Mel Bochner, ‘Self / Portrait’, 2013, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

When Mel Bochner first made word portraits of his close friends in 1966, he simultaneously undertook the challenge of creating a self-portrait. He recalled: “It’s one thing to choose a word to represent someone else, but it’s very hard to objectify your own representation. So I took the words ‘self’ and ‘portrait’ as the key words. Self / Portrait lists the synonyms for ‘self’ to the left of the spine and words for ‘portrait’ to the right. When you read across, a totally un-predetermined phrase is created.” In 2013 the artist painted three new versions of his self-portrait. While denying the possibility of a fixed self, the repetition, substitution, transformation, and permutation of words in Bochner’s self-portrait convey identity as fluid. Like his other word portraits, Self / Portrait uses language to explore structure and process, key aspects of his broader artistic practice.

Image rights: © Mel Bochner

"This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today"

Collection of the artist

About Mel Bochner

Mel Bochner’s approach and materials constantly vary; in fact, the artist formally disavowed allegiance to a single material in his famous essay titled “the Medium and the Tedium” (2010). Bochner—who has produced paintings, installations, and photography—is noted to be one of the most influential pioneers of Conceptual art, and the organizer of the first Conceptual art exhibition in 1966. A recurring theme in Bochner’s work is the relationship between language and physical space or color. This is famously demonstrated in his “Measurement” installations of the late 1960s, visualizing the exact dimensions of rooms and exhibition spaces, and thesaurus-inspired paintings of a single word and its synonyms. Bochner formally studied under Douglas Wilson and Wilfred Readio, though his eventual style would draw strong influence from the works of Clyfford Still and Jean Dubuffet.

American, b. 1940, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, based in New York, New York