1997 Visible Thinking

Mel Bochner


What was an implicit unseen condition for creating a post-renaissance object, the automatic pre-numbering of space, is displayed: One sees an empty room as Raum – space – as if for the first time.


                 Mel Bochner’s first installation, Working Drawings and Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art, consists of four identical sheafs of photocopied working drawings, drafts for projects, schematics, letters, magazine illustrations, and so on, arranged in no identifiable order, sitting on four identical, featureless plinths. Art here (“unreal, constructed, invented, predetermined, intellectual, make-believe, objective, contrived, useless,” as Bochner say elsewhere) refuses Old Art’s making unseen feelings and ideas visual; feeling drops out leaving only the idea which in turn displaces its execution; thus conceptual art; art as cognition, as epistemological investigation; art as a visual machine.

                  The manner of Bochner’s refusal of the Old goes back to Jasper Johns’s number paintings. The intervening decade was the triumph of the grid: a fifty year-old immersion in the modernist square endlessly repeated, threaded through itself, transformed, and solidified, had by the mid-1960s become the signature of minimalism. Why this total obsession? A major art-historical question, leaving Suzi Gablik in her essay on Minimalism to shrug in the face of the mysterious ubiquity of the grid, that it was “a kind of Rosetta stone for our age, the significance of whose code has not really been broken.” But maybe what Minimalism’s overthrow reveals is that the twentieth-century grid, empty of movement, of development, of a past or a future, stripped bare of anything that would mark it in history or culture or geography, was the last-ditch stand, the shiny clean skeleton of modernity’s dream: art as changeless, eternal transcendence over human affairs.

                  Bochner’s engagement with the grid (as spatial or modularized sequence), evident in Working Drawings… in the identical plinths, in their even spacing in a line (rather than scattered or arranged in a “pattern”) and the identically formatted, randomly ordered, disparate sheets (rather than embodying a narrative), is played out across his early work: pictures of windows (themselves avatars of the modernist grid) arranged in squared-off grids and often composed of gridded repetitions; intense preoccupation with rectangular arrays of numbers, particularly magic squares in which the anti-narrative of the square is redoubled by the impossibility of extracting a difference from it and escaping: every direction of reading producing the same total sum. The message is that of an imprisoning immobility, of time obliterated. Sasha Newman, in her essay on 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams, describes the outcome as something “begun as a diagram of a process in time” which ends by subverting “the very idea of such an evolution.”

                  As a recent exhibition of Bochner’s work from 1966 to 1973 reminds us, his response was to deepen rather than abandon the attempt to create diagrams of process (1). He turned to the serialist movement in music. Conceived to overcome the imprisoning dead-end of key-harmony by creating a music of transformation – progression, permutation, rotation, reversal of a given, arbitrarily chosen sequence – serialist compositional practices inspired Bochner both to motivate artistic production through “self-generating procedures” that offered a “liberation from the limitations of my own ego.” and to chart process as transformation. With this Bochner started to dissolve the grid, refusing its minimalist atemporality as well as crumpling and dislocating its distant Renaissance forebear, the perspective mesh and its accompanying authorial viewpoint, in Perspective Insert (Collapsed Center) and Surface Dis/Tension; or blurring the mesh to the edge of existence in Viscosity (Mineral Oil).


                  What took its place was measurement. Instead of drawing meshes, Bochner confronted their cognitive and physical wherewithal; he pursued the Kantian question of the conditions of the grid’s possibility. The move into the epistemology of measurement, by dramatizing the necessary pre-presence and hence materiality of the measurer, was one possible outcome of his serialism. In the case of Measurement: 180the result is to force attention on the difference between ideal “given” mathematical angles and material ones formed from twine and other physical, hand-and-eye material used to organize the world. In Latitudinal Projection, a horizontal strip of masking tape circles an empty room and in Longitudinal Projection a tape joins floor and ceiling in an unbroken loop. The effect here, which will be repeated in the 1971-2 installation Continuous/Dis/Continuous where the tape, circling the suite of rooms at eye height, creates an horizon, is startling. What was an implicit unseen condition for creating a post-renaissance object, the automatic pre-numbering of space, is displayed: One sees an empty room as Raum – space – as if for the first time. This epistemological making strange (ostronie) in which we are made to stand back and reflect on the obvious, a program he shared with Bertolt Brecht and the Russian formalists, was to become a Bochner trademark.

