PRINT December 1972

Mel Bochner: The Constant as Variable

WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN AMERICA, and Europe as well, as evidenced in current studio and cooperative practice and in public and private galleries, is that a conventionalized post-Minimalism has appeared, a style that damages the post-Minimalist achievement simply because it is synthetically spurred. What has been an analytical achievement for post-Minimalism has rapidly become for some younger artists an occupation of absorption and synthesis rather than analysis and activism. The nature of the art and the media network has led to a tendentious adoption and dispersal of a novel situation. Obviously, vital new styles promote a high degree of ancillary activity.

A few backward glances are necessary. The central preoccupation of post-Minimalism was the rejection of an art embodied in holistic objects—paintings read at a glance, sculptures of unitary presence, or forms that bracket these conditions. The preferred look was geometrical. Structure was simplistic—monadic, binary, tripartite. Color was monochromatic or aerated to sheer luminescence. Complexity was generated through the use of grid or serial structure. But, even as the sacred conventions of base and frame were rejected in Minimalism (sculpture was the base and pictures were the frame), other conventions were retained: paintings remained functions of canvas borne upon stretcher supports and sculptures were still monolithic, though often hollow. The use of “noble materials” or modern equivalents (steel, glass, acrylics, sheet metals, and plastics) was unquestioned in Minimalism. Paintings, for example, were “made of” paint carried onto canvas surfaces, although an anonymity of touch or other techniques (spray, staining, etc.) may have questioned the role of the brush. So dependent was Minimalism on the convention of colored canvas supported upon stretchers that an entire style was said to find its paradigm in Frank Stella’s permutation of this interrelationship, those paintings of his which were generated by the shape of the support. The principal effect of the stretcher-supported-generated image was the collapse of the figure-ground relationship into a single entity, into a class of object that functioned both as picture and sculpture. This encapsulation at length resulted in an early post-Minimalism which I termed “pictorial,” in that it stressed uncommon substances and colorism (molten lead, neon, rubber, cheesecloth, and latex). Such materials tended to become “signature” substances, particularly identified with single artists: Serra/lead; Nauman/neon; Hesse/latex, cheesecloth; Benglis/polyurethane foam, etc. This “pictorialism,” a refreshed use of eccentric substance and unstudied color, led to a pictorial-sculptural style evidently counter-Minimalist in thrust.

Post-Minimalism then began as a style that rejected the stretcher-support and opted for direct wall appendage and the straight hanging of colored substance, whatever its properties. In this choice, the works of Keith Sonnier, Eva Hesse, and Lynda Benglis were exemplary. But an internationally dispersed network of artists attracted by the expressionist premises of the new “pictorialism,” often extrapolated into their pictorialism, isolated motifs and structures derived from Minimalism. One found the freely dangling stripe cut away from Noland or Stella; maculated cloth reminiscent of Olitski dangled from the wall. The so-called crisis of easel painting, instead of resulting in intellectual retrenchment and reformulation led to the palliative of technology, provoking the wide use of videotape and film strip. Certain coloristic intonations, easily traced to second generation field painting, began to effect this new technological focus as well.

One aspect of post-Minimalism, however, remained faithful to the exploratory nature of the style. The post-Minimalist group contains those figures broadly designated as Conceptualist. One part of this group took as its model the lessons of Duchamp who, in an extraordinary way, first saw that art need not only be a function of tangible or visible form but sought as well to make manifest its existence through linguistic premises. These figures may be designated “ontological Conceptualists,” that is, Conceptualists whose art is recognizable as art because they make themselves recognizable as artists. The source of their work comes from their being. This art is implicitly pitted against another sort of Conceptualism that may be designated “epistomological,” that is, an art which demonstrates through preexecutive analysis a connectedness to the intellectual art of the Russian Revolution. These artists are animated not by their consciousness of being, but by their commitment to doing. What is already apparent is that those Conceptualists most affiliated with Duchamp have placed too high a burden on the public persona and on self-presentation. The art of the Conceptual theatre has emerged—Gilbert & George, Vito Acconci, and Jannis Kounellis.

