PRINT April 1986


UNTIL 1973, MEL BOCHNER’S art progressed in an evolution from a preoccupation with numbers, words, and photo fragments, in the work from 1966–1968, through an attempt to literalize space in works involving measuring and counting, in 1968–71, to a series of diagrammatic floor arrangements of small objects such as pennies, pebbles, or acorns. in 1972–73. His approach bore a resemblance to the a priori method, cognitive intention, and logical precision of the “early” Ludwig Wittgenstein; it distinguished itself by its attempt at reconciling the perceptual and the cognitive constituents of art. With The Axiom of Indifference,1 a sculpture installation at the Sonnabend Gallery New York, in January of 1973, Bochner concluded this “analytic period” for while the work summarized his epistemological concern with the question of how seeing relates to thinking, the diagram he drew for it prefigured his first dot, line, and shape drawings, heralding what was to become an a posteriori method of investigating art pragmatically, experientially, and synthetically. This reminds us of the “late” Wittgenstein and his famous recommendation, “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use.”2 Bochner was completing an odyssey from language to sight.

“Mel Bochner: 1973–1985” organized by the Carnegie-Mellon University Art Gallery,3 Pittsburgh, focused attention on Bochner’s thoughtfully orchestrated “return to painting,” which he had not practiced since shortly after art school, in the early ’60s. Curator Elaine A. King built her case on the generative role of the drawings (at the Hewlett Gallery, on campus), and on the 1980–82 charcoal-conté-and-pastel works on canvas and the progressively denser, more heavily encrusted, and more jaggedly shaped series of oils on canvas that Bochner began in 1983 (hung in the second-floor spaces of the University Art Gallery’s bright new quarters on South Craig Street, across from the Carnegie Museum of Art). Visitors to the new building were treated, in addition, to two major wall paintings. The 12-by-18-foot Second Segment, showcased to be visible from the street, was first executed in 1981, at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery San Francisco. Sénanque, at 11 by 56 feet taking up a whole wall in an otherwise empty gallery, was conceived in 1981–82 for the monk’s dormitory of the Cistercian abbey of that name in Gordes, in Provence, France. Without assistants or mechanical aids, and in a style that had gained freedom and fluidity from five additional years of painting practice, Bochner, a graduate of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, recreated in casein two of his most successful configurations of color and shape. Their bright, chalky hues were faithful to those of the original renderings, which were themselves inspired by Trecento frescoes. While Second Segment conformed closely to its 1981 original, Sénanque ended on a different formal and coloristic note. The gallery’s height and ceiling detail forced an alternate solution for the upward-tilting forms with which the painting ended (when read left to right). As it turned out, a downward tilt, and a different, more harmonious color gradation, improved on the original.

These drawings and paintings elucidated the process by which Bochner, deliberately and in stages, allowed the flesh of his emotions to cover the skeleton of his thoughts. The 1983 paintings, which took the art world by surprise with their all-out embrace of the once scorned media of canvas and oil, seemed to melt the artist’s last layer of puritan restraint, and rewarded the viewer with a display of gestural freedom and coloristic abandon of which few had believed him capable. This article is an attempt to reconstruct the mental frame over which Bochner’s gestural style has proliferated, like vine on latticework. That frame is easily perceptible in the ambitious epistemological investigations of the ’60s and early ’70s, often floor works with zero-degree visual content (as Roland Barthes, or perhaps viewers of the art, might have put it). But eventually Bochner came to feel that he had exhausted the potential of his rigorously intellectual approach. “I came to a point where I realized the viewer had no access into the thinking that led up to the final work. So I decided to open up the process by going back to drawing. . . . ”4 The first results, in charcoal and gouache on paper, were “dot drawings,” graphic transpositions of the diagrammatic displays of pennies and pebbles on the floor that comprised the artist’s most recent work. It took the further step of connecting the dots for triangles and squares to emerge. Wanting to steer clear of the grid, so popular with the Minimalists, and of the compositional use of geometric forms, another common device in the work of artists with whom he felt no affinity, Bochner began experimenting with composite shapes in asymmetrical arrangements. “One day I put a triangle on top of a square, charcoaled it in, and I had a five-sided shape. When I redrew that shape, it became a regular pentagon; I had found a simple shape that was not based on the grid at all.”5

