Mel Bochner Proudly Pronounces “The Joys of Yiddish”
Mel Bochner’s text-based artworks are classic examples of Conceptual art, created by an artist who helped to essentially define the genre. In 1966, Bochner curated what is considered to be the first show exclusively focused on the movement. Prime examples are his The Joys of Yiddish works, which feature a lexicon specifically centered around Jewish-American identity.
The artist has produced several slightly differing versions of this set of Yiddish words, beginning with a covering a traffic barrier outside of Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in 2006, then two paintings in 2012, the facade of Haus der Kunst, Munich in 2013, and now, a print edition of 30 produced by Two Palms.
Bochner’s interest in molding materials and processes has been the cornerstone of his long and prolific career. In a recent essay for Triple Canopy, “The Medium and the Tedium,” he wrote of the repressive nature of media-specific practices, noting that, for him, “new ideas evolved into new mediums.” The Joys of Yiddish, then, and the various forms it has taken, speaks to the concept of environment-as-medium. The presentation of Yiddish phrases, after all, conveys a far different meaning when it’s done on a former Nazi art museum in Munich than in The Jewish Museum in New York City.
The graphic yellow-gold letters on a black background is a reference to the stars Jews were forced to wear during Nazi occupation. The work itself contains descriptors of Yiddish origin that have been adopted into colloquial English, including “kvetcher” and “schmoozer.” The pieces are named after Leo Rosten’s 1968 book of Yiddish words and phrases of the same title.
As Norman L. Kleeblatt, the chief curator at The Jewish Museum, wrote on the occasion of “Strong Language,” Bochner’s exhibition at the museum in 2014, for many Americans these words were first popularized by Jewish comedians in the ’50s and ’60s—as an entrance point into an entire culture and language, which was deemed a fairly odd one. The work was inspired in part by the oft-overlooked “ironic, skeptical, and frequently scatological view of human nature” of Yiddish, the artist explains—and it succeeds in communicating the rich, joyful Jewish culture and its strong presence in the United States and across the world.