New Haven

“Mel Bochner: Thought Made Visible 1966–1973”

The emergence of Conceptualism in the late ’60s was characterized by an enormous diversity of artistic practice. The openness of the situation was unprecedented, and the exhibitions of the era signaled as much. No fewer than 160 artists participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Information” show in 1970, and one finds an equally large number of artists in shows such as “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” “Op Losse Schroven: Situaties En Cryptostructuren” (Square Pegs in Round Holes), Lucy Lippard’s “557, 087,” and “Conception-Perception,” all held between 1969–70, and all attempts to present an account of the contemporary proliferation of artistic activity following the utter collapse of the Modernist paradigm. If a single curatorial criterion underlying these exhibitions can be isolated, it is, as the organizer of the “Information” show, Kynaston L. McShine, phrased it at the time, the presentation of “the activity of younger artists.”1

By 1970–71, however, the predictable backlash against this unsettling of the status quo set in; U.S. critics were particularly virulent in their attacks. Conceptual artists were accused of being deliberately “banal” and “perverse,” and their works ridiculed as “the occupational therapy of the intellectually unemployed.”2 Not only artists but curators came under fire. “If there is a trend toward dismantling the artistic enterprise and casting contempt on the integrity of the museum,” wrote Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, “no with-it museum director wants to be left out of the game. As Lenin observed in another (but not unrelated) context, when it comes time to hang the bourgeoisie, they will bid against each other to sell you the rope.”3

Given such sentiments, it is not surprising that the era of large and relatively unregulated group exhibitions was exceedingly short-lived. By 1971, museums were turning away from the work of significant artists who had been featured in these group exhibitions. As a result, the overall projects and individual works of Conceptual artists have remained obscure to all but a few.

If recent exhibitions such as “Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975,” have to some degree reversed this trend, they tend to replicate the anthological group shows of the late ’60s and early ’70s. By contrast, the exhibition “Mel Bochner: Thought Made Visible 1966–1973,” held recently at the Yale University Art Gallery, marks a sea change in the institutional reception of Conceptual art. Focusing on what are crucial dates for Conceptualism (there is, after all, a good argument to be made that the “late ’60s” ended in ’73), the show gives U.S. audiences not only an insight into the operation of Bochner’s early art, but also a rare glimpse into the complexities of one Conceptual artist’s production.

Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of Bochner’s work is that it relies on the full range of strategies through which Conceptual art effected a shift from visually to linguistically based artistic production. Bochner’s oeuvre runs the gamut from the participatory logic of pieces such as Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art, 1966, to the affirmation of tautological structures in the “Measurement Pieces” of 1969–70; from the dismantling of the traditional format of painting and sculpture in A Theory of Painting, 1969–70, and A Theory of Sculpture, 1970, to the critique of the work of art as a commodity in To Count: Intransitive, 1972. This thoroughly eclectic body of work not only withstands but depends on the paralogical skepticism that (as Hal Foster noted in the symposium accompanying the exhibition) is made manifest on the cover of the exhibition catalogue: immediately below the show’s title, “Thought Made Visible,” appears a reproduction of Bochner’s Language is Not Transparent, 1970.

Given the nature of Conceptual art, the exhibition catalogue is as important a component of the show as the work displayed in the museum galleries. The catalogue reproduced Bochner’s and Robert Smithson’s collaborative project The Domain of the Great Bear (Project for a Magazine), first published in Art Voices in 1966, a work that pushes the critique of the art-critical categories developed in the sculptures of Dan Flavin and Carl Andre past the point these Minimalist artists seemed willing to take them. The strategy that governs the production and exhibition of this work is twofold: while it acknowledges from the outset that in a society of mass culture the work of art is no longer encountered as an original, but as an industrially produced and disseminated reproduction or interpretive description, it also inverts this phenomenon by embedding the work of art within the very channels in which it will ultimately be received.

