Mel Bochner

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Collection Lizbeth Marano © Mel Bochner
'If The Color Changes (#4)', 1998 by Mel Bochner

As anyone who's used a thesaurus knows, the words you end up with can often be strangely far from where you began. So it is with Mel Bochner's 'Thesaurus Paintings' from the past decade: a simple 'no' in the top-left of the canvas leads via various permutations to 'drop dead' in the bottom-right. Elsewhere, 'obscene' eventually links to 'hot 'n' horny'. Written in dazzling letters, against multicoloured backgrounds, the sense is of dissonance and discord, of the inability of language to provide exact, mathematical equivalents.

This sense, of gaps and twists in the meaning of things, runs throughout the American's work. Sure, Bochner was one of the original, first-generation, conceptual-with-a-capital-C artists, who in the 1960s sought to turn art into a form of philosophy-about-art. But while his work is certainly intellectual, it's very far from being dry or stuffy. Misalignments, mistakes, misdirection – these are his playful techniques, right from the start of his career, as in the 'Actual Size' photographs of his hand and face, mounted at his own, rather lofty, eye level, which function both as a statement of verisimilitude, and also as a decidedly blunt way of making the viewer feel comparably small.

Or take his 'Theory of Photography', which contains quotations about the art form from nine famous thinkers, from Wittgenstein to Duchamp – except that three of the statements are outright fabrications by Bochner (he's never revealed which).

The idea is not simply that appearances can deceive, but that all forms of representation are inherently ambiguous, impure, deceptive. Art is part of the world it attempts to describe; or, as his acrylic wall-piece from 1970 puts it, 'No thought exists without a sustaining support' – even as the acrylic background itself dribbles down the wall, fading into nothingness.

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