Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to as Bochner’s 1966 word portrait of Ad Reinhardt. Although that work is in the exhibition, the description was of a 1966 word self-portrait. The review also said that Bochner stopped making thesaurus paintings for several decades after 1970. He stopped making thesaurus drawings during that period, but he didn’t start making thesaurus paintings until 2003. This version has been corrected.

Mel Bochner, "Die," 2005 oil and acrylic on canvas (Copyright Mel Bochner 2011)

In 1966, when he was in his mid-20s, artist Mel Bochner assembled a collection of drawings and documents from various artists, architects and composers, photocopied them and displayed them in four black binders sitting on four pedestals. The result, a piece he called “Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art,” is sometimes cited as the first example of conceptual art. That kind of claim is always tricky to prove, but it certainly moved the idea of art “upstream,” to use Bochner’s own term for his lifelong focus on the process and ideas rather than the traditional art object that can be bought, sold, fetishized and displayed in a gallery.

The slightly absurd length of Bochner’s title, its deliberate wordiness, presaged a lasting interest not only in words and language, but in how systems such as language or mathematics have in them inherent flaws and contradictions. When defining something with language, more description doesn’t always yield more clarity. “Bring me the red one” is often a far better way of getting your spouse to bring the right sweater than “bring me the red one next to the green one, under the blue one made of wool.”

Bochner’s interest in language as medium and material for art produced a series of early “thesaurus” drawings in the mid- to late 1960s, in which he created portraits of friends and colleagues using words taken from that b oon to bad writers, the humble treasure house of synonyms. Arranged in rows, circles or columns, these works played with the essential but appealing flaw of the thesaurus, its abundance of words that are never quite interchangeable and often lead the writer away from rather than closer to the essence of his meaning.

An exhibition in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building tower space juxtaposes these early thesaurus and other language-based works with Bochner’s most recent paintings, which move his conceptual preoccupations into the strange new world of old-fashioned painting. It is a colorful show, richly rewarding and often surprisingly touching. If nothing else, it suggests that the “upstream” of Bochner’s current work is his older work, but with a twist, and it is in that twist that one gets a sense of something often deemed irrelevant to the conceptual artist: the humanity of the creator.

The “twist” is literal in a 2001 charcoal-and-pencil drawing called “Wrap: Portrait of Eva Hesse,” a recasting of a classic word portrait he made in 1966. The original drawing, in ink on graph paper, arranges various synonyms for the word “wrap” in concentric circles. The word wrap may refer to the material and techniques of Hesse, an artist and friend of Bochner, or may be an allusion to ideas of covering, surface, containment and disclosure. It is placed in the center of the circle, the form of which recalls specific Hesse works, including the breast-like circle of an untitled and contemporaneous work she made by winding concentric rings of cord and fixing them to masonite.

Mel Bochner. ‘Self / Portrait,’ 1966, ink on graph paper sheet. (Copyright Mel Bochner 2011)

Hesse died at the tragically young age of 34 in 1970, after which Bochner put aside his thesaurus paintings and turned to other ideas until 2003. The new thesaurus paintings began with a return to the portrait of Hesse, an act of memory both sentimental and resigned. In the new version of the portrait, Bochner creates an underlying image of the original and then smudges it, with a second version more powerfully present but slightly twisted around the center from the first, recalling perhaps Marcel Duchamp’s 1935 “ rotoreliefs ,” which were meant to be spun like LP records. The “erased” image is a kind of echo, but a dynamic one, suggesting motion.

That small gesture opens up an astonishing amount of interpretive terrain. Computers “remember” by imprinting new data over old on spinning disks. The “twist” of the circle suggests ancient ideas of Fortune, her wheel and the vicissitudes of time. But it is a small twist, such that the clearly legible words are seen only slightly askew from the “erased” ones beneath. And that recalls more geological or astronomical units of time, like the slowing of the earth’s rotation and other oddities that produce discord in the music of the spheres.

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