“[Bochner’s] shape and dot drawings,” King writes in her catalogue introduction, “should be viewed as the tenacious link between the different periods of work representing the underlying continuity of his creative thinking”6 If we extend that appraisal to include, as its author no doubt intended, the “Skeleton,” “Ricochet,” and “Armature” drawings (1977–80, 1981, and 1983–85 respectively), it becomes clear how the artist’s drawing leads to and ultimately generates the paintings. Despite the restrained formal vocabulary (triangle, square, pentagon) and carefully controlled color range of Bochner’s early drawings, these works still represent an unabashed indulgence after the austere years of the analytic period. That indulgence found an even more ambitious target in work applied directly to the wall, beginning as early as 1973 and lasting until 1982; still, it appears that Bochner thought of these early color-shape works as simply an extension of his drawing concerns. He may have been prompted to the mural mode by the example of Sol LeWitt, but unlike LeWitt he sought a confrontation with the architecture his art adorned and complemented: he put his own hand to his wall paintings instead of entrusting them to others. Furthermore, the logic in the linking of forms and the choice of colors in these works emerged partly in the process of making them, rather than being predetermined by a set of instructions. To the viewer, these murals come across as house guests more than as residents. Consequently, few survive.

The color shapes in Bochner’s murals coexist with the wall rather than fusing with it illusionistically—they project no second reality onto the first reality of wall and paint. And as the “objectness” of the murals has seemingly dissolved, the secondary support of the framed canvas having been eliminated, representation and illusion are dissociated even further. When properly illuminated, these color shapes appear to float weightlessly in space. Realizing this effect, the artist has written that “space rather than surface is the support”7 Bochner usually kept his wall paintings flat, avoiding those areas where walls meet other walls, floors and ceilings, baseboards and moldings. With the exception of an installation at the Sonnabend Gallery, New York, in 1973, of single and double monochrome squares, one of which was divided through the middle by the corner of the room, and of a piece in the “Murs” (Walls) exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1981, Bochner refrained from going outside the two-dimensional plane of a given wall. It would have been inconsistent with the literal, nonillusionistic character of his art.

Despite their incorporation of color, Bochner did not think of these murals as paintings per se, since his flat, uninflected use of the primaries and a limited range of their intermixtures was determined, as Claude Gintz has pointed out, by the way the forms held their space and related to each other.8 His studies of the topology of shape were bound to touch on the “problem” of color. As a motivation to paint, that may have a ring of puritanism that seems appropriate for the creator of Axiom of Indifference, yet Robert Pincus-Witten has written of Bochner that he is “a colorist to his very fingertips”9 The art-historian in him has always been fascinated by the use of color to evoke sensibility, in artists ranging from Piero della Francesca to Henri Matisse. Bochner spent the spring of 1974 in Italy, where he was particularly taken by the Trecento fresco painters. “Before oil paint on canvas was invented, there was pictorial experience without an object’: he concluded.’” As he allowed intuition a greater role in his work, his Italian experience quickly began to affect his use of color. For example, the casein mural Five Intransitives, 1974–75—five variations on the triangle, the square, and the pentagon, which clung to the wall like bats or giant leaves—may be known today chiefly through photographs of a black version installed in the Sonnabend Gallery, New York, in March of 1975, but that version was preceded by one in colors unlike any previously seen in the artist’s work—“a primary violet, a dark blue, a muted but still primary red, a dark intense green, and a strange, anomalous beige,” as Brenda Richardson described them11 Temporarily installed at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati as part of the exhibition “Bochner, Le Va, Rockburne, Tuttle,” in January 1975, this version of Five Intransitives led into the range of pastel colors Bochner used for all his later wall paintings.

Another important element in Bochner’s work also made its first appearance in Five Intransitives—the narrow reveals, or linear spaces left white within the bodies of color, that irradiated the logic with which these complex configurations decomposed. These are the ancestors of the reveals and narrow color bars that crisscross the 1977–79 “A-series” (Aliquant, Apogee, Apsides, and Azimuth), and of the broad incursions of white in the 1978–82 “S-series” (Secant, Syncline, Sénanque, and Second Segment). They reflect an emerging imperative to relieve large, uninflected areas of color, and to break up large constellations of form. When Bochner’s zigging cracks and color bars first appeared, they were variously explained as focusing energy, providing gravitational tension, and lending to these squat or pendulous compounds a sense of “spin.” Bochner’s own explanation is more consistent with the later development of his work, particularly his paintings. Not wanting to see his drawing, or the trajectory his mind followed in the making of the piece, subsumed in the final product, whether a complex color shape on the wall or a heavily impastoed painting, he attempted to reactivate the energy within the work’s borders by revealing (or suggesting) the linear pattern beneath the surface. “My primary intention was to break through the crust of the shape, to crack the perimeter of the shape, and to get drawing into the inside.”12 We are reminded of Matisse’s desire to attain a similar goal in The Red Studio, 1911, where he expressed “negatively,” with a blank reveal incised in a monochromatic red, the luminous contours of a room’s furnishings.13 This seems worlds apart from the not very convincing comparison that has been made between Bochner’s work and Frank Stella’s black paintings.14 For Stella’s “pinstripes” are the opposite of drawn lines; they are the leftover blanks separating his brushstrokes from one another.

