Mel Bochner (born in 1940 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is considered one of the founders of Conceptual Art, which, in the early 1960s, surpassed painting as the primary art form. Bochner achieved this feat in part by using language in his works. In his more recent work, he has increasingly re-examined this oncedespised medium of painting, whereby his own conceptual visual language contributes insights of its possibilities. The artist's first solo exhibition in Germany in more than 15 years (Lenbachhaus 1996), the show at Haus der Kunst
illustrates the relationships between Bochner's use of text and color in the 1960s and 1970s, and his often painterly work created during the past decade. It includes a variety of media, from sculpture, drawings, installation, murals, to photographs, and paintings on canvas.
Bochner's first solo exhibition took place in 1966 in the gallery of the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he worked as an assistant professor of art history. In the show he presented four identical three-ring binders on pedestals. Each contained 100 copies of various working drawings and sketches. Some of these works were created by artist friends, such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson, as well as several scientists, whom Bochner had asked to contribute pieces to an exhibition on 'work trials'. Because the show's organizers lacked the funds to frame the works, Bochner made photocopies of them and arranged them alphabetically in the binders. Titled "Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art" (1966), Bochner invited the show's visitors to leaf through the works and become active readers rather than simply passive observers. At the same time, he redefined the term 'authorship': Although he served as exhibition curator, he also transformed the show into his own artwork. The artists, to whom he had returned the originals before the opening, welcomed this idea. Only Donald Judd was irritated by Bochner's appropriation. The exhibition is considered the first show of Conceptual Art, and was pioneering for the art form's development.
At the time, the artist was also exploring the idea of reproduction and transformation in the field of photography. "36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams" (1966/2003) is based on twelve diagrams consisting of seven times seven boxes in squares and marked with the numbers one to four. The numbers represent the number of stacked wooden blocks that Bochner rearranged repeatedly according to the diagrams. He had the figures professionally photographed, thereby creating a documentation of the figures as top views, elevations, and from bird's-eye perspectives. Through the interplay of drawn diagrams and their photographic equivalents, Bochner demonstrated how the photographs were limited in their ability to unite perspective accuracy and illustrate complex issues. This project was the first in a series of experimental photographic works that explored color, texture, and lighting conditions; others included "Transparent and Opaque" (1968/2008) as well as objects, such as "Color Crumple" (1967).
As he did with photography, the artist also set his conceptual sights on painting. One of his most famous works is "A Theory of Painting" (1969-70), a floor work inspired by Henry Matisse and Jackson Pollock, a new installation of which he will create for Haus der Kunst using pages from a current edition of the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" (a German newspaper). The work consists of four identical areas - covered with newspaper pages of a particular edition of which the outer two create clearly defined rectangles and the inner two, formed by crisscrossing sheets of paper, loosely suggest rectangular forms. All four rectangles are spray-painted blue: A closed colored rectangle covers both an outer and inner rectangle and a fragmented rectangular shape is situated on the other two rectangles. In this way, the figureground relationship is depicted in four versions. A wall inscription summarizes this gimmick in concrete words Cohere Disperse, Disperse Cohere, Disperse Disperse, Cohere Cohere.
Early in his career, Bochner also explored mathematics. He was particularly interested in number series and geometrical forms with which he experimented in drawings and floor installations consisting of stones, colored glass and chalk, creating random patterns in the process. In "Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras" (1972/2010), he examined the theorem. Using chalk, he drew a right-angled triangle on the floor and, using stones, arranged a square on each side, out of 5 x 5, 4 x 4 and 3 x 3 glass stones. According to the sum of the equation, a2 + b2 = c2, the number of stones should be 50 but it was, in fact, only 47. Bochner countered an intellectual puzzle, which could probably have been easily solved, with a visual experience to shift the viewers' attention away from the geometry and on to the sensuality of color. He also explores the relevance of mathematical principals and measurements in "If/And/Either/Both (Or)" and "Event Horizon" (both from 1998).
As a founding figure of Conceptual Art, it is astonishing that Bochner used color not only sporadically, but with consistent regularity. In fact, in his more recent work, color has shifted into the foreground and seems to compete with language and text at the highest level. The Thesaurus Paintings series displays word chains on large-format canvases, reminiscent of accurately executed busywork. Brightly painted letters compete with an equally colorful background and demand that the viewer both read and observe. Bochner calls this "the conflict between color as a color perception and as grammar". These painterly works are influenced by Bochner's word portraits from the 1960s in which he embellished the work of artist friends like Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse with word chains. In his more recent works, he boldly unites color and text to challenge the viewer both visually and intellectually. Words to decipher include the following:
"AMAZING! AWESOME! BREATHTAKING! HEARTSTOPPING! MIND BLOWING! OUTOFSIGHT! COOL! WOW! GROOVY! CRAZY! KILLER! BITCHIN'! BAD! RAD! GNARLY! DA BOMB! SHUT UP! OMG! YESSS!"
Rather harmless and traditional exclamations are gradually transformed into modern, colloquial expressions, which can be found in contemporary synonym dictionaries. The garish colors of the letters and the lined background act as an visual amplifier for the expressions, but, after prolonged observation, these jump into the foreground so that the text is in danger of being swallowed up by color; the message sinks into the sensory overload.
In the series "If the Color Changes" (1997-2000) Bochner quotes from one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's treatises on color: "Viewing is not the same as observing or looking (...) If the color changes, then you are no longer seeing what I meant (...)." While the philosopher engaged in various theoretical visual processes, Bochner translates Wittgenstein's texts into a painterly concept. He overlaps the original passage with its English translation to force the viewer to actively observe the complex text-image, leading him or her to question its meaning.
In "The Joys of Yiddish" (2006), color and text are also closely linked. Bochner originally designed the two-color banner for the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago. The over-size work will be installed on the façade of Haus der Kunst for this exhibition. The word chain contains Yiddish slang words that have found their way into contemporary American English. These include. KIBBITZER, KUNI LEMMEL, DREYKOP, ALTER KOCKER, MESHUGENER, PISHER (wise guy, simpleton, scatterbrain, geezer, crackpot, brat). The banner's colors yellow on black are reminiscent of the armbands and patches used by the Nazis to stigmatize the Jewish population. There is an inherent tension between them and the words residents in the Jewish ghettos used to express their unity and defiance during the Third Reich. This connection between the offenders' color and the victims' language is typical of the subtle provocation that runs through Bochner's work.