Fifty years ago, Mel Bochner landed his first job in New York—guarding the halls of the Jewish Museum for $1 an hour while working on his own paintings at night. He eventually got fired for sleeping behind a Louise Nevelson sculpture, but the museum would later play another role in his career trajectory. In 1966, Bochner wrote a review in Arts Magazine of the museum’s landmark Minimalist exhibition, “Primary Structures,” which helped define the movement.
That’s only one possible way to frame Bochner’s homecoming at the museum for “Strong Language,” a survey of his word-based drawings and paintings opening this month. (The exhibition runs concurrently with “Other Primary Structures,” a globally themed revival of the original show.) As “Strong Language” makes clear, words have long been the building blocks of Bochner’s art. His first such efforts were a direct response to the generation of Abstract Expressionists that preceded him and to the proto-Pop artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who influenced him early on.
In Bochner’s “Thesaurus” paintings (2003–11), closely defined words in varying colors are stacked one on top of the other until they crowd the frame. However, his drippy “Blah, Blah, Blah” series (2008–12) appropriates the gestures of Abstract Expressionism while expressing only the inarticulate. “The words themselves became my found objects,” Bochner told ARTnews in the Tribeca studio where he has worked for more than 30 years. “Anything I did with them would be mine.”
Professorial and contemplative, with slicked-back gray hair, Bochner takes long pauses before each sentence and does not like to be tape-recorded. And given that the reading and misreading of language has long been his subject matter, Bochner makes for a quixotic interview subject. As the artist has articulated in several works, “Language is not transparent.”
Often words become nearly illegible in his compositions. In Meaningless (2003), for instance, the terms “mumbo” and “jabber” pop out in electric green and blue from the tangerine background, whereas the orange-hued “nonsense” and “babble” almost completely blend in. Unlike other word artists of his era, Bochner sometimes means for reading and looking to be incompatible.
“Repetition and reinvention play a major role in Mel’s work over time,” Norman L. Kleeblatt, chief curator at the Jewish Museum, says of Bochner’s recurring themes, such as synonyms, Yiddish words, and the “blah” refrain. “We’ll have a number of works that show how he will change a material or a concept—or take an object and remake it so that it has an entirely different meaning.”
One change Bochner has noticed over the years is how viewers behave around his pieces in the gallery setting. “It seems that people like to have their pictures taken in front of my paintings,” he said, particularly the “Blah, Blah, Blah” works.
“The paintings seem to touch some universal way of expressing people’s negativity,” the artist added. “Maybe having your photo in front of one is a way of taking psychological possession of that negativity.” Or an art selfie? Bochner perked up at the unfamiliar term.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 25 under the title “The Painted Blah.”