Mel Bochner at the Whitechapel Gallery


The Whitechapel Gallery presents the first major British survey show of New York artist Mel Bochner, one of the founding figures of conceptual art. The exhibition traces nearly 50 years of Bochner’s work, from the late 1960s to today, showing his fascination with language and colour. It will include a vast 30 metre-wide painting, installations filling the galleries and large works painted directly onto the walls. The exhibition presents his recent ‘Thesaurus’ paintings, colourful word chains which descend from phrases such as ‘top dog’ and ‘king of the hill’ into more macho mantras such as ‘rule with an iron hand’. Mel Bochner is part of a generation of New York artists who emerged in the 1960s including Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse and Robert Smithson. Harvard University art historian Benjamin Buchloh has described Bochner’s first exhibition in 1966 as ‘probably the first truly conceptual exhibition’. At that time when painting seemed outmoded, he was a pioneer in introducing language into visual art. On entering Gallery 1 visitors will first see the huge painting Blah, Blah, Blah (2011), made specially for this show and executed in thick oil paint on black velvet, setting the scene for the exhibition’s exploration of communication and meaning in language. Across the floor of Gallery 1 blue squares are spray-painted directly onto newspapers, titled Theory of Painting (1970). Around the walls are Bochner’s giant crumpled photographs in lurid colours. Their shapes have been described by The New Yorker as ‘like road maps found stuffed in the glove compartment’. The staircase from Gallery 1 is animated by one of Bochner’s ‘Measurement’ pieces. Lines of 48 inches are randomly scattered across the wall, alluding to Marcel Duchamp’s last painting Nude Descending a Staircase. At the top of the stairs one of Bochner’s guiding principles, No Thought Exists Without A Sustaining Support (1970), is chalked directly on the wall, as if on a dripping blackboard. Gallery 9 will be filled with the colourful 1977 wall painting Two Planar Arcs and on the floor is a work from the artist’s ‘Theory of Sculpture’ series, made in vivid chunks of raw glass. Gallery 8 is devoted to Bochner’s vast canvas Event Horizon (1998) and his latest ‘Thesaurus’ paintings. These include Amazing! (2011) which features a 21st century language: from ‘awesome!’ and ‘groovy!’ to ‘gnarly!’ and ‘omg!’. As the eye reads the text, letters and words advance or recede according to the shade Bochner has painted them. The experience suddenly becomes about colour itself, while their humour reveals a subtle politics.


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