PRINT February 2009


Mel Bochner’s collected writings

IN HIS PREFACE to this volume, Mel Bochner describes a turning point in his approach to writing. Learning that the short exhibition reviews he had been producing for Arts Magazine in 1965 were actually being read by the artists he reviewed, he further found himself being assailed for failing to comprehend the art. Bochner concluded that, in his own writing, “it was impossible not to be misunderstood.” This realization, he explains, was liberating. Abandoning writing criticism per se (his own included seminal theoretical essays about Minimal art), he began “testing the boundary between writing-as-criticism and writing-as-visual-art.”

These observations help us frame Bochner’s collected writings, for in his career, language (writing, language as system, and, in his recent work, language as utterance) is a chief medium. Further, it is no exaggeration to say that the entirety of this artist’s oeuvre is premised on the principle of being misunderstood: Systems of information and signification in general (counting, measurement, photographic representation, linear perspective, as well as language) are Bochner’s objects of analysis, and the reliability of the information they produce never really survives that analysis intact.

Solar System & Rest Rooms contains both published and unpublished writings, the latter category including several reviews as well as transcripts of lectures on Bochner’s own work and that of two other artists, Henri Matisse and Barnett Newman. All of the Arts Magazine reviews from 1965–66 are here, along with the longer reviews concerning various New York exhibitions from 1966 and 1967 that turned out to have been landmarks of Minimal and post-Minimal art, including “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum, “Art in Process—Structures” at Finch College Museum of Art, “Systemic Painting” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “New Dimensions” at A. M. Sachs Gallery, and “Eccentric Abstraction” at Fischbach Gallery. We also find the essays that have become defining statements in and of themselves—“Serial Art Systems: Solipsism” and “The Serial Attitude” (both from 1967)—and texts in a more experimental mode, such as those devoted to the work of Dan Flavin and Robert Mangold (compilations of quotations from multiple sources, some of them fake, from 1966 and 1968, respectively). A number of articles are reproduced as they originally appeared, as are two so-called magazine pieces, “The Domain of the Great Bear” (composed with Robert Smithson), a travesty feature for Art Voices (Fall 1966) that purports to be about the American Museum of Natural History; and the complex “Alfaville, Godard’s Apocalypse” (Arts Magazine, May 1968).

Early on, Bochner clearly felt that writing criticism was a useful means of establishing his own place in relation to new tendencies—identifying a paradigm shift in artmaking and in the process positioning himself as a proponent and, finally, a practitioner of the new work. In this he was not alone, for serious critical writing would come to distinguish the activity of various artists from Bochner’s generation (a generation we might, in the context of polemical writing, associate with America’s involvement in Vietnam). As a critic, Bochner had been preceded by Donald Judd; among his contemporaries, he was joined, most prominently, by Smithson, Robert Morris, and Dan Graham. Still, Bochner’s case stands out: Trained as a painter, he first securely oriented himself to art as a writer. Through his early publications, we observe a steady, almost methodical progression from stringer (short reviews for $2.50 apiece) to author of lengthy review essays (in which the same artists were repeatedly singled out for attention) to artist-critic for whom the activity of writing became a form of artistic practice.

Eventually, language took its place as a medium in the work of many artists during this period, and the figure of the writer—the artist-critic—is inseparable from that phenomenon. Indeed, it is to the privileging of language that historians ascribe the rise of so-called Conceptual art, a tendency within which Bochner is understood to occupy a central role. But it has always been his contention that the material nature of language and other systems of information pointedly belies the presumed “dematerialization” of art circa 1970. In this regard, special reference can be made to the handwritten and printed texts and lists of words that, as Yve-Alain Bois explains in his introduction to Bochner’s writings, were subjected by the artist to various forms of physical manipulation that alter or interrogate meaning. Yet there is an expanded material realm of language, populated by sketches, diagrams, mechanical drawings, and the like, that also applies. The relevance of such objects first emerged in a project Bochner prepared at the School of Visual Arts Gallery in the fall of 1966 called Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art. The installation, which is described in an unpublished text from 1997 included in the present anthology, consisted of photocopies—displayed in ring binders—of preparatory drawings and related documents such as lists and receipts that Bochner solicited from numerous artists (and, in order to bring the total number of examples to one hundred, a composer, an architect, an engineer, etc.), including many whom he was just then addressing in his criticism: Judd, Flavin, Smithson, Mangold, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, and Carl Andre. Through photocopying, each sheet was, to quote Bochner, “leveled-out as information”; displayed in books, he explained, the Xeroxes transformed the “viewer” into a “reader.” One far-reaching consequence of the exhibition was that it situated notation, as a category of means, between object and idea; thus, in the absence of the “finished” or unique object, drawing and writing could—conceptually and materially—share the same register (quite literally in cases where a diagram for the production of an object is annotated with handwritten notes).

