New York

Mel Bochner

Sonnabend Gallery

It is unlikely that those who speak of the beauty of mathematics have in mind the recent wall paintings of Mel Bochner. They may recall Matisse’s environmental papiers collés, Monet’s Orangerie Nympheas, even Sol LeWitt’spastel wall drawings, but embarrassingly not a single formula, theorem or equation. Perhaps it is not so much embarrassment as guilt for just enjoying these paintings so much. Bochner revealed himself as a brilliant colorist, and while it has been noted to death that he owes a great debt to Constructivism, these new paintings display as well a surprising and happy affinity for a less intellectual art.

Of course, with Bochner one does go further. The six large wall paintings at Sonnabend were each composed of three or four sharp-edged, bright and strong color areas, which are themselves built from combinations of the triangle, square and pentagon. The major forms abut, climb, hang and tumble. What makes these new paintings an advance over the last ones is that now the large color forms are interrupted and intercepted by rectangles and rods of complementary color which spring from an edge into the center of the field. Sometimes they hug the edge, sometimes they cross other rods which touch the edge, but only rarely does the line extend beyond the edge of the color field.

While the basic shapes of the paintings are predictable, the recently introduced elements are not. What they do formally is make the otherwise slow-moving, even lumbering shapes move more quickly across the walls. They indicate an erratic sense of direction, which is not confusion as much as a suggestion of another dimension. Bochner’s paintings could formerly move only in one plane, parallel to our field of vision, but the new forms display a spiky, syncopated, in-and-out movement, suggesting depth, which further complicates, or rather makes more complex, Bochner’s work.

It disturbs me to think that these paintings are so impermanent. Painted upon the gallery walls in casein, they are whitewashed when the next show is installed, to be re-created by the artist only when a purchaser commissions one, or for another exhibition. It is painful to imagine these powerful images destroyed, to realize that only the idea is valid, and that the physical realization of that idea is not. (Imagine Leonardo as Mel Bochner, painting the Mona Lisa upon a wall, and re-creating it on another and another one.)

At the same time, Sonnabend showed eight of Bochner’s large pastel drawings. The forms are devised from the same combinations as are the wall paintings, but are much simpler, more serene, and without intrusions. The drawings are tight and self-contained, executed in heavier, denser colors than the wall paintings, on handmade paper so heavily surfaced that the texture of the paper becomes a part of the pattern of the drawing. The placement of the image on the sheet and the white space around—a metaphor perhaps for the wall—are important to the definition of these drawings. The sharp edges of the forms are softened, and partially contradicted by the softness of the pastel as a medium. This is one aspect of Bochner’s execution they share with the wall paintings, where the paint bleeds under the tapes applied to contain the colors.

Stuart Greenspan