PRINT December 1971

Bochner at MoMA: Three Ideas and Seven Procedures

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN ART meant painting and sculpture and the acquisition of the techniques necessary to realize these ends required a set of “how-tos”: how to mix colors, how to apply pigment to a surface, how to build an armature, etc. In the last three years, at least, it is clear that the techniques of art have been revised to become not so much studies in methodology as of research into what constitutes the elemental features of any particular situation. In my view the methodologies necessary to the artist are now art history and philosophy—the one to know where to begin, the other to know what to do. The methodologies then pose a set of questions, which in a certain sense, have never been raised before, at least not in the sense that the questions themselves constituted both answer and art.

The evolution of Mel Bochner’s work, these past three years particularly, indicates that the problem for him, at least in terms of the Conceptual movement (in which he occupies a seminal place), has become one in which he had to distinguish between ontological and epistemological activity. The first tends, if I understand him rightly, to emphasize the self-referential and the theatrical gesture. It tends to view conceptual activity as a fixed style, a way of doing, of being, of looking as an objective quality. If this is true, then the ontological Conceptualist is the artist who is most readily understood in terms of his art historical connectedness with Dadaism, with the theatrical side of Futurism and with Duchamp. His modern mediating episode became the Pop movement.

By contrast, the epistemological Conceptualist is engaged in the study of knowledge as its own end. He tends to make or do things for the kinds of information, knowledge or data which the things or activities reveal. He tends to be a grammarian, a mathematician, a cartographer. His modern mediating movement is Minimalism. Bochner is, in the latter group, perhaps its best—that is, its clearest—exponent.

Whether or not the distinction is wholly viable between ontological and epistemological Conceptualism is, at this early critical moment, less important perhaps than the fact that its recognition allows one to claim for the Conceptualist movement the very thing it had apparently sought to deny, namely that its “quality” is a distinguishable feature. On the basis of Bochner’s dualistic terms, although this was clearly not his intention, the critic now can point to the nominally “good” or “bad” in the movement, at least for the time being.

Bochner’s present work is called Three Ideas & Seven Procedures. It defines seven methods which give visibility—beginning, adding, repeating, exhausting, reversing, canceling and stopping—to the nonphysical, tripartite expression of number: zero, number, and ultimately line. The work is installed in the MoMA downstairs exhibition space: a room, a corridor, another room, and a vestibule in front of the cafeteria. Having painted these spaces white, Bochner has, at the entrance and at his own eye level mounted a left-to-right sequence of counting in black felt-tipped pen on masking tape all around the rooms. Conversely, the same action is made in red, on the same tape, starting from the right. The numbers are recorded in arabic figures, one series superimposed upon the other, at approximately inch intervals, some 2000 in all. Oddly, there are more black numbers than red ones.

Bochner, a tall fellow, finds that his eye level is demarcated at 71 1/2 inches off the ground. However, differences of floors and ramps cause the tape at certain places to end up far above the head of the artist, although the level remains constant to the height established at the entranceway. This idea, as we see in several photographs accompanying the exhibition, was worked out in the white Renaissance rooms of Dr. and Mrs. Lorenzo Bonomo in Spoleto this past summer. (It cannot fail to have moved the artist to learn that these Italian chambers were those, according to legend, in which Michelangelo had once stayed.) Such an association was not dissimilar to the ones I felt in front of Bochner’s Ten Aspects of the Theory of Measurement installed this past spring in Greene Street (Artforum, May 1971) when I spoke of the fact that anyone moved by the experience of empty rooms could find a means of connecting emotionally with these bald examinations.

In the Bonomo rooms two pencil lines are marked, one designating true eye level, the other approximating it by hand. The discrepant interstices between these levels is a prefiguration of what we now have at the museum. The museum problem seems that of continuous eye level scan expressed as discontinuous discrete pointing in terms of number. In short, the museum piece enlarges the Bonomo theory of discrepant interstices into one of scan and point.

The immediate results of this conception are startling. Above all else a body of several chambers receives a continuous definition and unity. The effect is a kind of discounting of the separateness effected by the concentration imposed by the counter-counting episodes. The wholeness of the space becomes in turn a concomitant of the reversibility of the numerical system which, like a perverse chronometer, marks out a time and place of total arbitrariness.

By extension then, Bochner relocates the actions of conceptual activity away from reading and the mind, into one of perception and the body. In this way he expresses both a break with the Conceptualist movement as a whole and announces his own evolutionary character. This makes him sound like a phenomenologist—someone like Bruce Nauman. But the difference is in antecedent history. Nauman, working out from his own body, derives his information from the verbal and linguistic activity of Duchamp, transforming his conceptual results into the ontologically quantifiable. Bochner, working from a bank of known and shared information, information which may in this light be regarded as established or objective data, derives his position from the reductivist tradition of the 20th century and therefore his conceptual activities appear epistemological in their effect. Both, however, produce situations which are actively at work upon the body and perceptions of the viewer. Certainly the most important difference between these positions is that the ontologist, by virtue of his history, is obliged to create objects, at their most ambitious cognizant of special environments for which they may especially be created. The epistemologist extraordinarily enough—considering his history—creates systems free of local situations, the information applicable to any arena of activity.

The associations may even be enlarged. In Malevitch’s White on White (1917) a white square was tipped upon a white ground, figure and ground distinguished not only by differences of white color but by a still evident pencil line. Malevitch’s pencil line is now Bochner’s masking tape; line as tape, figure as wall (or wainscoting) and ground as ceiling. Not only then are Malevitch’s prophecies regarding the architectural potential of Suprematism realized anew, but another indice of the “inching out” of Minimalism into post-Minimalism, while retaining a base within Suprematism, is made evident. In this way Bochner assists us in understanding the work of other post-Minimalists, such as Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, while he indicates as well the richness of the problems posed by Minimalism.

Robert Pincus-Witten