New York

Mel Bochner

Sonnabend Gallery

Ideas and appearances do not have a comparable interest in Mel Bochner’s recent work, but they may come together in the future. I am not overwhelmed by much of this new work. I sometimes feel that I am looking at the products of a genius who has decided to make puzzles. Nonetheless I respond to Bochner’s ability to stick with, develop and elaborate a given idea or structure. I’m willing to engage with his mixed results in order to gain a clearer notion of the thoroughness of his mind. It is a mind which seems to shift increasingly toward intuitive, visual decisions and to be considering all the possibilities as it proceeds. This shift was evident in Bochner’s last exhibition here, particularly in Nonverbal Structures, the large piece consisting of six rectangles of color painted directly on three walls of a room.

The work shown this year, pastels on paper and a series of five black shapes done directly on the wall, develop more explicitly from the remainder of last year’s show, the black and white drawings, and from their concern with the combinations of three basic shapes: the equilateral triangle, the square and the pentagon, all with equal base lengths. The work here seems even more “nonverbal” than before (the relationship to counting and numbers is almost entirely absent), and color functions with a completely new importance. The three shapes have become points of departure for Bochner’s imagination and at times result in a unity which is explicitly dependent upon color. For me, the best are those drawings which seem most arbitrary and extravagantly permuted.

Bochner seems to be investigating justhow much information is needed to decipher the unity of his shapes, that is, to read them conceptually. A particularly beautiful drawing consists of two connected shapes: an irregular blue one and a black square (actually black over blue). After looking at it awhile, it becomes apparent that the blue area to the right of the square is a pentagon, while that above is an equilateral triangle. The angle formed by the adjacent sides of the triangle and the pentagon is also filled in with blue, completing the shape but adding an area which is something of an unknown quantity, eventually recognized as a right-angled triangle. Ultimately, two shapes become four, or five, depending on how you look at it. There is a careful balance between how much can be simultaneously obscured by color (what kinds of new, cumbersome shapes are thereby achieved), and how much can be elucidated by a crucial shift in color. In a number of the drawings, the shape is carefully balanced on the paper so that its perimeters in no way parallel the edges. A precariousness consistently results and in these the shapes are particularly big and vibrant, almost free of the expanse they occupy. Bochner also uses this tipped placement to further confound the reading of the basic shapes involved.

In another group of work, Bochner elucidates the components of ostensibly single shapes not through color but through one or more interior lines which designate edges of adjacent or overlapping shapes. The five black shapes painted directly on the wall contain from one to five lines each and develop different combinations of two pentagons. This series, Intransitives, seems to be the most ambitious in the exhibition; it is certainly the most intricate. It deals progressively with planes being over, under or adjacent to each other in a way that brings to mind the states of “being in” or “being out” of the pennies in Bochner’s earlier Axiom of Indifference. As the series progresses, the two pentagons overlap, are joined on a point, joined on a side. They are separated completely by other shapes or completely contain other shapes. In the 5th Intransitive the two overlapped pentagons contain five lines which form another pentagon. It is the final, ironic resolution, since this third pentagon is equally within the other two and therefore within neither. None of the conditions of being over, under or adjacent are met; the three are completely ambiguous and completely unified.

I’m probably missing any number of other points or progressions which this series contains but the one I have just attempted to describe seems most obvious. This is one of those mind-bending pieces that Bochner comes up with at an annual rate, and yet it functions primarily as a puzzle. It is involved with an idea but once you get the gradually more intricate point, that’s it; and the experience becomes simple again and a little academic. I like the snappiness of the black shapes, the way they seem cut into the surface of the wall, not just painted on it. They are provocative, but I keep coming up against the rigidity of the thinking, the necessity to decipher the structure, the lack of satisfaction with having done so. I feel stranded between Bochner’s rather interesting control of material and his clever puzzle making; there isn’t enough in between that connects them. This series lacks the substance of the best drawings whether decipherable or not. Yet the precarious tipping and the color provide immediate sensations and move toward an emotional complexity which is new for Bochner; it’s a different kind of involvement and it’s lively. The intransitives don’t seem as open as the other drawings, nor as open as Nonverbal Structures from last year; that piece remains one of the most interesting paintings I’ve seen in some time and I look forward to further developments from it and from the drawings in this show.

Roberta Smith