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Jewish Museum to Present Mel Bochner: Strong Language, 5/2-9/21

Jewish Museum to Present Mel Bochner: Strong Language, 5/2-9/21

From May 2 through September 21, 2014, The Jewish Museum will present Mel Bochner: Strong Language, a survey of Bochner's career-long fascination with the cerebral and visual associations of words. The exhibition will include over 70 text-based works. Among the highlights are his mid-1960s Portrait Drawings, never before exhibited in New York, and paintings from the last decade using synonyms derived from the latest edition of Roget's Thesaurus. Bochner was inspired by the Thesaurus' new permissiveness to broaden his linguistic references, juxtaposing proper with vernacular, formal against vulgar, high against low.

A founding figure of the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s, his Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art is considered to be the first Conceptual Art exhibition. Mel Bochner (b. 1940) emerged at a time when young artists considered painting exhausted. A pioneer in incorporating language into visual art, Bochner has taken an unusual turn toward painterly expressiveness during the past two decades. Mel Bochner: Strong Language will reveal the artist's longstanding engagement with the possibilities of language as image, medium, and content. Visitors will be able to see a broad selection ranging from often witty early conceptual works to vibrantly colored and lushly executed recent paintings.

The use of words as a source for painting springs from Bochner's interest in the philosophy of language on the one hand, and popular culture and humor on the other. For the artist, the thesaurus is "a warehouse for words," a mine of readymade text for his billboard-like pictures. Using a variety of techniques - paint on canvas and velvet, drawing, printmaking, and wall installations - Bochner's Thesaurus paintings riff on words and their meanings in countless permutations. Bochner uses word games, incongruous associations, and even slapstick to involve the viewer in deeper considerations of linguistic, psychological, and social issues.

The artist's earlier conceptualism, built on language, philosophy, and systems of measurement and counting, was often realized in monochrome. His recent works are lush, with high-key color and sometimes with thick facture, playing pictorial approaches against literary associations. Incorporating colloquialisms, slang, and expletives, the Thesaurus paintings vividly capture the language of everyday life. As the synonyms move from left to right, top to bottom, they progress from respectable to rude. Visual and mental snares await the viewer, who must negotiate a path between the opticality of color, the materiality of paint, and the sometimes outright obscenity of language.

Within the Western philosophical tradition, Bochner has long been interested in Jewish thought, with its emphasis on text, language, and wordplay. The language he selects is often mundane, on occasion emotional, and sometimes transgressive. As in Roget, the formal, the elegant, and the crude are lumped together. Bochner captures the darker side of language using sources as disparate as websites inciting hate-speech, books such as Leo Rosten's classic, The Joys of Yiddish, or banal shop window signage, resulting in a rhythmic flow of speech not unlike hip-hop.

Key to understanding Bochner's language-based works is his wall piece, Language Is Not Transparent (1970). Bochner will re-create the work for The Jewish Museum exhibition, the first time it has been seen in New York since its initial 1970 exhibition at the Dwan Gallery. He first paints a black rectangle on a white gallery wall with three straight-edged sides, allowing the paint to drip along the bottom edge. Chalked on the paint is the inscription: LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT. In the drippy background he questions the high seriousness of Abstract Expressionism while the text questions Conceptualism's belief in the objectivity of language.


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