Whitehot Magazine

Mel Bochner at Peter Freeman, Inc.

Installation view, courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., New York. Photos by Nicholas Knight.

Mel Bochner: Seldom or Never Seen (2004-22)

Peter Freeman, Inc.

November 10, 2022 through January 7, 2023 

By JONATHAN GOODMAN, December 2022

Born in 1940, Mel Bochner became an important, highly regarded conceptual artist in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s. His art consists of phrases that he paints in a loose fashion, often repeating the words in bands that move across the work. His textual message is not so much intentionally meaningful as it is deliberately combative, so that the demotic language used is meant to convey a what-the-hell attitude. In a way, Bochner devalues language in order to emphasize the visual; he is a very good painter who turns his casual wordings into works whose drips both acknowledge and eschew the abstract expressionism that preceded him. In this very good current show, Bochner continues his strong interest in confrontational, inflammatory language, made interesting by the various visual effects that are also part of the composition.

Mel Bochner, Talk Is Cheap, 2022, oil and acrylic on canvas and PVC foam, 24 x 30 x 2 inches. Courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., New York.

The Freeman Gallery space is large, giving Bochner the chance to show big paintings as well as medium-size ones. He is relentless in presenting a conceptually influenced word art, which is meant to demonstrate the limited aspect of language, its passion for cliché.. When viewers enter the gallery, the facing wall has the work Seldom or Never Seen (2004-22), painted directly on the wall. The words, in white, are heavily crossed out by white lines extending over them, so that they are impossible to read; one assumes the title gives Bochner’s audience the information needed to understand the wording. The background is a black square, with drips falling from its lower edge. This work, extremely painterly, is unusual in that the writing is obliterated; maybe Bochner is presenting his mistrust of language; here the visual undermines the literary. In Talk Is Cheap (2022), Bochner assigns each of the three words a separate level in a three-tier hierarchy. The black letters are each surrounded by a different color; the intensely hued painting comes close to overwhelming the flippant comment, which may well underscore Bochner’s mistrust of words, their absurd emptiness.

Installation view, courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc., New York. Photos by Nicholas Knight.

The painting Blah Blah Blah / 90”/ Blah Blah Blah (2022) consists of three vertical bands on a single canvas. its top band consists of the words “Blah Blah Blah,” expressionistically painted in white against a blue background. The middle part presents the measurement “90” in orange, with straight arrows, also in orange, ending at the right and left edges of the composition. Here Bochner makes us aware of the painting’s dimensions, pointing to the fact of the painting. The bottom right repeats the words “Blah Blah Blah” in gray, with loose gray areas surrounding the letters against a pink background. Again, Bochner is conveying a jaundiced view of language; at the same time, he is pointing to the physical actuality of the canvas, as well as emphasizing words as objects–as opposed to exploring their meaning. 

If language is inherently disingenuous, in the sense that a word is not truly a thing, then its actuality as something painted must complicate that idea. But usually we accept the meaning of the word first, before reading it as an object. Yes! No! Maybe, made in 2016, is a diptych, with a black half on top and a white half beneath. The top has a group of single words, “Yes!” and “No!”; a few of them are placed next to a white area, located on the lower right. The bottom half is completely white, free of words, except an ambiguous “Maybe” located at the bottom. Using this tripartite verbal presentation, Bochner covers all possible verbal responses–but to what effect, we aren’t sure. Ambiguity is his forte, strengthened by technical skill.  His obsession with language, an intellectual interest, is transformed into a visual presentation, made interesting, even memorable, by his art abilities. The show gives us a lot to think about, a lot to see. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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