As the 1977–82 wall paintings leapt, hopped, and tumbled across their spaces, they provided Bochner with a public arena in which to flex his pictorial muscle. He had stopped intellectualizing his color choices, relying more and more on intuition. As for the forms, their inverted linkages in the “A-series” lent them torque to twirl before the viewer’s eye, while in the “S-series” their progression along an imagined arch made them seem to gallop from side to side. One might ask why Bochner abandoned an ostensibly successful working mode, with limitless potential. “The wall paintings came to an end for a number of reasons,” he confided in a recent interview with Charles Stuckey. “First, I was tired of fighting the architecture...but the biggest reason was that I got sick of having them painted out . . . I painted them in the most permanent way with the most permanent materials. But they were often misinterpreted as being a kind of ‘conceptual’ statement about impermanence . . . I needed something that defined its own boundaries. And that meant paintings on canvas.”15

In 1978, a year in which Bochner received no fewer than five exhibitions of his wall paintings, from Florence to San Francisco, he had discovered that the skeletal markings that he used as preparation for his murals, including the traces of erasures and corrections, had more than a byproduct value. They were drawings, as always the generators of his ideas, and they functioned as blueprints of his creative process and roadmaps in the further development of his vocabulary. He began to produce these diagrams on paper, as works in their own right. In the move from wall to canvas, King attributes a key role to the “Skeleton” drawings, and I concur with her, while Bochner himself prefers to locate the critical transition in the series of 17 medium-sized charcoal-on-paper studies referred to as the “Ricochet” series. But both categories of drawing retain the signs of thought and effort, pentimenti and all, that were obliterated in the wall paintings, and both can be said to have given rise, between 1980 and 1982, to a series of charcoal-and-conté-crayon works on canvas. Similar in form to the “Skeleton” and “Ricochet” series, these canvas pieces add white, yellow, and orange to the black of the drawings, and are suffused with a vibrancy that the drawings lack. Without recourse to traditional perspective, the vectors of color that rebound across the surfaces evoke a sensation of movement in space not unlike that of a Rayonist painting or a Naum Gabo sculpture.

For the infrastructure of these works, Bochner was proceeding somewhat as he had ten years before, with the basic “givens” of triangle, square, and pentagon (like “found objects,” he said). “One of the beauties of the triangle, square and pentagon,” the artist told Stuckey, “is that they create infinite combinations of unpredictable shapes. It’s analogous to the growth of crystals, the way these simple shapes expand in a series of surprising permutations.”16 One should note, however, that the technique by which he juxtaposed these shapes had changed from adjoining them to overlapping them, which had the effect of multiplying angles and dissecting forms. “I started from the ‘skeleton drawings’ I had been making for the wall paintings,” Bochner continued. “First, I drew a structure of primary shapes. By connecting all the salient points with a red conté crayon line, a ’roadmap’ of the structure emerged. Over the map, I began a drawing in charcoal, inventing a ’route across the shape. In this way a line evolved that appeared to ricochet, like the trace of a particle darting from point to point. . . . Eventually I reached the point where the dense web of revisions was obliterating itself. I realized that I had to begin painting because the plasticity of oil paint would allow me to constantly change my mind without losing the record of decisions.”17

There are a number of reasons for dwelling at length on this quote, which not only describes Bochner’s decision to return to oil but highlights a departure from the systematic procedures that continued to characterize his art well into the ’70s. The element of invention that the artist describes, and the joining of the organic, living line with the inorganic, predefined, geometric form, set the tone for his gradual emancipation from the dictates of a conceptual art that he himself had helped formulate. Even at the height of his epistemological investigations, he never neglected the visual, but with the turn to canvas it became clear that visual considerations were paramount in his art. While always protective of the record of his mind’s meanderings, it would now appear that he wanted to convert his works into palimpsests. And indeed, the visual content of Bochner’s paintings is the methodology and the process of their making. In a 1975 lecture at the City University of New York, he described his drawn shapes as “[coming] to rest on top of [their] own archaeology”18 This can be said even more accurately of the artist’s recent paintings, for the history of the process by which they have come into being is compressed in layer upon layer of troweled and striated pigment.

