New York

View of “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” 2014. From left: Blah, Blah, Blah, 2008; Silence!, 2011; Voiceover, 2006/2012; No, 2007.

View of “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” 2014. From left: Blah, Blah, Blah, 2008; Silence!, 2011; Voiceover, 2006/2012; No, 2007.

Mel Bochner

View of “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” 2014. From left: Blah, Blah, Blah, 2008; Silence!, 2011; Voiceover, 2006/2012; No, 2007.

CONCISELY, SUCCINCTLY, PITHILY, “Mel Bochner: Strong Language” opened with two works, both titled Self/Portrait—the first, from 1966, ink on graph paper; the second, from 2013, oil on canvas. In each, the words SELF and PORTRAIT sat atop parallel columns of synonyms, with EGO beside PORTRAYAL, ONESELF beside HEAD, and so on, a sequence that yielded nonsensical yet evocative phrases such as ONENESS DELINEATION and SPIRIT MIRROR. The painting’s proportions were somewhat longer and its word lists a tad shorter, but the works’ correspondence was unmistakable, as was the curatorial conceit. “Strong Language” straddled two disparate bodies of Bochner’s work: his pen-on-paper notations and magazine pieces from the late 1960s and his more recent paintings of words filched from Roget’s Thesaurus. Like the freshness seal on a juice bottle, the Self/Portrait pairing offered quality assurance, a preemptive confirmation that, though distinct in medium and separated by decades, the exhibition’s contents shared a common consistency and reflected a continuous self.

The catalogue for “Strong Language” stresses how that self’s biography intersects with the Jewish Museum’s history, from Bochner’s brief stint as a guard between 1963 and 1964 to the institution’s purchase of the painting The Joys of Yiddish, 2012. As a critic, we’re reminded, Bochner visited the museum in 1966 to review the landmark exhibition “Primary Structures,” penning a brashly prescient précis of Minimalism’s rejections and refusals. “Such words as ‘form-content,’ ‘tradition,’ ‘classic,’ ‘romantic,’ ‘expressive,’ ‘experiment,’ ‘psychology,’ ‘analogy,’ ‘depth,’ ‘purity,’ ‘feeling,’ ‘space,’ ‘avant-garde,’ ‘lyric,’ ‘individual,’ ‘composition,’ ‘life and death,’ ‘sexuality,’ ‘biomorphic,’ ‘biographic’—the entire language of botany in art—can now be regarded as suspect.” It’s jarring to find this passage quoted amid the lush foliage of curator Norman L. Kleeblatt’s catalogue essay, where “highly personal” works possess “autobiographical associations,” and each project is termed “an outgrowth” that “evolved” from one prior. Suspect, no? How did an artist stridently opposed to the “language of botany in art”—which is to say, the grafting of an expressive subject onto an artwork’s meaning—here become so entangled in its vocabulary?

This strikes me as the show’s central dilemma, its drama, even. Had the Jewish Museum elected to mount a full retrospective—with Bochner’s “measurement” pieces, his wall drawings, or virtually anything from between 1971 and 1997—the botanical premise of the artist’s unchanging essence might have crept in unnoticeably, or at least convincingly. Instead, the common denominator of language is tasked with aligning two seemingly incommensurable figures: the Bochner who brandished the antihumanism of late-’60s art and the Bochner who now executes canvases so painterly that Kleeblatt calls them “bravura.” (Definitely suspect.) This isn’t just a quirk of breezy curating. In recent sophisticated scholarship, too, we see a push to recover the “feeling” and “psychology” that Bochner and his cohort claimed to expunge, whether it be art historian Eve Meltzer deploying affect theory to detect trace elements of subjective emotion in Conceptual art’s linguistic turn or James Meyer listening to the chatter around Donald Judd’s dispute with collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to locate a “minimal unconscious.” An art devoid of taste, expression, personality? Fat chance, John Cage.

It would be easy enough to reject Kleeblatt’s case for continuity outright, to insist instead on rupture and consider two separate Bochners, the first in cahoots with early Conceptualists, the second in the mix with contemporary painters such as Gregory Edwards and Dana Frankfort. Yet Bochner warrants a cannier assessment. To return to that Self/Portrait pairing, might we take Bochner’s decision to repeat himself in painting as a Borgesian gambit, equivalent to a septuagenarian Cervantes rewriting the Quixote in French? Or, to risk another “analogy”—suspect, I know—might Bochner be a Mondrian, keenly aware that the elision of art and persona, like the relation of figure and ground, can be undone only within its own conventions? Self/Portrait is but one of several artist portraits Bochner executed in 1966. The others, of Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Smithson, pack synonyms into geometric shapes reminiscent of their respective sculptures—a circle bulging with WRAP, ENVELOPE, SWATHE, etc. for Hesse; a square full of variations on CLOSURE for LeWitt. Transcribed onto graph paper, they share the administrative trappings of Robert Rauschenberg’s notorious telegram of 1961, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” but Bochner’s lexical serialism skirts the authorizing “I” of a speaking subject. These portraits represent but don’t reveal. At best, they wink.

In what medium are persona and product more muddled than painting? The synonym-encrusted canvases Bochner began making a little more than a decade ago, such as Nothing and Meaningless, both 2003, mark not a return to language but, more specifically, a return to the thesaurus, a move that coincided with Roget’s decision to include curse words and other coarse colloquialisms (“colorful” language). With the exception of Self/Portrait, their titles name no referents, yet the promise of personality flickers through their keyed-up palettes, like neon. To witness this push and pull in action, read New York Times critic Ken Johnson’s “Strong Language” review, which characterizes Bochner’s paintings as “hotly assertive,” then faults them for being “resolutely impersonal.” Paintings, Johnson tells us, “can be like windows onto other worlds or into the depths of an artist’s psyche.” It’s botanical claptrap like this that Bochner’s painting both attracts and rebuffs. Up close, pencil marks appear below each line of text, recalling the graphite armature of Frank Stella’s “Black Paintings,” 1958–60. Stella rejected painting’s play of metaphor with the famously literalist statement “What you see is what you see.” Bochner sets up something closer to three-card monte: Now you see it, now you don’t.

Colby Chamberlain is an art historian based in New York and a senior editor at Triple Canopy.