Mel Bochner’s intellectual and material analysis of photography, painting and sculpture has produced ground-breaking works that have established his reputation as one of the leading American conceptualists. Throughout his career, the artist has explored the intersection of linguistic and visual representation. His early works dissected the art object and formed the ‘analytical’ groundwork so crucial in informing the basis for the more ‘synthetic’ works of recent years. The overriding question at the heart of his project has always been the same - How do we receive and interpret different types of information? In the wake of abstract expressionism artists felt there was little to add to painting and this triggered in Bochner a response that was more about thinking than making. He started to find clear ways of looking at art and to question how we experience depth, perspective and space. He went on to explore language and colour in the same way.
His thesaurus paintings are an important part of this particular enquiry. With their focus on text and its interpretation, these works re-imagine language as a form of pictorial expression. Word chains intertwine painting and language using colour. Big, bright and witty, they start with one word – ‘Silence’, ‘Amazing’, ‘Crazy’ – and the rest of the painting is made up of synonyms pulled from a thesaurus and listed from top left to bottom right in lines as on a page, the register descending dramatically into slang and expletives. His use of colour sometimes affirms the language it is painting and at other times ignores it, intentionally avoiding colour systems and patterns. These paintings make us think about the acts of reading and looking, and representation and abstraction, and how they cross over. The thesaurus painting is just one of many rationalising systems that Bochner uses to question and explore our irrational trust in language and the world around us.