Mel Bochner: Language as Art
Mel Bochner (b. 1940) is recognized as one of the leading figures in the development of Conceptual art in New York in the 1960s. Starting his career at a time when painting was increasingly becoming outmoded, Bochner became one of the leaders of the new generation alongside Donald Judd and Richard Serra, among others. In reaction to the Abstract Expressionist movement, these artists looked beyond traditional compositional devices and techniques. Bochner was the first to incorporate language into the visual, which led art historian Benjamin Buchloh to describe his 1966 Working Drawings as ‘probably the first truly conceptual exhibition.’
Bochner’s work allowed for a shift in the role of language, moving it from being the tool we use to talk about art to becoming part of art itself. While bridging the gap between reading and looking at a piece of art, Bochner also plays with the distinction between a unique work and a limited edition run through his monoprints.
Monoprints are all unique works he creates using the same stencil, he describes this process as: “the paint is delivered indirectly to the surface. First a computer-controlled laser engraves the text into an acrylic sheet, which will serve as a printing matrix. Then, letter-by-letter, the words are hand-filled with pure oil paint, sometimes up to a pound per letter. Finally the velvet is laid face down on the plate, placed in a hydraulic press, and subjected to 750 tons of vertical pressure. The text, like life, bleeds out to the edge of the frame, leaving us with nowhere to go except in.” The methodology is pure Bochner conceptuality; the process itself goes to further complicate his career-long reflection on the inefficacy of language as he is not actually writing the letters but rather filling in shapes that our eyes recognize as letters and therefore make into words. His works flip viewers back and forth between seeing visual forms and reading verbal texts which, in turn, prompts discussions about different modes of perceptual and cognitive consciousness.
He has explored many different words and sentences throughout the years, the most popular being his Blah Blah Blah works that sarcastically reflect on the sort of empty blather produced by advertisers, politicians, government bureaucrats,, bloggers and art critics.
Inspired by the subtleties of language Bochner also took to Roget’s thesaurus and produces works that list synonyms for a specific word, usually starting with the most politically collect version and ending with colloquial and vulgar translations. His choices tend to veer towards the negative and accusatory with titles such as Silence, Obscene and Contempt.