The word “wrap,” which appears in the center, has no erasures or echoes beneath it, perhaps because it is the essential, generative word denoting Hesse. In other Bochner works, especially his 1966 word self-portrait, one senses an alertness to Plato’s fundamental suspicion of all kinds of representation — he was no friend to artists — and his powerful dichotomies between supposedly true, beautiful, immutable things and reproductions, imitations and other second-order objectifications.
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Both the 1966 and 2001 Hesse portraits are in the tower’s small gallery, where if you enter by the elevators, they are “upstream” of the main space, given over entirely to recent and in some cases never-before-displayed thesaurus paintings. It’s tempting to see these works, in many cases made in 2010 and 2011, as autumnal, late works in which the words that generate the thesaurus synonyms are intentionally darker and angrier. Words such as “Die,” “Sputter,” “Babble” and “Useless” elicit lists of possible substitutions carefully painted in neat rows, with color sometimes giving them emotional power and more often functioning seemingly randomly, like an atonal background to the powerful specificity of language.
Many of the words suggest futility, mortality and frustration with the coarsening of culture. But the paintings are bright and cheerful, lovingly made and filled with Bochner’s muted quirkiness. One might say that the entire room represents paintings that are twisted on their axis emotionally, with the words suggesting the darkness of old age and mortality while in material terms the paintings are alive with paint and the irrepressible absurdity of existence. The 2005 “Die” has a background of bubble-gum pink, and the thesaurus leads us quickly from the blunt equivalents that are the “colorless” first words in the typical thesaurus list — Die, decease, expire — to the “colorful,” slangy and sometimes obscene options near the end of the list: “Feed the worms, bite the dust, push up daisies.”
But these aren’t just word games. They are meticulously rendered, and without stencils. Paint oozes slightly around the outline of the letters, and in the adjacent room of drawings, the color scheme for each letter is worked out on paper with careful precision. The wry, whispering hint of emotion that one senses in the Eva Hesse charcoal drawing becomes more pronounced in the main gallery with its larger-format paintings.
The last words in “Die” are “Sink Into Oblivion,” a phrase that appears at the bottom of the picture, closest to the ground, when the painting is hung on the wall. As you read down the rows of text, you become aware that “getting to the bottom” of one of Bochner’s paintings has a strangely physical quality to it. You become conscious of the floor, and of your physical relation to the painting in the gallery. So much of what Bochner does feels minutely controlled and intelligent that this feels like a final gift from the artist, recalling us to a physical awareness of the world. In the same way, by making paintings, which is perhaps not the sort of thing a conceptual artist is supposed to do, Bochner is adding to the material stuff of the world, asserting his presence, laying claim to life in a way that reminds us of an old and almost synonymous term for human being, Homo faber, the one who makes.
In the Tower: Mel Bochner
is on view at the National Gallery of Art East Building until April 8, 2012. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.