Bochner’s first paintings, usually in gradations of a single color, with plenty of black and white, were made on rectangular supports. Let’s revert to the old Artnews format of “so-and-so paints a picture” to better understand the process. In a studio with none of the pristine, laboratory cleanliness we tend to associate with the Minimalist/Conceptual esthetic from which Bochner hails, the artist staples a rectangle of canvas to an already paint-splattered wall and sizes it with rabbit-skin glue. This tightens the canvas, eliminates surface tension, and reduces absorption. First, the canvas gets a thin wash in whatever color the artist decides to start out with. Then he begins to “draw” lines, in different colors, using pots of premixed oil-based paint, with instruments that vary from brush to stick to spatula. A generous use of thinner keeps the surface malleable, prevents too much paint buildup too soon, and encourages streaking, as the pigment runs down in rivulets. “The way thick paint flows or thin paint runs can make viscosity a metaphor for time,” Bochner has said,19 thus harking back to an earlier and persistent ambition to turn painting’s dimensions of space and perspective into dimensions of time and memory. Here, the artist resembles the horologist who, by lifting a clock’s face and showing us the springs, cogs, and balances, makes time “transparent.”

Having completed this spontaneous assembly of lines, which cross and intersect to form triangles, squares, and pentagons of different sizes and close-to-equal sides, Bochner chooses a focal point inside each polygon from which to draw lines to the vertices of the corresponding polygons, and to nodes on the connecting bars between these vertices. The resulting, crisscross strokes of heavy-bodied paint lay down an emphatic frame of color. They are often accented in black or white, and they are dominant enough to act as the carrier of the abstract image. Ultimately, they led to the artist’s later decision to establish a rhyme between interior and exterior by forcing the edges of the canvas to conform with, and sometimes to blunt, the graphic silhouette within. Stephen Westfall has remarked, “[Bochner piles] zigzagging energies on top of each other until a certain critical mass is reached within an emerging polygonal area. The canvases are then stretched according to that evolved shape’s eccentric specifications.”20 There may be a more prosaic explanation as well, relating to one of painting’s oldest problems—the question of how to deal with the comers of a rectangular canvas. (The tondo may have been invented for more stringent reasons than that of fitting into an architectural arrangement.) Bochner’s rejection of the 90-degree grid , and his choice of his own pentagonal matrix, exacerbated the comer problem for him . Unlike the house painter “painting himself into a corner,” Bochner, once he had decided that all the interconnections between the vertices and focal points in his paintings would remain within the field defined by the constituent polygons, cheated himself out of filling the comers of his rectangular canvases. The procedure he followed disallowed it. That frustration, rather than the reaching of a “critical mass,” is likely to have brought on the radical decision to cut off the triangular and narrow trapezoidal areas that in the rectangular works always remained “nonenergized” canvas.

Procedural revenge—cutting off a comer here, a strip there—turned into an experiential method of great visual acuity, enabling Bochner to do away with his problem while at the same time tapping the morphological proficiency he had developed in ten years of composing shapes to go on walls. Bochner discussed with Stuckey the fact that most shaped paintings begin with the shape, which more or less determines the image. (One thinks of Stella’s polygonal works, in which the internal structure described by the paint acknowledges the shape of the canvas that frames it.) For Bochner, the reverse is true. “First I paint the painting, then I decide on the shape.”21 It was characteristic of early Post-Minirnalism to let the material seek its own optimal shape (as in Lynda Benglis’ polyurethane or Eva Hesse’s latex pieces); in recent Bochner, the drawing seeks its own optimal canvas confinement.

