Mel Bochner

Hartford Art School

There is a tendency for art work to present a kind of puzzle which the viewer attempts to solve; often in such cases, once the art is understood, it has lost its challenge and therefore its interest. Mel Bochner’s art reverses this operation; one immediately gets Bochner’s work, and at that point the real interest begins. At the Hartford Art School, Bochner showed Nine Demonstrations From the Theory of Sculpture: Counting. The Nine Demonstrations are similar to work shown in New York last year. White pebbles are placed in certain relations on the concrete floor on which corresponding numbers, symbols, and titles are written in white grease crayon. The concepts of the relations are simple: Ten to 10 has ten pebbles lined up to form the symbol of the number “10”; in Reversibility ten pebbles form a straight line, on either side of which are the corresponding numbers one through ten counting up from opposite ends; in In Five There Were Four (for Jackson), five pebbles form a straight line, and a set of numbers on one side of the line counts the pebbles, while a set of numbers on the other side counts the four spaces between the pebbles.

There are no tricks here, and it is clear that Bochner is not interested in presenting relationships that aren’t obvious to anyone. There would seem to be no confusion about ten pebbles forming the symbol “10,” but right in the center of the demonstrations, Bochner has written the following quote from Brian Ellis on the floor: “It is not difficult to understand what is meant by saying a physical object more or less closely resembles a Euclidian circle, but what could be meant by saying a group of pebbles resembles the number 10.” What had seemed a simple matter has become a complex one. We say roundness is a characteristic of a pebble, but we would not say that being part of the formation of the symbol “10” is a characteristic of the pebble or, in Reversibility, that being third counting from one direction and eighth counting from the other is a characteristic of a pebble. The problem here is in the relation of the numbers to what they count, which is in this case pebbles; and this problem or question is the same as the relation between language and the physical world, and even the Cartesian problem of mind and body. Within the demonstration, a pebble holds a place in relation to the other pebbles which corresponds to the place held by a number in relation to the other numbers. It seems to be a case of two parallel systems only structurally relevant to each other. The operations of mathematics provide no information; they present their form, and Bochner’s demonstrations present instances of those forms and their relation to the physical world. Clearly he is not interested in teaching us mathematics, he is interested in art. His demonstrations essentially demonstrate the relation of physical objects and what we infer from them; and this demonstrated relation holds for paintings as well as for pebbles.

Bruce Boice