New York

Mel Bochner, Exasperations, Column A, 2017–19, four panels, oil on velvet, overall 15' 3 5⁄8“ × 7' 5 1⁄2”.

Mel Bochner, Exasperations, Column A, 2017–19, four panels, oil on velvet, overall 15' 3 5⁄8“ × 7' 5 1⁄2”.

Mel Bochner

Many of the paintings in this exhibition were emblazoned with phrases that Mel Bochner calls “exasperations” (which was also the title of the show): Among these were LOOK WHO’S TALKING and I’VE HAD IT UP TO HERE, along with the familiar Bochnerian BLAH BLAH BLAH. In the press release, Bochner invoked the “politics of language.” His chosen expressions are meant to reflect, alternately, the rage and the disingenuousness of public speech in these dire times. The artist has a gift for identifying platitudes or expostulations that, in being isolated, become transformed—ambiguous or strange. For Bochner, painting’s material capacity for erasure, reversal, and other manipulations serves this condition. While nothing is said in his statement about how the works were made, the procedure is a remarkable method through which language and painting merge. In this way, painting, like language, also achieves an altered state.

The process for making the work derives from printmaking. Bochner made the word paintings in his previous show at Peter Freeman primarily with a brush; thinned paint and a controlled but loose hand summoned blobs, rivulets, and coagulations that smeared and ran. For some time now, however, the artist, in collaboration with New York’s Two Palms press, has been producing enormous monoprints, and Bochner’s current body of work draws directly from that medium. The new paintings are made using a hydraulic press. The inscription, designed by the artist, is laser-cut into a plastic plate. The letters—now holes—are filled with oil paint, which has been variously prepared for color and consistency. Finally, the plate is “printed” under extreme pressure onto large panels of black velvet. The results are thickly pigmented, relief-like forms. The words are mostly white, contrasting starkly with the black field. In some places, pigment spreads between and beyond the letters, creating residual stains and patterns that greatly complicate the play of figure and ground. Black velvet possesses inevitable associations with American pictorial kitsch (as the artist happily acknowledges), but it is also the only fabric tested at Two Palms that was dense enough to keep the paint from bleeding through the support.

It would be wrong to call this process printmaking. It is, instead, something like a new form of painting that pushes printing technology to a place as aggressively confrontational as the words these works display. The press is forced to do something that wildly exceeds the definitional bounds of material, scale, and reproducibility intrinsic to printmaking as a historical practice. Indeed, despite a palette of mostly black and white, Bochner’s new work belongs to a recent history of the large black painting that can be traced from Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still to Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and beyond, including the more recent example of Glenn Ligon, for whom “black painting” is crucially, racially charged. Ever the unreliable narrator, Bochner engages this history with deep insight and technical command while also revealing it to be—like the language of exasperation itself—a cliché. That is, the power of his, or anyone’s, approach to paint is inseparable from the medium’s many rhetorical conceits. The relation between symbolic value and cliché is one of either/or: It is impossible to see black both ways at once. Bochner is, as always, onto the falsehood of presumed truth. It is important to note that the new procedure forces him to surrender a good deal of control over the way a painting turns out. Both semantically and pictorially, the works live at an intersection of euphoria and despair.