Mel Bochner’s Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), 1967–70, comprises nine photo-offset prints reproducing nine index cards inscribed with tricky quotations about photography, including the Encyclopedia Britannica’s contention that “photography cannot record abstract ideas.” For a 2011 photo piece in this show, Bochner has revived that particular index card, pinned it up with two transparent plastic pushpins and had it photographed and printed life-size using half a dozen different 19th-century processes. The resulting work pictures the same “idea” against the freckles and craters of an imperfectly plastered wall six separate times, in six distinct colors: a pale, lunar gray; an ashier gray; a streaky peach; a shadowy sand; a rough denim blue; and a sooty fog. Must an abstract idea be reducible to a single verbal formula (“photography cannot record an abstract idea”), or can it be a distinctive and complex representation of thought? Titled Photography Before the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, this new piece is at once an easy joke on the Britannica’s provocative contention and a subtle rebuttal. Photography can’t precede the age of mechanical reproduction, because it is itself a process of mechanical reproduction; but on the other hand, these aren’t just photographs—they’re a conceptual piece that makes use of photography.
Subtlety of conception is less successful in the series “Color Crumple,” three 1967 photos newly printed 8 feet tall and mounted on aluminum. Each is an irregular triangular shape, resembling paper wrapped around a bouquet, and shows a differently crumpled grid in orange, violet or yellow. For photographers currently working in abstraction, like Eileen Quinlan or Walead Beshty, deconstruction of geometry or of the mechanisms of photography serves primarily as a means, and is under no special pressure to produce its own meaning. But Bochner clearly points toward transformation and dismantling as ends in themselves, and 40 years later, it’s no longer clear whether meaning is supposed to reside in the act of crumpling the grid in general, or in any one crumple in particular.
Smaller pieces have worn well, especially the two yellow pages of Surface Dis/Tension (Study for “How To” Book), 1968-69, which outline in a series of handwritten steps a process for mechanically distorting a grid. Photograph a grid of tape on a tabletop in single-point perspective, peel off and shrink the emulsion, rephotograph, make a positive and nega- tive from the emulsion and superimpose the two, and then photograph once more.
Surface Dis/Tension (Recursive), 2010, has no more irony than the “Crumples,” but it has a formal complexity every bit as developed as its ambition. In this case, crumpling in general and crumpling in particular are concurrent. The photograph, also mounted on aluminum and about 6 feet square with irregular edges, looks like a rocky gray landscape or an electron- microscope image, over which there recedes a grid of darker gray mesh. The aluminum mounting itself is also sliced into a grid, four sections by four, so that the sharp white of the gallery wall and the shadows cast by the support interact with the image itself, drawing the world at large neatly into the world of the grid.
Photo: Mel Bochner: Color Crumple #1, 1967/2011, silhouetted C-print mounted on aluminum, 96 1/4 by 45 1/2 inches; at Peter Freeman.