New York

Mel Bochner

Sonnabend Gallery

Mel Bochner seems to be trying to prolong his status as precocious young master and to advance rapidly to the position of an old established one at the same time; his recent show took the form of a mini-retrospective, but nonetheless left one, once more, in a state of anticipation. The exhibition consisted of a large selection of previously unshown drawings from the last three years; they ranged from small fast sketches to finished works and, in total, retraced Bochner’s development since 1973. Over the past few years, Bochner has advanced from the stringent conceptuality of his earlier work, nurturing his involvement with theoretical logic and mathematics into a language of geometric forms. And while unmalleable materials, like stones or pennies, were previously the ironic, arbitrary signifiers of his ideas, Bochner has by now adopted almost exclusively the materials and methods of traditional drawing, and his attention to the sensuous aspects of color and surface have increased steadily.

Bochner’s progress has been slow and thorough, admirable qualities in any artist, particularly in younger ones, and particularly in a decade glutted with glib, inconsequential art. But in large amounts, even thoroughness can work against itself. With Bochner, it often atrophies visually into over-refinement and, generally, it gives his career an air of high importance muffled in over-caution (leading you to expect more sooner, rather than later). A mini-retrospective at this point confirmshow seriously Bochner takes himself and how seriously he means to be taken: he takes no shortcuts in his methodical development and,furthermore, we’re not going to miss a single step (or scrap) of it, either. There are several beautiful drawings in this exhibition, that’s not the quarrel; it just seems unnecessary for Bochner to reiterate his recent progress now; one expects something more venturesome, particularly since his last exhibition was mostly a holding pattern.

Generally the exhibition restates Bochner’s strengths and weaknesses, perhaps more clearly than before: taken as a whole, it reveals the various aspects of his artistic personality. But this is a general criticism, or at least a sign of Bochner’s misdirected prudence, because it means that for the most part he continues to isolate individual ideas and feelings in various drawings, rather than pulling the best of them together, making them into the successive layers of his work. For example, a series of small charcoal and conte studies, with crudely blocked out shapes, are animated by a surprising virulence. These are not terrific drawings, they’re too cartoonlike; but they have an intense energy that Bochner doesn’t let out often enough. In other drawings, Bochner is concerned with the visual rightness of a shape’s location on the paper, and leaves a network of erasures to indicate the discarded options and the appropriateness of the final solution. Elsewhere he concentrates on the entire surface: in one drawing a black surface seems to have been worn down to grayish white, leaving nothing but a few groups of black dots, integral to the white. But in similar drawings, when Bochner surrounds the dots with a second color, the contrast is superficially decorative, and, like several others, they remain only attractive illustrations for Bochner’s ideas.

The best drawings in this exhibition are two which combine the energy, the worked surface, the sensitive placement of shape. In these, Bochner’s characteristic fused gangling shapes (a triangle, square and pentagon) are surrounded by black, but narrow strips of paper are left bare at one or two edges. This makes the black function as another shape, rather than as background, and presents a peculiar contradiction: Bochner suggests that the surface of the drawing is not identical with the paper, and yet the strips aren’t borders, they’re part of the image. In Compound-Complex, where rust and white versions of this irregular shape are joined,the crowding black makes them particularly big and powerful. Both drawings approach the dramatic, packed-in density of Myron Stout’s abstraction—although the strips of light paper provide a safety valve to the pressure—and, like Stout, Bochner adds to the tension by placing the shapes askew, so that none of their many edges lines up with those of the paper. These decisions are simple and obvious, but together they casually yet crucially articulate all aspects of the drawings, giving them an expansive, complete quality (and a sense of scale) that the other work here lacks.

Also recent but more characteristic (and given more fanfare in the installation) are several large Fulcrum drawings, in which locked pentagons are preciously isolated on large expanses of white paper. After the way the black drawings differentiate and combine plain and pigmented paper, all that blankness seems affected and lax; the shapes occupy the center as if it were a privileged position. Consistent with privilege, the pentagons don’t do much; they’re involved with minute distinctions of surface and shape that seem tight and overdone. These drawings substitute over-refinement for completeness. They have lost the immediacy and liveliness of drawing, but have gained only the pretense of being something more. The Fulcrum drawings evince a style rigid beyond its years: too much control over too little; and they become metaphors for the problems Bochner faces in his art right now. You might say that Bochner makes drawing a privileged position from which to proclaim, without really fulfilling, his ambition to make major abstract art. Only the two black drawings push at the status quo of Bochner’s style and complexly explore the possibilities of drawing; they edge toward larger-scaled abstraction, maybe even toward painting. But generally this privileged position is also a handicapped one. In order to fulfill his ambitions, Bochner needs more to work with; more materials, more scale, more freedom, anything to threaten the control he presently maintains with such tame security.

Roberta Smith