San Francisco

Mel Bochner

Challenging the claim that “photography cannot record abstract ideas,” Mel Bochner used the medium to do just that. In this career-spanning exhibition, ten photo-based works documented the Conceptualist’s efforts to upend photographic convention. (The show also included paintings and a wall drawing.) Serving as the exhibition’s poster image was the iconic Surface Dis/Tension, 1968. Here, the artist photographed a grid receding into space so that, distilled as an image, it appeared perspectivally distorted. Taking this photo as a base object, Bochner soaked the print in water, allowing the emulsion to buckle the paper as it dried. He then reshot this processed image both in negative and positive, combining the two versions in the darkroom and thereby creating more layers of photographic strata, before mounting the meta-image on aluminum and trimming the metal to follow the uneven edges of the now thoroughly denatured grid. The final work is a photograph, and yet not a photograph at all: It is an image of the photographic medium being taken to its own material limits, as well as a sculptural, process-based, and Conceptual work of art—the photograph as recorder of abstract ideas. It is with such seeming paradoxes in mind that the show is titled “Photographs and Not Photographs, 1966–2010,” and indeed it is often the case with Bochner that an idea appears simultaneously as one thing and its inverse.

Arranged chronologically, the installation unfolded across three rooms, the first containing early works, including prime post-Minimalist examples such as Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), 1970, in which reproductions of nine handwritten quotes on photography are presented as offset prints on as many oversize note cards framed together with the title of the work on a scrap of paper and a photo of the artist’s forearm and hand beside a twelve-inch marker. “I would like to see photography make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable,” reads one card, bearing the words of Duchamp, while another proffers the aforementioned Encyclopaedia Britannica assertion that “photography cannot record abstract ideas.” Surrounded by other photo-grid abstractions, the language given in these captions appears to have been offered, like the grid in Surface Dis/Tension, only to be destroyed.

As the show progressed, notions of human scale, painting, and language were introduced. In Actual Size (Face and Hand), 1968, the hand and forearm seen in Misunderstandings reappear in half of a life-size gelatin silver print diptych, matched by a similarly formatted image of the artist’s profile. Just opposite was Smudge, 1968, a blue pigment wall drawing that had been remade on site and, particularly in this exhibition’s Bay Area context, evoked a dialogue with the late- 1960s action drawings of Tom Marioni in its indexical testament to its own making and direct reference to the artist’s hand.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, Jeffrey Weiss wonders if Bochner’s “conflicted” relationship to painting “inhabits his use of the camera,” but this show evidenced that the opposite was true as well—camera also leads to canvas . . . and then, apparently, onto the screen. Recalibrating his practice to postmillennial modes of viewing, Bochner commandeered sixteen pages of the exhibition’s catalogue to depict the entire show as computer-rendered installation views of how it would actually appear. While presented without any explanation, these seemingly documentary, printed visuals effectively form a new work, dated 2010, in which the artist has thoughtfully advanced the question of representation in photography to address the digital domain. But true to Bochner’s constant questioning of medium, the show’s other new work, Blah, Blah, Blah, 2010, is a densely layered word painting that, reading as it is titled, perhaps provides the wittiest view onto well-rehearsed issues of medium specificity today as it trails off into a field of abstraction.

Glen Helfand