When you paint a glacier, you might start by dipping your brush in white paint to capture its translucent qualities. You might then add hints of blues for depth, and some yellow to reflect the sun’s rays glowing off of the frozen surface. Mel Bochner’s Glacier, in contrast, uses dazzling red, mauve, plum, ocher, teal, forest green, and seemingly every other color on the palette (along with white) to render his asymmetrical, fractal vision of a glacier. It’s not so much a single glacier that he’s painted, but rather, it seems as though all of the potential views of a glacier at all different angles are being portrayed at once.
That level of complexity is fitting for Bochner, who is known as one of the United States’ most prominent conceptualist artists. He is also a celebrated critical and theoretical writer who dissects the use of language in works of art. His background and training were experiences in duality: while studying at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Bochner balanced learning diametrically-opposed ways of developing an artistic practice from modernist and academic drawing teachers Douglas Wilson and Wilfred Readio, respectively. Of his training, Bochner has remarked: “I think, in some way, my work has always been about figuring out how to reconcile those two contradictory ideas of being an artist.”
Bochner graduated from Carnegie in 1962, and arrived in New York in 1964 to teach at the School of Visual Arts. During this time, he developed connections with some of the most cutting-edge contemporary artists of that era, including Clyfford Still, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and John Cage. Bochner reached prominence with his 1966 exhibition Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed as Art, in which he placed photocopies of notes and scribbles by Judd, Flavin, and Cage, among others, on pedestals. Both a reflection of idiosyncratic techniques and the result of an insufficient budget, this playful and unexpected display came as a stark contrast to the popular Abstract Expressionism of the 1960s. Critics and art historians have called Working Drawings the first-ever conceptual art exhibition.
Within his artistic practice, Bochner is primarily known for his “Thesaurus Paintings” series. These works feature lists of synonyms painted on a canvas; for example, the 2013 work “Self/Portrait” also contains the words “Ego Portrayal,” “Selfhood Representation,” and “Oneness Delineation,” in thinly-applied white paint on a black ground.  The “Thesaurus Paintings” probe our use of language, how ideas connect to the words we choose, and the distinction between who is speaking and who is being spoken to. Bochner pushed his vision of the interplay between word and image further with his 1970 installation “Language is Not Transparent,” which was grounded in his skepticism of the viewer’s ability to decipher the artist’s mindset by reading into word usage. Bochner has commented that “my feeling was that there were ways of extending, or re-inventing visual experience, but that it was very important that it remain visual. The viewer should enter the idea through a visual or phenomenological experience rather than simply reading it.”
Bochner is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.
-Deborah Krieger, Public Humanities MA ’21
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Altman, Anna. “Mel Bochner’s Thesaurus Paintings.” The New Yorker, June 17, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/mel-bochners-thesaurus-paintings
Bui, Phong. “Mel Bochner with Phong Bui.” Interview with Mel Bochner. Brooklyn Rail, May 2006. https://brooklynrail.org/2006/05/art/in-conversation-mel-bochner-with-phong-bui
Lakin, Max. “A Conceptual Art Pioneer Who Doesn’t Mince Words.” The New York Times Style Magazine, November 26, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/26/t-magazine/mel-bochner.html
“Mel Bochner.” Simon Lee Gallery. https://www.simonleegallery.com/artists/mel-bochner/
“Mel Bochner.” Maddox Gallery. https://maddoxgallery.com/artists/mel-bochner/
“Mel Bochner Biography.” Masterworks Fine Art. https://www.masterworksfineart.com/artists/mel-bochner/biography