Sheets 2 and 3 of Mel Bochner’s The Singer Notes, 1968.

Sheets 2 and 3 of Mel Bochner’s The Singer Notes, 1968.

Mel Bochner

Sheets 2 and 3 of Mel Bochner’s The Singer Notes, 1968.

IN 1968, THROUGH E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to work at the Singer Corporation’s research and development lab out in New Jersey. Someone thought it would be interesting to have an artist work in a think-tank situation with their scientists and engineers. It lasted about three months, two days a week, just sitting around with these guys and trying to find something to talk about. Singer had long since diversified from sewing machines; they were into all kinds of computer and aerospace technology at that point. I’d gone out there with a few ideas for actual projects, none of which panned out. One idea was to find a way to use their high-powered computers to translate some of my number drawings directly into photographic images. But in those days you couldn’t type directly into a computer; everything had to be translated into a programming language called FORTRAN. The programmer said it would take him six months to write the program, making it faster for me to do it by hand. So much for computer-generated images in 1968! But a couple of things did come out of it. I saved all the notes, sketches, and doodles that everyone made while we were talking and turned those into a Xeroxed book called The Singer Notes.

As time went on, the subject of discussion kept coming back to how communication could be objectified, which boiled down to the issue of measurement. That’s when measurement as an idea entered into my thinking, because it was the only form of verification that the scientists would accept. If they didn’t have a measurement, and it wasn’t repeatable, then they feared ambiguity could creep in. I wanted to show them that measurement itself is not immune to ambiguity, so one day I came in early with some Letraset numbers and black tape, and randomly put different measurements around the lab, not attached to anything, just free-floating on walls, on doors, on the floor. I didn’t tell anybody what I had done, so when they came in and discovered them, it brought up a whole new round of questions, starting with, What does it mean to divorce measurement from an object? This led to the ultimate question of skepticism: How much “trust” is embedded in objectivity?

I asked the in-house photographer to take some photographs of the measurements as documentation. As I looked through them, I realized that the photograph added another dimension to the ambiguity. A twelve-inch measurement is depicted in the photograph as a three-inch line. Photographs have no built-in mechanism to account for scale. And that’s what led to the pieces Actual Size (Face) and Actual Size (Hand), both 1968, where I put a twelve-inch measurement on the wall, stood next to it, took a face shot, took a hand shot, and then had the photograph printed so that the measurement was actual size in the print. Now you could tell the size of these objects, making the photograph directly answerable to the world outside itself. This brought me to the end of my work with photography and led me to the first installational measurement pieces. Of course, once you put the measurements of a gallery, or any space, on the walls as a sort of three-dimensional blueprint, you realize that it’s still a form of representation. But what’s changed is significant. The viewer’s experience has gone from a mediated one to one that is direct. At this point my concerns began evolving in a more phenomenological direction . . .

I’ve always tried to keep my work parsimonious: Get to the idea and don’t get fussy or arty about it. Finding the most direct way to present something means giving the viewer greater freedom to look at it, because he or she doesn’t have to wade through questions of “style.” Eventually everything creates its own style—you can’t completely avoid that—but I’ve always steered clear of anything like a signature material or process. My work’s continuity is a certain way of thinking about the world. For me, everything works in a cycle of use and necessity. Things become necessary at certain points in time, and so you use them. And I’ve always seen my work as critical of its own frame, whether photography, installation, or painting. The thing is to never get locked into any particular framework. Every medium has its own way of revealing something and, at the same time, concealing something else. A change in medium offers one the possibility of stepping outside the frame and discovering what’s being concealed.