Mel Bochner hand-painted all of the bubble letters in “Amazing!” (no stencils, as we initially thought).

The National Gallery of Art’s “Mel Bochner: In the Tower” show is more than just a retrospective of the artist’s thesaurus-inspired works — it’s a look back at the evolution of the English language.

“Words change over time, meanings flip,” says Bochner, a longtime figure in the world of conceptual art. “When I was younger, a bomb was a terrible thing. Now, ‘the bomb’ is the best thing. The thesaurus unwittingly tracks those changes of meaning.”

Bochner’s word-filled works in paint, pen and ink are like lessons in vocab history. The NGA show highlights two particularly verbose periods of Bochner’s career: the 1960s, when the artist was in his 20s and creating groundbreaking pen-on-paper “portraits” of friends composed of synonyms describing them; and the 2000s, which found him making colorful, large-scale paintings filled with riffs on “key words” and related phrases.

Last year’s “Amazing!” gives viewers a crash course in the colloquial accolades of the past four decades. In meticulously rendered bubble letters, Bochner lays out a somewhat chronological list of words that mean “amazing,” including “Out-of-sight!” “Groovy!” and “OMG!”

It’s a stark contrast to the smaller, more stoic compilations of words in his earlier work, which seem torn straight from the pages of a reference book: His 1966 black and white “Portrait of Robert Smithson,” for example, is a much more restrained extrapolation on the theme of repetition, featuring words such as “recurrent, recurring, returning, reappearing.”

“What’s considered ordinary language has changed radically in 40 years,” Bochner says. “That slowly dawned on me. I didn’t go into this knowing I’d discover that.”

Spoken Subjects
Mel Bochner says he sometimes consults a thesaurus when working on his word-based pieces. But he usually stumbles upon interesting vocabulary in his ordinary life and lets his curiosity steer his output. “I write down words all the time,” he says, “things overheard in conversation, maybe on the subway, maybe something one of my kids says, a friend, something I read in a book or hear on TV. I’ll say, ‘That’s an interesting word; I wonder what its etymology is.’ And then I look it up.”

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through April 8, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)