Of interest is the Conceptual activity allied to Suprematism. The esthetics of this Soviet Russian style, which so fundamentally shaped Minimalism, continues to shape the post-Minimalism immediately committed to an art beyond the mere visual appurtenances of canvas, color, and material. Instead it seeks an externalization through the employment of principles of language, an expression in language’s structure, and demonstrations of the nature of truth. Several artists have pursued such lines of inquiry but none have done so more acutely than Mel Bochner. Bochner is not animated by any notion of “vanguardism.” The term itself is anathema to him—vulgar, meaningful only to a patented sector of the art community and to academic frames of discourse. Bochner does not regard his work as “far out,” or “in touch.” He simply “does art” from day to day, a doing that in the context of his life is neither disruptive nor extreme.


Mel Bochner ought not to have been an artist, unless the cultural neutrality of his Pittsburgh childhood and youth were, in fact, the very requirements for a kind of art seemingly divorced from conventional frames of cultural or pictorial reference. Still, there are hints. His father was a sign painter, who had thought to become an illustrator, an unrealizable ambition given his economic situation. He may have nurtured, however unconsciously on his part, his son’s ambition to become an artist, the first stages of which Bochner began as a student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1958–1962, after completion of his military service. In this period Carnegie Tech was an uninspiring training ground for illustrators, but word did circulate that one of its graduates, Andy Warhol, was beginning to make a stir in New York when he switched from successful shoe illustration to a harsher painting based on popular advertising imagery. “Warhol made us realize that it was possible to be an artist and to have gone to Carnegie Tech.”

The release from Pittsburgh and the wander-jahre it inaugurated first drew Bochner to San Francisco where he supported himself by doing odd jobs in antique restoration. His paintings, he recalls—they have been destroyed—were distantly reminiscent (as befits the locale) of Clyfford Still. Several blunt kinds of pictorial experimentation led him to undertake monochromatic exercises, the most significant of which was a gray 12'' x 12'' panel covered in thick paint and marked with a smeared hand trail. The similarity of this work to Jasper Johns’ encaustic number series of the mid-’50s was observed by a friend—a critical connection which drew Bochner to a serious assessment of Johns and one which released him from the onus of painting itself. “When I first came to know Jasper Johns’ work I saw that I could stop painting.” Bochner was co struck, in fact, by Johns’ number series that he began to desultorily jot down a body of notes on the meanings and implications of Johns’ work. “Jasper Johns’ 0 through 9,” he noted, “defines the lateral boundaries of its surface by measure of the stencil typeface used for the successive laying on of numerals. Both the visual and conceptual parameters of what is there to be looked at are present by the procedures necessary for its realization. . . .” This worn pocket notebook became the source of a book called Excerpts and Speculations, which Bochner produced in single Xerox copy in 1968.1

The primacy of Johns in Bochner’s work is further testified to in an address that Bochner made at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, in 1971. Viewing the present situation as one of “post-modernism,” he queried his audience if “Anyone ten years ago could have imagined that ‘modern art’ would become a period style?” According to Bochner, the inception of the “post-modernist” phase began with Johns, who first rejected sense data and centristic personality as the basis for art, partly replacing these conventions with another more investigative approach. Bochner contended that Johns

interrogated the phenomenological condition of painting but went further by injecting doubt into the deadening self-belief of art-thinking to that time. Most essentially he raised the question of the relation of language to art. His paintings demonstrated that neither was reducible to the other’s terms. It is in vain that we attempt to show by the use of images, what we are saying. After Johns we can never again slide surreptitiously from the space of statements to the space of events . . . in other words, fold one over the other as if they were equivalents. This alone signified the demise of expressionist art.2

In 1963 Bochner traveled back east, registering as a philosophy major at Northwestern University on the outskirts of Chicago. At the time Northwestern University was one of the few American seats of learning in which a strong emphasis on Phenomenology and Structuralism was to be found. Bochner began to read Roland Barthès. A reference in Barthès led Bochner to the objectified novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Apart from an occasional oblique phenomenological inference in Bochner’s larger and later works, the year’s tutelage in philosophy was important in that it supported an antiexpressionist drift in Bochner’s mode of experience—post-Sartrian, post-existential, resistant to the humanistic glorification of angst, emotion, and romantic idealization. The chief philosophical figure who came to dominate Bochner’s thinking is Michel Foucault who stringently emphasizes preoccupations with exactness, measurability, and definability, issues which Bochner epitomizes for us in terms of his own work. Bochner’s preferred reading remains Foucault’s The Order of Things (Les Mots et les choses).

