Mel Bochner: Strong Language at the Jewish Museum

Mel Bochner has always been a Conceptual artist. Today his focus is on paintings but his ideas and subject matter remains the same: the use and limits of language. Over the many years of his career Bochner has used language on paper, on the wall, on the floor wherever you could go with a pencil a piece of chalk or a pen. Words for Bochner have the same weight, texture, power as color or form. Actions, feelings and thoughts are transcribed to the viewer in terms of words. - Michael Klein, Contributor


Mel Bochner | Blah, Blah, Blah, 2014, oil on velvet. Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc. Artwork © Mel Bochner.
  Photo: Bradford Robotham

The survey here is smart and funny and enlightening. It focuses not on a stylistic evolution, which is what most exhibitions that survey in an artist’s career, but Bochner’s conceptual engagement with language.  In his early years it was to ask questions. It was devoted to an evaluation of self and other art world friends and today he has moved the dialogue to a public sphere. For him language is a seductive as color is to Matisse. It illuminates and delights the eye because it addresses the mind. It can address young and old alike and the literacy, the use of big words on big canvases makes Bochner a member of a special club, artists, painters that is who work with words: Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha, Cary Leibowitz and Deborah Kass to name a few.

Conceptual art was a kind of tabula rasa, a break from the tenants of other movements in art from Ab Ex, to Pop from Minimal art. It was focused on the idea less on the artist as an object maker; rejecting making for writing, speaking, acting as the creative act. And to transmit those ideas it relied on documentation,   video—in its very early form—and photography. It was immediately an international movement because, before e-mail and jet travel, exhibitions could be mailed to their venue. By 1970 it was being promoted by important art dealers in the U.S. and Europe as well as the focus of museum exhibitions. For Bochner it meant words and numbers: counting measuring and writing. Graph paper was his canvas and the marking pen his brush. This was his aesthetic viewpoint in the 1970s and continues through to today, some 45 years later.

Bochner has moved between concept and painting before. His very cerebral measurement pieces soon gave way to wall paintings and then to canvases where the process of measuring became gestures: angular and terse as if he couldn’t measure one more thing and just wanted to move the thinking forward.

It is apparent from surveying the works that for Bochner making lists is an imperative. He also diagrams his words, and in fact looking at some of the studies or notebook drawings for the paintings it is apparent that he plans out these work in detail. This isn’t just about a word popping into the artist’s brain; it is a schema that requires a lot of preplanning.

I have a friend who uses the expression, “make the blah blah blah.” It is a short cut for someone expressing the obvious or the hyperbolic in language.  It is the representation of the tedious in language the repetition of the word equals the banter of a person who has said way too much without thinking before he or she speaks or is simply representing a phrase or information that we already know. For example, during “your call is very important to us…” most of us hear it as blah blah blah. Bochner has made it literal, translating the ennui and to create large horizontal canvases like a billboard greeting that meets you at the entrance to the museum. It’s left for you to decide if it is the sound of the crowd looking at art and making comments or the thoughts in your head when you visit a museum.


Mel Bochner | Self/Portrait, 1966, ink on graph paper, 5 3/8 x 4 1/2 in. (13 x 11.4 cm).  Private collection. Artwork © Mel Bochner.

For Bochner much of his language choice is English but then Yiddish too, the historic language of the Ashkanazi Jew.  It appears in the endless list of word that he studies and uses in these paintings. For some Yiddish is quant for others it is their lingua franca either way it is known for being rich, colorful and can nail a person or thing with a single word or phrase, even without any specific inflection. It is the language of grandparents, lawyers, doctors and comedians of all rank.

A little known fact between 1917 and 1921 it was the official language of the Ukraine People’s Republic! The Joys of Yiddish now in the Jewish Museum’s collection is a lexicon of Yiddish types, maybe the players in a Sholom Aleicham tale from the constant kvetcher to the family gonif and the uncle, an alte-kocker, who tells the same old story again and again.


Mel Bochner | The Joys of Yiddish, 2012, oil and acrylic on two canvases, 100 x 85 in. (254 x 215.9 cm).  The Jewish Museum, New York, NY, Purchase: The Muriel and William Rand Collection Gift, by exchange, and Hyman and Joan C. Sall Gift. Artwork © Mel Bochner.

The artist again used Yiddish in 2013. A great and extremely ironic piece not in the exhibition but illustrated in the accompanying catalogue is an outdoor installation at Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. It is a triumph of a different will. It is a moment when the artist uses the art palace built for and by the leader of the Third Reich. Gone are the symbols its Nazi past replaced by the words of a Jewish artist, how bittersweet the paradox here. What it further demonstrates is that language is both private and public. It is a subtle battle between speech and propaganda.

Similar paintings are portraits but not in the traditional sense, of course. There is Jew, 2008 Critic 2007 and Liar 2007. Each is a verbal portrait, a presentation and representation that could be anyone or everyone. Some words appear in block formations, rows of alternating colors and words as if reading a print out. Other works are more painterly and visually seductive with words enmeshed in paint and surface skillful, like a Twombly blackboard painting. Sometimes Bochner just punctuates the canvas with a phrase or a single word, Enough Said for example or Talk Is Cheap. The words have the power to entice and echo in the mind. Public words can have private meanings, associations with words are part of our day to day life. How we read it or hear it says a lot about both the speaker and the listener and here in the galleries the viewer is turned a reader.

Paintings of words could be abstract a jumble of letters or words but Bochner organizes both his words and his thoughts as collections of ideas: synonyms. They are like mirrors of our mind a string of associated meanings that tell us about us. Meaningless 2003 is a case in point. It includes pointless, crapola and null. It includes all levels of language, high and low, hip and cool; out of date or just passé. So while the title tells us one thing the content actually a report full of meaning. Irony in Bochner is never far off.  

We are well into the 21st century. There is the new area of social media and the language of the digital age also contains important signs and symbols sometimes even replacing words. We communicate using hash tags, grammatical symbols like exclamation points and question marks. And the final conceptual victory is a face made up of a colon and open parenthesis that translate to sadness. Perhaps before the end of thus century we will return to pictograms and hieroglyphs through our texting and all those words we once used will just be blah blah blah.


Mel Bochner | Blah, Blah, Blah, 2011-2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 80 in. (254 x 203.2 cm). Private collection.  Artwork © Mel Bochner.

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Mel Bochner (born 1940) is an American conceptual artist. Mr. Bochner received his BFA in 1962 and honorary Doctor of Fine Arts in 2005 from the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University. He lives in New York City. Strong Language will beon view through September 21st, 2014.

Michael Klein is a private art dealer and independent writer and curator based in New York City and Sharon Springs, NY.

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