Mel Bochner: Man of Many, Multitudinous, Myriad, Sundry, Numerous as the Grains of Sand on the Seashore, Umpteen, Copious, Scads, Gobs, Tons, Scillions of Words

Karen Kedmey
Aug 26, 2014 11:30PM

The walls of the Jewish Museum's ground floor gallery are currently filled with Mel Bochner's chattering paintings, prints, and drawings, which are themselves filled to brimming with what the artist is famous for having a way with: words. Words as the inevitably imperfect building blocks of language, as slippery signifiers of meaning. Words as physical, manipulatable objects, to work with like globs of paint on an artist's palette. Words as weapons or as caresses. Words, in short, as some of the most compelling material with which an artist can work. And fun.

In an intimate early drawing, called Cause and Effect (1966), the artist creates a beginning-less and endless circle through which he describes the pain and heat bound up in love with an elegance and concision that feels fresh, poetic, and perfect. Round and round the circle, starting anywhere you please, or, even better, at each potential starting point, we read:

/LOVE CAUSES FRICTION/FRICTION CAUSES HEAT/HEAT CAUSES PAIN/PAIN CAUSES TENDERNESS/TENDERNESS CAUSES LOVE/

This small drawing stands in quiet contrast to Bochner's big, bold paintings, for many of which Roget's Thesaurus was as necessary as canvas and brush. Except, of course, for the ones reading nothing but "BLAH, BLAH, BLAH," repeated over and over again across the picture plane. These works, centered upon one of the English language's least expressive words, or, more accurately, an utterance that serves as a placeholder when we've tired of talking, were, ironically, among his most expressively painted.

True to the living, evolving nature of language, there is no shortage of slang and profanity in this exhibition. The synonyms for "money" range fantastically creatively from "cabbage" to "do-re-mi" to "filthy lucre," and expressions like "silence!" devolve gradually into "just shut the fuck up!" In fact, there were lots of instances of the word "fuck" to be found throughout the exhibition, much to the giggling delight of the two pre-adolescent sisters who came with their mother to see art, and found a treasure trove of curse words that they could fill their wide eyes with, and, sometimes, even whisper out loud.

Karen Kedmey