At this point, in 1964, Bochner arrived in New York City and found cheap quarters in the east 70s. He supported himself as a guard at the Jewish Museum, a job he held until 1965. The first deep friend he made in New York was Eva Hesse. In my essay on Hesse3 I have indicated the crucial interchange between friends that was taking place in the period of 1966. Notable among the encounters made by Bochner was one with Jasper Johns, to whose number paintings Bochner had attributed a systematized structure foreign to Johns’ own view of them, at least in so far as the artist then discussed them with Bochner.

By 1966 the circle of Bochner’s friends was formed. The circle ranged from Robert Smithson to Eva Hesse, and included other figures such as Brice Marden, and later Dorothea Rockburne. The catalytic figure in all of this is Sol LeWitt who exerted a moral influence in terms of the model of his dedication to art and who gave encouragement to artists less well-known than he. Sol LeWitt’s contribution to these disparate artists is best understood in terms of the emphasis he placed on preexecutive articulation of any given problem. The complexity of the post-Minimalist situation is exemplified by the fact that the exhibition called “Ten,” one of the important exposures of Minimalist sensibility then at its apogee, opened on the same day in September, 1966, and in the same building as “Eccentric Abstraction,” which was one of the first surveys of counter-Minimalist sensibility. “Ten,” with its dignified square catalogue designed by LeWitt, was held at the Dwan Gallery; “Eccentric Abstraction,” with its vinyl encased critical broadsides by Lucy Lippard, was held at the Fischbach Gallery.

It was in the context of Minimalism that Robert Smithson emerged as well. However, the idiosyncratic view within his work was different from the rational systems favored by LeWitt and Bochner. LeWitt worked from a premise which rejected nothing implicit in a system once the system had been determined. At this time LeWitt was working with examinations of grid structures and all the possible permutations which occur in the facets of triadic groups of cubes one placed atop the other. Smithson, by contrast, in adopting certain systems in his work always inflected this work with elisions, rejections, and increments which were not necessarily schematically inherent, but which came about through a more spontaneous response to geographical environment.

Within this spectrum of shifting Minimalist and post-Minimalist possibilities Bochner’s earliest consistent work was a set of drawings based on the permuted possibilities of open squares similar to LeWitt’s examination of triadic structure. It is not surprising either that all three, LeWitt, Smithson, and Bochner, responding to the heightened consciousness provoked by their social intercourse, pursued brief careers as art critics, writing hard-nosed reviews of exhibitions unsympathetic to the larger aspects of the scene, but also writing key articles in the history of Minimalism. A didactic mentor, Don Judd, had also been writing criticism since 1959 when he joined the masthead of Arts Magazine, then edited by Hilton Kramer. Judd had sponsored in the context of gallery reviews and the use of sparse description an art of unitary, stripped-down objects. Judd was the only reviewer these artists read with any degree of regularity or approval.

Typical of the connectedness of the critical thinking between these artists was a review written by Bochner and Smithson in a short-lived magazine, Art Voices. Quixotically, they “covered” the opening of the still unfinished interior of the Hayden Planetarium annex and wrote an ironic, multi-leveled photo essay called “The Domain of the Great Bear” (Fall, 1966). These collaborations are especially interesting because they attempt to solve the problem of lack of gallery exposure through the gesture of a review which, before anything else, is its own art manifestation. The most arcane feature of the piece is that several of the authors cited in the work—Piaget and Poe among them—had statements falsely attributed to them or were attributed statements the artists felt such authors were likely to make. Such a conceit crops up again several times in Bochner’s career. The grid structure organization of Bochner’s review of “Alfaville, Godard’s Apocalypse” (Arts Magazine, May, 1968), incorporated quotations from disparate sources—some of them again falsely attributed. More recently, in the “Konzept”-Kunst catalogue for the Kunstmuseum in Basel (March–April, 1972), Bochner’s entry thrice reads “Language represents thought, as thought represents itself,” a citation attributed first to Hegel, then to Mallarmé then to Husserl. The work shows that the constant invented by the artist is a variable, whose shifting meaning is affected by our notions of the work of each of the figures to whom the statement is attributed. The statement, if made by Hegel, reads as if it were an epigram of Dialectical Idealism; if made by Mallarmé, an expression of thought as a condition of soul; if made by Husserl, the impression that thought is a phenomenological element, as if something solid. The contribution reiterates a message central to Bochner’s premises, namely, that “Language is not transparent,” now almost a catchphrase associated with the artist since he chalked it upon a blackened wall of the Dwan Gallery for the “Language IV” exhibition in June, 1970.

By 1966, the essential preoccupation of Bochner had become his notebooks in which complete notions and structural premises were worked out in highly finished diagrams. The first of these notebooks dates from 1964 when Bochner was still working at the Jewish Museum. This leatherette journal begins with illusionistic drawings for constructions which, generally speaking, contrast biomorphic forms against assertive geometrical ones. Their relationship to Abstraction-Création is still evident. In the course of elaborating this notebook sketch by sketch, day by day, an important leap took place in 1965. This is evidenced on a page for projected drawings, the shelf pieces, sketches for a work the artist fabricated, but later destroyed. The drawings’ strict measurements and simple structure reveal an appreciation for Don Judd’s position. “I saw my first Judd in 1965, after I made the piece, but I read Judd’s writing in Arts Magazine, as everyone else did, and I was aware that it was an apology for a specific position that artists were already calling primary structures.” The shelf drawings occasioned the first verbal descriptions, an attempt to create as sharp an analysis of this object as Bochner had found in Robbe-Grillet’s precise descriptions of objects:

The point of this piece is to concretize one section of ‘space’. To objectify, solidify and realize it. The ‘form’ it takes is a line. A hard, brittle metallic blue core which is also the time that is required to move from point left to point right. The supports take on the characteristics of wall brackets in order to stress their unimportance. They are painted whatever color the wall is.

Impressed by Dan Flavin’s fluorescent show at the now defunct Green Gallery in Winter, 1965, Bochner began to project small structures contrasting fluorescent tubes with mirrors—materials similar at the time to Robert Smithson’s layers of mirror. Bochner’s sharing of ideas visible in Judd’s and Flavin’s work meant that by 1965 his tendencies were clearly articulated and related to the strongest manifestation then open to American art. This becomes self-evident if we study the 1965 drawings which deal with simple numerical systems of triangles and hemispheres. They signal the beginning of a stress on set theory which continues to the present. Equally noteworthy are his attempts to work out complex structures which adumbrate a regularizing system without recourse to the conventional western 90 degree grid.

Bochner supported himself through 1965 by doing assorted odd jobs and through writing reviews for Arts Magazine. An adept apologist for the structural options of Minimalism, seriality and primary structures, Bochner’s seriousness of attack must be acknowledged. He wrote such essays as: “Primary Structures,” a review of an art exhibition for the Jewish Museum (Arts Magazine, June, 1966); “Art in Process—Structures” (Arts Magazine, September-October, 1966), an analysis of the fourth annual exhibition chosen by Elayne Varian at Finch College; “Systemic” (Arts Magazine, October, 1966), a study of Lawrence Alloway’s overview at the Guggenheim; and “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism” (Arts Magazine, Summer, 1967), which was republished in Minimal Art, a collection of essays edited by Gregory Battcock.

Bochner championed the preexecutive in art, what we would today call the Conceptual. Throughout 1966 Bochner argued that the best work of the day was being done by Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Don Judd, Robert Morris and Robert Smithson; all other comers were dismissed out of hand as dilutants and mannerists. The ending of his essay “Primary Structures” has the intransigeant stance of a T. E. Hulme arguing for the London Group in 1914:

The New Art . . . is unlifelike, not spontaneous, exclusive . . . It is not engineering. It is not appliances. It is not faceless and impersonal. It will not become academic. It offers no outline or formula. It denies everything it asserts. The implications are astounding. Art no longer need pretend to be about Life. Inhibitions, dogmas and anxieties of nineteenth-century romance disappear. Art is, after all, Nothing.

Bochner’s most prescient single review expressed an early disaffection for Frank Stella’s painting. Writing in May, 1966, of Stella’s exhibition at Castelli, Bochner understood the painter’s predicament at a moment coincidental with his ascendance as the most potent figure in American art. Bochner observed that

The logic and stringency of Frank Stella’s earlier work directly opposed growth. His completeness was his insistency. In his latest’ pictures, since the possibilities of sequential development were excluded, he had to choose to be ‘somewhere else.’ The choice appears unfortunate. He counters all his previous virtues: symmetry with awkwardness, refinement with raucousness, strictness with arbitrariness. By trying to ‘do something with Stella,’ he appears to have joined his imitators and variationists (Arts Magazine, May, 1966).

In 1967 Bochner’s drawings incorporated a changed medium. Turning to black masking tape, he worked out a number of grid projects which were photographed after the tape was adhered to the flat surface of table or wall. He at length abandoned photography since it was expensive, and, more negatively, the photograph itself became an object in the world. Certain photographs developed visual deformation conundrums, such as when a grid applied to the projecting corner of a wall was shown in a flat photograph.4 These tape works, applied directly to the walls, may have informed Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings.

It was in 1967 as well that Bochner made his first language experiments such as “Orthogonal Routes for/of Duchamp Re—(Blossoming) ABC,” which may be likened to Carl Andre’s rebus poems set in grid formations, although Bochner’s are more abstractly permutative. Broadly speaking Andre’s poems alter actual “sense.” There is no search for literary “sense” in Bochner’s verbal reformulations, although there is constant structural meaning. In this they may be likened to the artist’s interest in serial music, musique concrète, the work of Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, which he first began to listen to when a student at Northwestern. Bochner cites J. S. Bach, Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Boulez as models for works of art “based on the application of rigorous governing logics rather than on personal decision-making,” a methodology which Bochner called “solopsistic” in “Serial Art, Systems, Solopsism.” “For the solopsist,” he wrote, “reality is not enough. He denies the existence of anything outside the self-enclosed confines of his own mind.” Among other examples Bochner cites Jasper Johns, Sol LeWitt, Don Judd, Robert Smithson, Dorothea Rockburne and Eva Hesse, that is, “. . . artists who carry out their work to its logical conclusion, which, without adjustments based on taste or chance, is the work.” Importantly, he notes that “No stylistic or material qualities unite the artists using this approach because what form the work takes is unimportant (some of these artists had ceased to make ‘things’).”

As early as 1967 then, Bochner had recognized that art may be, but need no longer be embodied in some kind of here and now sensuous object, like those things conventionally called paintings or sculptures. The feature that made art of certain activities was the integrity of the thinking that the work entailed. This is not the central focus of Minimalism—though it is implicit in the style—since, whatever else it may be, Minimalism was primarily realized in the fabrication of autonomous objects. At this point Bochner had come to personify what by now is self-evident—that whatever else art may be, it is the best thinking of any given moment.

Measurements, Drawings and Projects of 1967 and 1968 freed the artist from making photographs and objects. The primary works of this looseleaf binder were prepared diagrams for work to be executed in brown paper, or to be marked with numerical charcoal indications for wall situations. Originally these investigations began with the set of substructures imposed by 36'' x 48'' elements, a convenient sheet size of industrially cut paper. These working drawings were later edited into a finished leatherette journal, consisting of 28 finished drawings, a one-copy book called Catalog of Plans 1967–68.5

The Catalog of Plans 1967–68 may be related to the experiments with set theory and scale relationships that interest Dorothea Rockburne. Bochner and Rockburne were aware of one another’s work as early as 1967. During the following two years their preferred choice of material is often the same, paper especially, or simple substances like charcoal. Direct appendage of the work to the wall or laid directly upon the floor, a predilection for mathematics and set theory, “solopsistic” working through of problems, the absence of coloristic interest, and, above all, the intense rigor of intellectual commitment are further aspects of a certain theoretical similarity. The vital difference is one of affect. In Rockburne’s work the issues addressed locate themselves within a quite different sphere of visual argument, particularly in her use of materials.

Bochner’s Catalog of Plans 1967–68 contains numerous experiments of significance, such as the measurements of excised elements of fixed shapes, the cubic measurements of the absent content of empty forms, the comparative relationships of constant paper measurements (one crumpled, one pristine), essays in variable lengths of paper unified through the use of constant widths. Most important was the introduction of the cord compass, a measuring device perhaps traceable to Jasper Johns’ use of rulers radially dragged through wet paint. Bochner found the compass to be “the best universal to work with as it does not depend on rectilinear organizations of wall to floor.” This idea matured in the period 1968–1970 and led to the “Generic Drawings” show at the Galleria Sperone, Turin, 1970, in which the string compass was used to establish the dimensions of the walls through the use of broad charcoal arc-segments self-recording a fundamental circular set.

The use of string compasses—and the concomitant indication of quadrant directions—led to the configuration of the ACE Gallery show, Los Angeles, during the summer of 1969, in which only the circular quadrants remain, not demarcating the rectilinearity of the wall or the floor, but the polarities North, East, South, West, independent of the gallery’s actual structure.

Despite the richness of his production in 1968, the artist destroyed a large body of work. A single looseleaf binder remains, Measurements and Theories: Drawings and Projects, 1968–1970, a major concern of which is the blunt measurement of space. In May, 1969, the German dealer, Heiner Friedrich, gave Bochner his first one-man show at his Munich gallery. Bochner’s installation, Measurements, regarded the space as a rigorous compendium of exact measurements such as one finds on the blueprints of architectural specifications. Bochner had originally offered to execute a work called No Vantage Point, by which he intended that the gallery be painted white and a line be drawn across the entire enclosure at the artist’s eye-level. (This proposal was rejected, but it reappeared in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, “Projects” exhibition of 1971.) Measurements led to further German gallery activity. Bochner exhibited at the Konrad Fischer Gallery in Düsseldorf an installation of a longitudinal measurement dividing the entire space vertically in half. This was the theoretical counterpart to No Vantage Point. By this time Bochner was considered a pivotal figure of the Conceptualist movement, especially after his inclusion in “When Attitudes Become Form,” Kunsthalle, Bern, an influential exhibition held early in 1969. At this international congregation, Bochner was represented by a long row of sheets of graph paper, 8 1/2 inches wide, stapled in horizontal alignment to the wall, one beside the other.

But to conveniently tag Bochner as a “Conceptualist” is too delimiting because it does not take into account the strong sculptural feel of much of his work. I regard Bochner as an artist conscious of the physical, a kind of sculptor more than just a draftsman, although the setting down of diagrams may more easily be associated with drawing. Diagrams concentrate potentially vast organizations of spatial and surface locations, either in exact terms or in terms of perverse ambiguity—such as when we deal with the compass-drawn circles, or with eye-level lines. The most easily readable sculptural effort is A Theory of Sculpture, installed in an abandoned factory in Turin. This work, which tests the possibilities of numerous measuring devices, especially the compass, also incorporates tangible members such as rudimentary plumblines. Moreover, actual physical elements lean and balance, interconnecting wall and floor and recall Bochner’s preoccupation with primary structures as well as the work of Richard Serra. But the issue at hand is not physicality or materiality, but rather the exposure of principles of structure which makes physicality or materiality seem tangible.

The preoccupation with Measurements and Theories led to the March, 1971, installation at the Greene Street Gallery, New York City. Since Bochner regarded it as the summation of measuring, the exhibition was called Ten Aspects of the Theory of Measurement. The computations which engaged Bochner’s energies were “derived, compared, reversed, extended, halved, dispersed, partitioned, bent, deflected, non-referred,” functions of a working module 11'10'', the distance between the centers of two parallel structural columns. However, one “did not end up solely with the measurements, but with a transposition of feeling which, if felt at all, is usually experienced while moving through architecture, particularly of the Italian 15th century.”6

The full permutation of an idea in the context of deobjectification was realized in the “Projects” installation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, November, 1971. The work, Three Ideas & Seven Procedures, delineates seven methods—beginning, adding, repeating, exhausting, reversing, canceling, and stopping—employed to give visibility to the nonphysical, tripartite expression of number: zero, number and ultimately line. The exhibition was installed in a sequence of spaces, painted white and interconnected by a length of masking tape applied to the walls running from room to room at a constant height. Upon this tape was recorded a counting sequence left to right in black, and superimposed on this sequence in red, right to left, a counter-counting sequence. This exhibition refers back to No Vantage Point, but more immediate to our considerations, it developed ideas thought out in Italy during the summer of 1971 when Bochner drew two pencil lines across the face of a Renaissance room, one marking true eye-level, the other approximating it by hand. These kinds of actions indicated that by this point there were indeed two types of conceptual activity—the ontological, and the epistomological. This distinction provides the basis for critical judgment with Conceptualism, a movement which seeks to defeat criticism and art history through the incorporation of the methods of these disciplines.7

To some measure the fact that Bochner’s work takes place within chambers or upon walls means that a phenomenological thrust, however inadvertent, must be taken into account. Still, whatever the physiological experience implicit in such a situation, such an effect is only an ancillary result rather than a primary ambition. In this way Bochner’s work should not be confused with that done recently by Bruce Nauman, Michael Asher, or Keith Sonnier.

Throughout 1969 it was apparent to Bochner that the core of his ambitions had become the discovery of meta-theoretical bases of activity, as well as the exhaustion (diagrammatically or theoretically speaking) of all possibilities implicit in any given informational situation. From this time, he subsumed his work under the generic title of “the theory,” or “a theory,” such as A Theory of Objects: Line, Plane, Volume.

Perhaps the leanest, most perplexingly stripped-down exhibition was The Seven Properties of Between, installed at the Sonnabend Gallery, New York City, February, 1972. Utilizing several small stones, Bochner demonstrated seven axiomatic statements of the kind “If X is between A and B, it is not identical with A or B,” or “If nothing is between A and B, they are identical.” Among the difficulties of the exhibition was that these statements, inscribed on typewriter-size sheets of paper, were placed on the floor in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, some paralleling the walls, others oblique to them. In fact, these locations were not arbitrary at all, but were part of a system aimed at distinguishing those statements in terms of their verifiability.

With regard to this problem, it is meaningful to view aspects of Bochner’s activity in reference to issues brought up by the syntactical structures of Noam Chomsky. One of Chomsky’s leading interpreters, John Searle, recognized that

purely formal constraints placed on the semantic theory are not much help in telling what the readings are. They tell us only that a sentence that is ambiguous in three ways must have three readings, a nonsense sentence no readings, two synonymous sentences must have the same readings, and so on. But so far as these requirements go, the reading need not be composed of words but could be composed of any formally specifiable set of objects. They could be numerals, piles of stone, old cars, strings of symbols, anything whatever. Suppose we decide to interpret the readings as piles of stones. Then for a three-ways ambiguous sentence the theory will give us three piles of stones, for a nonsense sentence, no piles of stones, for an analytic sentence the arrangements of stones in the predicate pile will be duplicated in the subject pile, and so on.8

In terms of Bochner’s work such an analogy indicates that physicality or materiality is not his work’s core and indeed it may be only an ancillary consideration of the information projected. Therefore, the stones—and more recently the leaves, the hazelnuts, the architectural fragments, the pieces of chalk, etc.—which constitute the viable tangible elements of Bochner’s recent work are not to the point. With Bochner, substance is neutral, its quiddity is beside the point, merely a necessary evil, not used as “signature” material.

The relative insignificance of the physical substance of Bochner’s art means that his work is pared down to an almost lean “otherness.” In works relating to the Conceptual theater say or any of the several examples of post-Minimal phenomenology, there is always the tacit assumption of communal exchange between art and viewer. Bochner’s work makes the most marginal concessions to even highly attenuated notions of “communication.” It remains “out there,” beyond the pale of conventional taxonomy.

In a perspicuous review of The Seven Properties of Between, Lizzie Borden, taking her clue from a reading of Wittgenstein, understood that “Bochner’s literal mapping of these propositions seems to exhibit the relation of abstract logical truths to the structure of reality,” concluding that

The rocks, signifying necessary truths, are abstracted from the contexts we generally use in considering statements. Bochner has attempted to prove that the limits of logical articulation can lead to puzzling and obscurantist statements. The problem lies in an erroneous search for meanings in the objects themselves. By showing what cannot be stated, Bochner demonstrates the importance of ostensive definition, or gesture, in the comprehension of meaning (Artforum, April, 1972).

The artist himself was prompted to write several pages on the subject since the Seven Properties of Between represented a “quantum leap” for his thought, one which “led, perhaps hesitantly, to the formulation of a meta-critical art.” Since this document, a personal letter, constitutes a key exposition of the artist’s thought, in conclusion I must cite from it at length:

“Beginning with the premise that art’s basis is knowledge, we can rapidly deduce that there is no art imperative for the object,” the proof of this being that “there are pre-language operations but no pre-language objects.” Still, “The question basic to any endeavor which sets out to examine knowledge is ‘How do I know this is true?’ . . . the verification problem. . . . Therefore, the task of epistemological research . . . is to raise the verification problem to the foreground of esthetic problems.”

Bochner saw that the verification problem could be reduced to at least four components. “The first is tautological; a principle for determining truth which requires nothing outside itself. This is the truth of mathematics . . .” to which the artist appends the caveat, that to understand the meaning of his art as mathematics is false, since it is not his intention “to replace antiques with textbooks . . . My aim is to apply the same stiff criteria to thought that exists in any other theoretical endeavor, to reclaim the knowledge in art by art. . . . The second verification principle involves specificity, a statement which necessitated an appeal to the stones to validate it. If, for example, I said that my pen is black, you would have to see this pen to know if my statement were true.

The third case is more difficult to explain. Here, I was demonstrating propositions which corresponded to the fact of the arrangement, but not solely to that arrangement. The statement was true for this instance, but not for all instances. . . .” This generalizing principle was active in several of the 7 Properties, especially the wall. “This all brings me to the fourth principle, namely, the act of faith. In the piece which ‘stood alone’ in the back room I made a statement which was not true [If nothing is between A and B, they are identical] and a demonstration of it. The demonstration appeared to verify the sentence, but upon reflection could not possibly. However, given the situation/circumstances it was completely acceptable because of the conditioning inspired by the other six [examples]. . . . Finally, all of these remarks are useless if the experience is not congruent with the thought.”

My view of Bochner’s art—now beyond post-Minimalism—is that the experience is congruent with the thought.

Robert Pincus-Witten



1. It was this material, excepting the observations on Johns, that became “Excerpts from Speculations,” Artforum, May, 1970.

2. Unpublished manuscript, Problematic Aspects of Critical/Mathematic Constructs in My Art, 1971.

3. “Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism into Sublime,” Artforum, November, 1971.

4. These photographs may be associated with Jan Dibbets’ “perspective corrections,” one of which, Forest Piece 1969, Bochner used to illustrate “Excerpts from Speculations,” Artforum, May, 1970.

5. Bochner is strongly attached to didactic ends. He has produced not only books made by hand but also extremely limited edition books—or booklets—dealing with either exhibition material or with working aphorisms. The most influential of the latter is the French/English edition of 11 Excerpts, put out by the Sonnabend Press in Paris. Its tone and scale are marked by The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao, one of the artist’s preferred books.

6. R. Pincus-Witten, Artforum, May, 1971. This observation was corroborated by several Italian projects located in architecture of the kind noted, the most recent, installed in the Chiesa San Nicoló, Spoleto, in which the artist laid down in cruciform pattern fragments of Roman moldings, a spare variation of the ACE Gallery polarities.

7. R. Pincus-Witten, “Bochner at MoMA: Three Ideas & Seven Procedures,” Artforum, December, 1971.

8. John Searle, “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972, pp. 16–24, p. 22.