New York

Mel Bochner

Sonnabend Gallery

Mid-to-late 20th-century art practice is often described in terms of axiomatic polarities—visual versus conceptual; expressionism versus analytical investigation—polarities that are so thoroughly enmeshed in our esthetic consciousness that sometimes we uphold the boundaries upon which such distinctions are based as though they were law. While many have based their careers on synthesis, efforts to cross these boundaries remain difficult to negotiate; the proposition that painting be regarded as a conceptually based practice is a case in point. Of course, there are exceptions. On Kawara’s “date paintings” are so “tautologically correct” (read: wholly self-defined or self-referential), and Daniel Buren’s stripe paintings are so “institutionally correct” (read: simultaneously fulfilling and negating the prerequisites that delimit the category of objects designated as “painting”) that the discursive waters need barely part to accommodate their work as Conceptual art. Mel Bochner’s painterly geometric abstraction, however, is another matter altogether.

Many, including Bochner himself, have argued that from his analytical series of the late ’60s and early ’70s—“Measurements,” 1969, the “Theory of Boundaries,” 1969–70, the “Theory of Painting,” 1969, and “Theory of Sculpture,” 1971–72, among others—the road traveled to the first wall painting and, later, the paintings on canvas, is a straight and narrow one: that although the forms might be disparate, the concerns are quite similar. By contrast, his current juxtaposition of large, four-panel paintings on canvas and floor “sculptures,” (the latter based on his “Theory of Sculpture” series) look entirely unrelated. As a “conceptual” artist, Bochner uses humble material means—masking tape, chalk, pennies, pebbles, and now, glass slag fragments—to explore art as a set of functions derived from a series of potential or virtual relations and interrelations. As a“painter,” Bochner contrasts the representation of three-dimensional space—rendered by shifting gridded planes, multiple perspective points, and light sources, as well as clusters of cubes proportionately scaled to suggest the illusion of movement and depth—with actual space. Most paintings consist of four panels arranged to create a central “empty” square which is “filled” by the wall itself and thus asserts a series of relations: that of painting to wall, actual to depicted objects, representation to reality.

Turning from the paintings to the floor sculptures, a different formal vocabulary is implemented to achieve a similar set of comparative values—inside, outside; here, there. Both paintings and sculptures establish a series of frameworks and propose that in the interrelatedness of framing devices the formation of meaning occurs. But the inevitable question arises. Is the activity “inside” the frame more important than the frame itself? Typically, when the question refers to painting, the answer is Yes. Typically, when the question refers to Conceptual art, the answer is No. By virtue of the relatedness of themes (the paintings confusing distinctions between inside and outside, virtual and actual; the sculptures illustrating conditions of interiority or exteriority as mechanical operations that are arbitrary rather than inherently meaningful), one might conclude that the form through which an inquiry is materialized could, indeed, be immaterial. Art-historical catechism teaches us to look at and think of constructed canvases differently: it views cubes exploding at high speed as the opposite of rather ephemeral set-theory diagrams sketched in place on the floor. Yet the conjunction of Bochner’s apparently dissimilar formalisms suggests that the problem of how “vision is structured” has everything to do with how we choose to define what we are looking at, and with the languages we deem appropriate to articulate those definitions. Some might see it as almost gross to propose that conceptual thinking has expanded to the point where what was once seen as formally and materially antithetical to its concerns can now be seen as an instrument of its expanded investigations, yet it is precisely this “theory of boundaries” that Bochner puts forth.

Jan Avgikos