BY Michael Tarantino in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Mel Bochner

BY Michael Tarantino in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

Upon entering the exhibition, one finds the work Language Is Not Transparent (1970) painted directly on the wall. The title is printed in white letters onto a black background that drips strands of paint down the wall to the edge of the floor. Besides providing a stunning (one is tempted to say 'theatrical') entrance to an extraordinary exhibition, the work elicits a question which is central to Bochner's work: if language is not transparent, i.e. easy to see through, to understand, to recognise, then what is it? A code (a system of shields which must be worked through, whose appearance belies its ultimate signification)? Opaque? Dense?

For Bochner, whose work has consistently used language as a base, as a means of examining, for instance, the properties of such categories as sculpture and painting, the opposite of 'transparency' certainly is not 'unintelligible'. Bochner takes language at face value and turns it on its head, making us examine each phrase as we would the stroke of a paint brush or the addition of a sculptural element into a pre-defined space. To borrow a term from Hitchcock, language is the 'MacGuffin', the element that sets everything in motion. In this sense, 'thought' functions as the stage before language, the latter being the element which may make it 'visible'.

'Although any one of my "demonstrations" could be defined as the sum total of all its descriptions, it remains necessary (for me) to experience them physically and visually in real space', said Bochner in 1972. This indicates the role that his sculptures, drawings and other 'demonstrations' would assume in making the invisible (language and thought) visible. A good example is Axiom of Indifference (1972) - a series of squares marked on the floor in white tape. Sprinkled around them are a number of coins. Each square is labelled: 'Some are out', 'All are in', 'All are not in' and so forth.

One's first response to this piece is to ask, 'What's the difference?'. It's like the distinction between the half-empty and half-full glass of champagne. Yet to strike this note of scepticism plays into the artist's hands, for it begins a line of associations in which language cannot be taken for granted. While Bochner's 'demonstrations' may seem simple or self-evident, they generate a set of reflections in which chaos and order rest side by side. The cup isn't half-full or half-empty: its description is merely a manifestation of the way we manipulate language.

Theory of Painting (1969-70) follows this same logic, whereby language and forms are submitted to the process of measurement. In the piece subtitled Cohere/Cohere, an orderly set of newspaper sheets has a blue square sprayed in the centre. In Cohere/Disperse, the sheets are in a state of disorder, with the same square painted in the middle. In Disperse/Disperse, the sheets are in disorder with individual pages painted blue. Finally, in Disperse/Cohere the sheets are ordered, while individual geometric forms are painted onto single sheets.

For Bochner, it seems that no arrangement is haphazard and, at the same time, no order is fixed in time and space. Consistently throughout this exhibition, there is the threat of rupture which lies just below the surface of these exquisitely detailed works. Language is not transparent. It drips.