Bochner

Institute of Fine Arts Lecture

178 

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

179


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

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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:

tommy

henry

tommy

tommy

tommy

henry

henry

henry

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

Overleaf:

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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Mel Bochner - If the Colour Changes