                  One of Bochner’s most commented-on works is the wall piece Language Is not Transparent. A memorable image in the spirit of May ’68: the writing on the wall subverting the pretense that language (and by implications any “transparent” medium)) has no effect on its messages. With this work the Kantian/materialist itinerary of Bochner’s questioning of “art” moves from measurement to other semiotic dimensions and to a denser and more impacted reflexivity. Just as measurement was exposed as intrusively present and inseparable from its own impossibilities and necessities, so the presence is even more pointed with language where there is always meaning, a semantic content that produces the possibility of self-reference and paradox. The words, written blackboard fashion in white chalk, with an ordinal number 1 suggesting a continuation, offer a lesson. But their whiteness and that of the wall is indistinguishable; the two merge, suggesting that the letters are a window through to the wall: that they are, contrary to their sense, completely transparent, offering no more resistance than empty space. The graffiti, announcing the material opacity and non-neutrality of language can only do so in language that – in order to be read as immediate communication – demands that we forget this very materiality.

                  A year before, in 1969, Bochner produced another work with the same title. The 1970 image offers itself in parallel, its different elements operating co-temporally; the earlier work asks to be treated sequentially by deliberately structuring a serial reading. Made by stamping the message “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT” on a 5×8 plain-lined card first once, then twice, then four times, and finally sixteen times over itself, the sequence performs the passage of language into noise through repetition (or, by inversion, the emergence of language from noise). Again, there is an irreconcilable tension between the materiality of the letters and their meaning. Barry Schwabsky reads it as a paradox: “The assertion that language is not transparent is already contradicted insofar as it seems to state its case transparently. It is only in the last line card in the sequence, where the statement no longer exists because it has become undecipherable….that the statement becomes true. “Language’s opacity, its being anything but a neutral vehicle for the circulation of meaning, was an idea much pondered by Wittgenstein, whom Bochner was apparently reading at the time. For all but die-hard realists, it is now a truism – “the materiality of the signifier” – that language is part of the content of sense-making rather than merely its unproblematic means. But every truism is the hard-won trace of a battle: Bochner’s enigmatically reflexive image is a perfect marker of the de-thronement of an idealized, disembodied conception of language.


                  Bochner extended his epistemological confrontation with language to include the signs and representational formats of mathematics and logic. Unlike (or at least differently from) natural language, mathematics presents itself as a formalism of pure, abstract, disembodied, transcendentally situated objects. The response, which seems to come out of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology or Jean Piaget’s psychology, is to ask: Where is the body and what is it doing in relation to such objects? In Theory of Sculpture: #2 (Counting); Cardinal Versus Ordinal  Bochner follows mathematical practice in using the same signs to notate ordinals – five stones counted in a row – as well as cardinals – piles of one through five stones; we understand that it is only the unwitnessed and undeclared body of the counting perceiver that allows the signs to confuse the two activities and to pretend that they refer to the same invisible and abstract objects. To Count: Intransitive consists of a large glass window with soap smeared over it; on the soap as background hundreds of digits are written. Again, opacity in place of accustomed transparency, but here in the service of the question: Does the activity of counting have a direct object, a referent that would tie these normally unseen digits to the body, to what is palpable and physically perceivable? In 7 Properties of Between the mind/body separation is challenged by the failure (wittily surprising after successfully dealing with all the other properties) to exhibit a materialization of the property that A and B are identical if there is nothing between them. Finally, in The Axiom of Indifference, it is logic itself that is scrutinized. Eight squares of inscribed masking tape offer materializations of eight statements, Boolean combinations of the operators “all,” “some,” “not,” “in,” “out,” in relation to pennies that – provided we assume them to be a universe of discourse – are true instantiations of the statements. Again, it is only our actions and material presence verifying the proviso (physically matching coins and statements) and excluding all but these pennies and not some transcendental logic of adequation between language and the world, that enables us to think logically.

    As a mathematician who has recently written about the misleading identity and transcendental claims of mathematical discourse, reviewing Bochner’s work gave me a shock of the old: there was Bochner in the late 1960s with astonishing prescience and clarity of purpose seeing what needed to be seen, and doing it all in pictures. In this sense the title of the exhibition is perhaps unfortunate. “Thinking,” Bochner has written, takes place, “via the constant intervention of procedures,” an activist/constructivist credo that surely works against the suggestion of thought existing independently of and ahead of its visual presence: Bochner’s art is the art of visible thinking.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s