Clearly, the awareness that a work of art depends essentially on its mode of distribution is a type of thinking bound up with Pop art, and in particular with the early ’60s work of Edward Ruscha. Echoing the latter’s Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, 1963, Various Small Fires, 1964, and Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965, Bochner’s magazine projects such as The Domain of the Great Bear and other works reproduced in the catalogue (such as Seven Translucent Tiers, 1967, and Alfaville, Godard’s Apocalypse, 1968) not only parody the notion of creation as emanating from a unique, individual sensibility, but also recognize the extreme limitations within which artistic operations can take place, and their dependence on the very systems they set out to critique.

The effort to demystify art, to question not only the entire structure of its production and display, but its very identity, also characterizes some of Bochner’s early works installed in the museum galleries. Working Drawings And Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed as Art—four identical loose-leaf notebooks displayed on four pedestals at the entrance to the museum—attempts to shift the spectator’s focus from the particular components of the work to the process of its production and the context in which it is viewed. Taking other people’s drawings, photocopying them, and transforming them into his own work, Bochner, in Working Drawings, moves from traditional ideas of “expression” in art to a reflection on the artwork as an interpretive frame. It is in works like these that Bochner’s oeuvre parallels the Conceptualist work of artists such as Daniel Buren and Lawrence Weiner. All rejected the primacy of the individual’s subjectivity, of the artist as the authorial agent, thus aligning themselves with theories of cultural production that became crucial in subsequent years.

As “Thought Made Visible 1966–1973” revealed, in the late ’60s and early ’70s Bochner increasingly began to construct his works by selecting components from various sign systems that reflected on or mirrored each other. In Theory of Painting, for example, the newspaper on the floor and the paint on the newspaper function as material signs for the culturally embedded code called “painting.” The use of an unfamiliar signifier (newspaper) in what is for painting an unfamiliar place (the floor) demonstrates that figure (paint) and ground (newspaper) are independent as material signs but dependent on each other for their meaning within the external system in which they operate. With this reconfiguration of “figure/ground,” Bochner underlines that painting itself is a semiotic system, an insight that here only leads the viewer back to the self-reflexive structure of the work.

Indeed, many of the later works featured in this exhibition indicate a model of artistic understanding that focuses directly on the prescriptive structure of language and number as determinants of the nature of the artwork. Such works as Theory of Boundaries, 1969–70, To Count: Intransitive, 1972, and The Axiom of Indifference, 1973, all depend on a priori systems for their coherence, and strive to achieve a state where signifier and signified are effectively the same. The implicit message is that art can only make meaningful statements about itself and the systems that determine its limits.

And yet, consistent with the ambivalence that runs through most of the works in this show, there is a sense in which the tautological model that characterizes many of Bochner’s works of the early ’70s turns into its opposite, a critique of the artwork’s commodity status and of the institutional parameters within which it operates. To Count: Intransitive, for instance, which was initially exhibited in 1972 on the front window of Galerie MTL in Brussels, is comprised of sequences of ordinal numbers erased by hand, one after the other, from 12 soap-covered windows that face the museum’s sculpture garden. Starting with zero either in the upper left, upper right, lower left, or lower right corner of each of the windows, a counting logic is followed either vertically or horizontally until the entire surface is covered. Thus the generative and structural principles of the work are self-evident: it carries no mimetic or expressive connotations, and rejects the implication of any significance external to the activity itself. But the fragility and temporality of the soap, and the work’s evocation of the seductive display of merchandise associated with the store window all put pressure on one of the basic assumptions governing the art world: the production of salable objects. In works such as this, Bochner not only investigates the specific qualities of art as the affirmation of a signifying system, but by extension problematizes the foundation and rationalization of any such system in our culture.

Alexander Alberro is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Northwestern University and Lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.



1. Kynaston L. McShine, “Acknowledgements,” Information, exhibition catalogue, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 141.

2. Barbara Rose, “Gobbledygook at the Guggenheim,” New York Magazine, 8 March 1971, pp. 48–49.

3. Hilton Kramer, “Playing the Gracious Host—But to What?,” New York Times, 7 March 1971, IV, p. 21.

This exhibition will travel to La Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in March and to the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, in June.