Mel Bochner: In the Tower…or in the mix?

Mel Bochner as Canvas Turntablist and a Visual Sonneteer..a work in progress

A few months ago, I was very lucky to be invited to by Split This Rock to get a sneak peak at the National Gallery of Art’s new Bochner exhibition, In the Tower: Mel Bochner. Briefly, the work on display is primarily from a body of work based on words from a thesaurus and from what appears to be “found” language that Bochner presents in a painterly and minimalist style. More specifically though this body of work is centered around language; and the idea of presenting language as symbol and that language and words can simply be “objects” or that “a word can be material for artistic creation – like a dollop of paint or a lump of clay” , even when other literary and structural devices are at work such as phrase fragments, line breaks, enjambment or punctuation.

Although many critics have noted that Bochner’s “interest in text was removed from poetics and literary narratives”. It is clear in looking at this work that Bochner is using a type of “poetic design thinking” to build a visual poetics that not only makes use of text in the same manner that a writer would approach the page, but also handles the text and characters as objects that require the same care to craft as a landscape or “portrait”. Bochner here is painting, drawing and sketching “with a poet’s eye” or conversely writing poems with “with a painters hand”.

It is quite hard to ignore the literary company his “Portraits” series is keeping. In particular I am thinking of Gertrude Stein’s “word portraits” and the Bochner’s further exploration of this idea of a “portrait” made of words. Bochner furthers Stein’s exploration of the idea of a the word portrait by employing what curator James Meyer called “shape poetry”, which is known as concrete poetry in literary circles.

The possible Stein lineage in these works seems particularly plausible because of her relationship with Guillaume Apollinaire (Stein did a word portrait of Apollinaire in 1913) and Apollinaire’s relationship to Charles Boultenhouse (Boultenhouse translated Apollinaire’s Calliagrammes), whose essay “Poems in the Shape of Things” is noted as being a significant influence on Bochner’s thinking. I think that Bochner was able to execute in a painterly manner what Stein was referring to when she talked about “a word as material for artistic creation – like a dollop of paint or a lump of clay”.

One of the works that resonated with me one a few different levels was the “portrait” ,Wrap,(1966) that Bochner did of Eva Hesse and the “revisit” of that same piece some years later in 2001. Lovers of vinyl records will immediately notice the form and presentation of the text in both pieces. Both of these pieces can be read in the same manner that a 33 1/3 album spins as connects with stylus to make music. While curator James Meyers used the term “revisit” , it is my thought that lovers of hip-hop (or lovers of Lawrence Lessig or DJ Spooky) would say that Bochner “remixed” his portrait of Eva Hesse.

In a “close reading” of the 2001 remix of Wrap, Bochner, using charcoal on paper (instead paper and pen as in the 1966 piece), has created layers of words that have been erased and written over. In hiphop DJ terms, if we treat Wrap as a piece of vinyl, this erasure, obscuring or blending effect, is akin to the DJ technique of the backspin or cross-fade. This blending or backspin, if you will, has created a space where the old Wrap of 1966 is now in another kind of conversation with the remix of Wrap that occurs in 2001, both in content, form and execution.

Additionally, the suggestion of movement and motion that Bochner gives us in 2001 Wrap are almost flirting with 3 dimensional space in sharp contrast to the clearly flatland perspective of 1966 Wrap.

Again, if we treat both “portraits” as two pieces of vinyl to be played on our visual turntables, poet Saul Williams in his incantatory manifesto poem Coded Language, captures perfectly the dynamic conversation between the two versions of Wrap. Saul proclaims:

Whereas, the velocity of spinning vinyl, cross-faded, spun backwards, and re-released at the same given moment of recorded history, yet at a different moment in time’s continuum, has allowed history to catch up with the present.”

Although created and remixed in two very “different moments in time’s continuum” the “velocity of spinning vinyl, cross-faded, spun backwards and re-released” and examined at the same moment in visual history, has allowed the these two portraits to catch up with one another in our time, In the Tower.

As I moved further through the exhibition, I was persistently struck by all the literary references in Bochner’s work not just because language was the center piece to highlight his painterly and philosophical intentions, but also because the form and structure that Bochner chooses to express these intentions.

In looking at the thesaurus-based pieces AMAZING!, Master of the Universe, Oh Well, and Babble, Bochner creates a crown of visual sonnets. Each sonnet’s form is structured in the 14 line format that is common with sonnets as the occur on the page. Bochner, however, instead of ending with a couplet he splits it so that each “line” becomes the repeating lines that carry the crown. On the canvas these are the white lines that appear at the top and bottom of each of these four works.

Although, there does not appear to be any metrical devices at work, controlling each line, the dimensions of the canvas themselves act as frames to give the visual appearance of uniformity that sonnets are known for.

Again, whether intentional or not, the literary (and painterly) qualities of these works cannot be ignored. The fact that these works exhibit such synergy with literary sensibilities and technique, give life to the Gertrude Stein aphorism “A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears”. In this body of work Bochner seems to have met the challenge of this aphorism with his materials and continues to work all the angles of language aural, oral and visual.

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