Los Angeles

Mel Bochner

Situated somewhere within the overlapping boundaries of Conceptual, Minimalist, and post-Minimalist practice, Mel Bochner’s career has, in recent years, proven remarkably susceptible to critical and historical reevaluation, primarily through theme-driven exhibitions. In 2002, Bochner’s photographic work of the late 1960s was pulled into the spotlight after many years of neglect, and in 2006, his deployment of language provided the framework for a career-spanning survey. Taken together, these strands suggest a practice far more varied and fluid than has so far been accounted for. Now, with a relatively small exhibition of a Bochner wall painting, Two Shapes, 1976/2008, and a number of related works on paper from the 1970s at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, yet another facet of the artist has emerged for reconsideration—in short, one that eschews language in favor of color and geometric and pictorial play.

Taking a large wall as its ground, Two Shapes was the obvious centerpiece of the show. The seemingly straightforward title of the painted acrylic work is intentionally misleading: Each of the Two Shapes actually comprises three contiguous color sections (royal blue, bright blue, sienna; and green, yellow, red), and each of these is composed of a pentagon, a triangle, and, in four of the six sections, a square, resulting in eccentric, modular amalgamations that seem almost animated. The pentagram is crucial in generating the complex, relational contortions of these shapes, and represents an important “discovery” for an artist with an ongoing tendency toward disrupting or obliterating the “pure,” orthogonal grid of modernist rationality—which is, in part, why he is aligned with the post-Minimalists. Still, this exhibition suggested that, in the 1970s, Bochner began moving closer to, say, painter Robert Mangold’s subtle and methodical jostling of geometric expectations than to the aesthetic strategies of sculptors such as Barry Le Va or Richard Serra, with whom he’s more commonly associated.

The execution of Two Shapes is decidedly unfussy: It’s clear Bochner drew the shapes with measured exactitude before painting, but the brushy paint handling is quick and perfunctory, with a few extraneous, carefree drips of paint on the surrounding wall. The color choices are flat-footed—not exactly pretty, not simply utilitarian either—but there’s little question that an artist perhaps best known for diagrammatic work in black and white was making outright painterly decisions, however tentatively.

Two Shapes and the related drawings here benefit from the apparent tension between Bochner’s contradictory Conceptual and aesthetic inclinations, with the latter gradually overwhelming the former in the span of time represented here. The pastel drawing 3, 4, 5, 6 (R/B), 1973, recalls any number of earlier diagrammatic works by the artist, with the squares and triangles, isolated or paired, organized around two perpendicular axes—a familiar structural device for Bochner. Triangular and Square (Reverse), 1975, despite its initial sense of formal stability, aggressively pits the diagrammatic against the pictorial by placing two contradictory vanishing points on the same ground. Later drawings, including Soaring Studies, 1979–80, and Study for Murs, 1981, follow from Two Shapes but increase the number of colors and the modular complexity.

While this show concludes with work from 1981, it should perhaps be mentioned that by 1980, Bochner had moved painting from the wall onto stretched canvas with a sort of expressive, impastoed aplomb more closely associated with contemporaneous painting by a younger generation of neo-expressionists. For better or worse, that ungainly body of work has yet to be resuscitated. But Bochner’s work of the ’70s foregrounds a dynamic struggle in his own practice between then-pioneering post aesthetic strategies of language and signification on the one hand and, on the other, the return of traditional pictorial concerns, including facture, if not—gulp—beauty. It’s a tug-of-war that largely defines the trajectory of art—not just Bochner’s— from the late 1960s to the present, which is also why this work looks so good right now.

Michael Ned Holte