Moving along the track cut by such shaped pictures as the 1983 Atoll, the 1984 Dead Reckoning, and others of its ilk, Bochner added a new wrinkle when he realized that making the perimeter rhyme with an inward-pointing angle measuring less than 90 degrees had the effect of relieving the regularity and predictability of his painted canvases. Suddenly, a bite was taken out of them, or they jackknifed in an arresting way Another method of giving his pictures the extra twist that a concave angle provided was to use empty space to lend spin and visual incident to his painted polygons. Arena, 1985, with its central, tilted, white-painted trapezoid, is a perfect example, suggesting that the artist is just beginning to explore the full potential of this fortuitous invention. It is easy to see how Arena tempted Bochner to actualize the canvas void and to eliminate the center, as in Outpost, 1985. 22 In which of the two directions his work will go, that of Arena or that of Outpost, is open to speculation.

If we were to draw a parallel (influence would be too tenuous an assertion) between another artist’s work and Bochner’s, we might turn to Hans Hofmann. Both men seem inspired by the spirituality and didacticism of Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandinsky, and this common source pertains to their writings as well as to their paintings. Both men deal with the dualism between the second and the third dimension, between what is free-formed and what is geometric, between the eternal opposites of order and chaos. Hofmann’s triads of stepped, overlapping rectangles, grouped asymmetrically, have their contemporary counterpart in Bochner’s grid-defying conjunctions of triangle, square, and pentagon. Hofmann’s abstract reconstruction of space and volume, with heavily impastoed brushmarks suspending the rectangular color shapes, becomes Bochner’s forging of a pictorial unity between scraped paint surface, gouged-out high-velocity lines, and an ever more audacious determination of borders. Neither painter wavers from structural orthodoxy, and neither makes his art serve extraneous expressive, symbolic, metaphorical, or psychological goals. Just as Hofmann in his time steered clear of Surrealism’s automatism and subconscious figuration, so Bochner today avoids Neo-Expressionism’s rhetoric, its pastiche of the search for mythic truth and spiritual redemption. What appears to be a restless shifting of modes-the expressive and the contained, the Dionysian and the Apollonian-s-in the two artists’ work is in reality a dialectical exploration of art’s opposite poles.

Jan van der Marck is the former director of the Center for the fine Arts, Miami, and is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art Washington. D.C.



1. The Axiom of Indifference consisted of eight 12-inch squares of masking tape on the floor, evenly divided by one of the gallery’s walls. Three pennies were placed In a certain relationship to each square, while eight sentences, written in black ink on one side of each square, spelled the predicates of “being in” and “being out.” Very generally, as Bruce Boice has pointed out (In Arts vol. 47 no. 6, May 1973, p. 86), Bochner’s work showed the kind of problem that arise from applying the propositions of logic, mathematics, and geometry to the physical world, and finds them inapplicable.

2. K. T. Fann, Wittgenstien’s Conception of Philosophy, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971, p. 68.

3. The exhibition, which was seen in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1985, will be at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland, this summer. Its final stop will be at the Center for the Fine Arts Miami, in March and April of 1987.

4. Quoted in Elaine A King “Building a Language,” Mel Bochner: 1973–1985, Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1985, p. 10.

5. Quoted in King, op. cit., pp. 10–11.

6. King, op. cit., p. 11.

7. In Bochner’s statement for the exhibition “Murs,” at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1981. Quoted in Mel Bochner: 1973–1985, p. 65.

8. Claude Gintz, “De la théorie à l’expériance,” Artistes, Paris, June–July 1980, pp. 26–33.

9. Robert Pincus-Witten, Entries (Maximalism), New York: Out-of-London, 1983, p. 90.

10. Quoted in King, op. cit., p. 11.

11. Brenda Richardson, Mel Bochner: Number and Shape, Baltimore: the Baltimore Museum of Art, 1976, p. 53.

12. Quoted in king, op. cit., p.12.

13. Robert Pincus-Witten was the first to draw this comparison, claiming that Bochner himself was aware of it; in Pincus-Witten, op cit., p. 91. See also Pierre Schnerder, Matisse, New York: Rizzoli, 1984, p. 345.

14. See Pincus-Witten, op. cit., p. 91. Bochner emphatically rejects this comparison.

15. Charles Stuckey, “Inteview with Mel Bochner,” Mel Bochner: 1973–1985, p. 16.

16. Ibid.

17. lbid.

18. Quoted in Richardson, op. cit,. p. 43.

19. Stuckey, op. cit., p. 17.

20. Stephen Westfall, “Bochner Unbound,” Art in America vol. 73 no. 7, July 1985, p. 113.

21. Stuckey, op. cit., p. 20.

22. This work was not in the show.