As a writer, Bochner was part of a generational phenomenon; in that he also came to treat the word as object, his early work belongs less in the company of Smithson, Hesse, and LeWitt, with whom he is commonly associated, than of On Kawara, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Ruscha. But, in retrospect, Working Drawings takes him to yet another place. There, strangely enough, we find Bochner’s work encountering that of Barnett Newman, the chief artistwriter of the previous generation. Bochner’s essay on Newman from 1992 (revised in 2002 for a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the occasion of the Newman retrospective there) is revealingly titled “Barnett Newman: Writing Painting/Painting Writing.” Consider the very first sentence: “Barnett Newman, before discovering his identity as a painter, was—as his contemporaries rightly perceived him—a theoretician, a man committed to thought.” Bochner could have been speaking of himself; he probably was. The piece is largely concerned with what Bochner describes as the metaphysical ambition of Newman’s paintings, but it culminates with a reference to Newman’s 18 Cantos, 1963–64, a suite of lithographs. From a text accompanying the prints, Bochner quotes Newman declaiming, “The definition of a lithograph is that it is writing on stone” (the context is Bochner’s consideration of Newman’s language—especially the titles of his paintings—as indications of a specifically Jewish content). Bochner’s interest in the remark is an example of the pull of the material in relation to language; that pull, in turn, is inseparable from the role Newman’s painting itself played in Bochner’s early career. The most explicit example of this association is Bochner’s wall painting titled Theory of Boundaries, 1969–70. It deploys Newman’s basic elements: masking tape, used for delimiting and articulating pictorial space; the expansive spread of thinly applied paint (which, in Bochner’s hands, became pigment alone, minus a binding agent, applied directly to the wall with rags); and the identification of painting with the actual space of the room. Bochner has long said that his work from this period was grounded in the then-troubled practice of painting; in Theory of Boundaries, he specifically addressed Newman’s work as the furthest possible attenuation of painting’s material and spatial coordinates. (It is interesting to note that in 1971, a year after Newman’s death, Bochner took up residence in the older artist’s former studio on White Street in Manhattan.)

If Newman could conflate imagemaking and writing through the agency of the lithographic stone, then it can be said that the wall plane, across which Bochner applied his pigment, is as much a space of writing as of painting. Indeed, Theory of Boundaries is composed of pigment plus words written in chalk—“language fractions” (AT/IN, OVER/IN, __/IN, AT/OUT)—which, together with the work’s image, portray pictorial space as an expression of perimeters. The anthology reproduces a page from the April 1970 issue of Arts Magazine that shows a sketch for Theory of Boundaries (along with facsimiles of handwritten notes) under the heading “No Thought Exists Without a Sustaining Support.” The sketch is a working drawing, but so is the wall painting—a series of diagrams and notations about painting; that is, thoughts with a sustaining support. What the heading of the article tells us is that the wall is a site both for the materialization of language and for the de-incarnation of painting, which is now deprived of stretched canvas and of medium. Newman’s attenuation of painting is indeed a furthest limit; for Bochner, the internal logic of painting’s condition in 1970 seemed to demand a series of schematic propositions—in the form of the notation-like wall painting—concerning the pictorial as an issue of real space.

“Writing painting.” If there ever was such a thing as literalism during the 1960s, it came and went awfully fast; the concept now looks like a kind of clearing in which residence was shortly taken up by a new epistemology of process: the movement of thought across mediums. In this regard, Bochner’s later writings tell us much about the intuitions of the younger artist. It may come as a surprise to find him attempting, even as recently as 2002, to fathom Newman’s metaphysics, given his generation’s suspicion—directed at Abstract Expressionist painting—as to whether art could claim to purvey such a thing. But if we page back to one of the reviews from 1966 (“Art in Process—Structures”), we find that, in fact, the skepticism ran both ways: “The attempt,” Bochner wrote of Minimal art, “is to avoid metaphysics.” One imagines a moment’s pause at the typewriter, then the clatter of the next thought: “That is not entirely possible, though, because the only way to avoid metaphysics completely would be not to do anything.”

Jeffrey Weiss is an independent curator and critic living in New York.


Mel Bochner, Solar System & Rest Rooms: Writings And Interviews, 1965 –2007, fwd. Yve-Alain Bois (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 240 Pages.