“Mel Bochner: Photographs 1966–1969”

From grid to wrinkle, block to smear, in black-and-white and color: So might one characterize the photography of Mel Bochner, all of which was produced before his better-known work in Conceptual sculpture. The images are a surprise, not just in what they show about Bochner, or the transition out of Minimalism into Conceptualism, or even the relation of photography to Conceptualist practice, but in what they demonstrate about photography itself.

Curator Scott Rothkopf aimed to illustrate, first, how Bochner deployed the photograph not as a document after the fact of a fully formed Conceptualist practice but as a land of sketch toward it that was instrumental in its development; and second, that in the effort to arrive at a fully transparent, unmediated means of visualizing an artistic concept, he turned to photography and discovered the paradox of its physicality, its opacity. Both postulates are amply proved by the show.

The exhibition takes as its starting point Bochner’s 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams, the artist’s response to the dilemma posed when the dealer Virginia Dwan visited his studio in December 1966. Bochner resisted showing the arrangements of blocks to which the photographs and diagrams referred, because their physical presence and fixity controverted the serial process of ordering that interested him most. Consisting of thirty-six gelatin-silver prints and twelve pen-and-ink drawings mounted together on a board, his solution collapses drawing and photography—the a priori design and a posteriori document—in what amounts to a microcosm of the entire exhibition, an exhibition in which drawing and photography confront each other not as opposite ends of a mental trajectory running from concept to record but as each other’s thoroughly entangled negative and positive. At the same time, 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams is the point of departure for several intertwined movements—between the grid and its deformation, the support and the emulsion, black-and-white and color—in which the status of the photograph as a trace of its object is complexly ensnared.

From 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams and related experiments with thinning his piles of blocks into photographic grids then thickening them again by mounting them on solid, thicker-than-paper supports that stand away from the wall, Bochner moves (not necessarily in this order) to Escher-like experiments with scrambled grids that look like inlaid wood; to others that resemble lacy paper cutouts thickened by their size and their mounting; to images that show how the photograph warps the grid by the perspectival projection of the represented onto the literal surface and by the visible wavering of the indexically traced edges of the grid’s lines toward the bottom edges of the positive/negative photographs; and finally to Surface Dis/Tension, 1968. In the last, one of Bochner’s black-and-white Crumples was soaked in water so that the emulsion could be peeled away from its paper support. It was then dried to form a wrinkled, hyperthin surface, rephotographed to make a negative and positive, enlarged and printed such that the negative and positive are overlaid in slight misalignment, and then mounted on a board whose edges are cut to follow the edges of the crinkled emulsion. Thus in the process of thinning the physical life of the concept, Bochner arrives at an awareness of the ultrathin thickness of the photograph. In that same process, the grid is photographically inflected by the trace of the wrinkle, while the real and putative transparency of the photograph is both conceptually and physically interpenetrated by its opacity. This suggests an ontological discovery about the photograph, in which representation is embedded in the physical medium—the emulsion—and therefore cannot be peeled away from it.

Bochner’s experiments in color photography—for example, the grid of twelve Ilfochrome prints of shaving-cream and Vaseline smears that makes up Transparent and Opaque, 1968, and the two Polarized Light (both 1968) C-prints—dramatize the peculiarity of the photographic surface in their muddying of the distinction between optical and chemical color and their demonstration of the interpenetration of light and dye in the constitution of the color photograph. They challenge the eye to detect the difference between the colored surface that is traced and the colored surface of the trace. Hence they undermine the old conceptual distinction between disegno and colore.

For me, the climax of all of this lies in the five Ilfochrome Smears of 1968. Made by spreading unidentifiable substances on microscope slides then magnifying them greatly, the Smears speak directly to the physical constitution of the photograph and call into question all certainty about the photograph’s referent. Suggesting the microphotographic experiments of the nineteenth-century inventors of photography and recalling the founding relation between photography and science, they also point to the physical operations of contact, enlargement, and projection, as well as the literal meaning of transparency in photography—the transparency of plates, slides, and film—and thus to its paradoxical opacity. Looking like caramelized sugar crystals, deposits of dye and bleach, or the veins of a viscous eyeball (though that is not what they are), they call up the particulate, the chemical, the organic. And thus they represent the ultimate unforming of the grid with which Bochner began—by their display of the physical means of the photograph.

“Mel Bochner: Photographs, 1966–1969” travels to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Oct. 12–Jan. 12.

Carol Armstrong is Doris Stevens Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University.