The Whitechapel Gallery has announced the first major British survey show of the New York artist Mel Bochner, one of the founding figures of conceptual art, for the Autumn.
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.
Mel Bochner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, in 1940. He is one of a generation of American artists coming of age in the 1960s that questioned the primacy of painting as medium, and the heroic grandeur of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. He studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1962. In 1964 he moved to New York City. Bochner taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York in the late 1960s and in 1979 was appointed to the Yale University School of Art faculty as a senior critic in painting and printmaking and later appointed Professor (Adjunct) in 2001. He has exhibited widely in the United States and Europe, most recently including major solo exhibitions at the National Gallery Washington D.C. (2011); Domaine de Kerguéhennec, centre d’art contemporain, Bignan, France (2007), the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2002). His work is held in the collections of MoMA, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, LACMA, Los Angeles, and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. He lives and works in New York.