Mel Bochner’s latest show at Fraenkel Gallery takes as its starting point a seminal, if particularly slippery body of work from the mid to late sixties. In it, Bochner turns to photography to document his various experiments in process (capturing shifting configurations of blocks, grids, and that sort of thing), and somewhat unexpectedly the medium ends up becoming the primary material support for his phenomenological and linguistic investigations. (It definitely makes you wonder how much more Wittgenstein would have gotten done if he picked up a used 35mm.)
However, far from a masterful breakthrough, you get the sense that Bochner’s was a happy accident, which managed to break open his practice and set the foundations for “proper” Conceptual and linguistic strategies in the seventies. The exhibition makes a convincing art historical thesis, which is handsomely elaborated by a broad array of works, including seminal tidbits like 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams, 1966, where Bochner documents an ever shifting assemblage of blocks. The resulting series of photographs present an endless declension of art school legos that explodes Minimalist modularity by introducing that pesky fourth dimension, time, into the mix, and from that it’s a short leap to our favorite seventies buzzword: process.
Pieces like Surface Dis/Tension, 1968, with its charmingly tortured poststructuralist title only reinforce the view that Bochner is the grand-daddy of conceptual strategies—and that he, along with Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Kosuth, helped re-invigorate Duchamp’s legacy, harnessing language in the service of art, and helping usher in what Rosalind Krauss would triumphantly call the “the post-medium conditon” in all its meta splendor. Countless “Semiotics” degrees at Brown are undoubtedly indebted to his breakthroughs--but once again, although this is all true and good, it is hardly news.
However, the show does manage to capture an aspect of the work and its logic that is sorely missing from all of these overarching accounts, and that is the simply role of pleasure. That comes across loud and clear in the sheer messiness of it all, in the various disparate gestures and strange digressions (for instance A Theory of Photography, a series of postcard with jotting down thoughts on the medium). Despite the grids and focused deconstruction, gestures such as these can’t quite hide their haphazard origins. Krauss might call it “the use value of the messy”, which invariably turns into the informe, but I would simply say it’s an art school spirit of Russian roulette that sometimes hits the target. More than Derrida inflected titles, or meta investigations, this sloppy spirit (in the best sense of the word) captures the richness of the period, the openness of its investigations and the sheer audacity of its breakthroughs. This is something that characterized Duchamp, and also his best heirs from Bruce Nauman to John Baldessari, whose recent show at LACMA beautifully captured that sense of possibility and inchoateness. Photography played a crucial role in this, especially at that time before its own language was codified by the gestures of the New Topographics. It was not a marker but a placeholder, a portmanteau vehicle of random strategies, and it is all there on view, showing its seams—and that is definitely worth a long hard look.
- Franklin Melendez
All images courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery