‘Mel Bochner: Strong Language’ at the Jewish Museum

'Dollar Hash Exclamation Plus' (2011) by Bochner. (©Mel Bochner, courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman)

‘Dollar Hash Exclamation Plus’ (2011) by Bochner. (©Mel Bochner, courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman)

Mel Bochner is certifiably a smart artist—he cites Ludwig Wittgenstein in his catalog texts, and the philosopher Stanley Cavell has written about his work. He was a pioneer of conceptual art photography and in the 1960s used new media to elegant effect. His first job in New York, in 1964, was as a guard at the Jewish Museum, so it is fitting that that museum should host this handsomely curated survey of his work.

The drawings, paintings, prints and occasional wall installation here focus on words and specifically on a critique of their power to obscure meaning. They are “talk is cheap,” post-George Orwell takes on the opacity of language. Language is Not Transparent, a 1970 text piece, reminds us. Some works are text portraits of Mr. Bochner’s peers: Portrait of Sol LeWitt (1966) consists of synonyms of the word “closure,” including, “stopper,” “jam” and “impervious.” Also on display are reviews Mr. Bochner wrote, such as one of the Jewish Museum’s 1966 exhibition “Primary Structures,” and The Domain of the Great Bear, a collaborative artwork (with Robert Smithson) that existed only in reproduction as a magazine article. These are the experiments of someone with his finger on the pulse, ones that play cannily with the secondary status of texts in the world of visual art.

'Amazing' (2011) by Bochner.

‘Amazing’ (2011) by Bochner. (Photo by Nicholas Knight, ©Mel Bochner, courtesy the artist and Peter Freeman)

There are inky blue oil on canvas paintings rendered to look as if made from ballpoint pen ink (Blah, Blah, Blah, 2008) and colorful word paintings like Amazing (2011) composed from synonyms found in Roget’s Thesaurus (“wow,” “mind-blowing!”). The paintings are large, and their text takes the soft shape and bright colors of children’s refrigerator magnets. They exhibit a gloopy yet detached materiality that suggests the droll banality of Warhol. (Some deal with slurs for Jews—Mr. Bochner is himself Jewish.)

The most challenging paintings are Mr. Bochner’s elegant charcoal-on-oil dingbats. Painted between 2001 and 2011, they refer to text messaging: Colon Open Parenthesis (2011) is a charcoal emoticon, rubbed into oil; my favorite, Obscene: Dollar Hash Exclamation Plus (2011) spells out “$ # ! +” with scatological glee. Mr. Bochner once responded beautifully and brilliantly to new technologies: his 1966 show “Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art” put Xeroxed drawings on display in four binders. Yet, one thing Mr. Bochner refuses to address is the Internet in relation to an exploration of language. Younger artists like Gregory Edwards and Laura Owens are deeper into that territory.

So why do his more recent paintings sometimes fall short? The short answer: They are content to be paintings. From someone who mused in 1967 on the problems posed by photography and made art on notecards or graph paper, that can come across as complacent. Fifty years is a long time to make art, and the art world changes around you. Mr. Bochner seems a little overtaken by this change. It is not so much the work itself but how it falls seamlessly into systems of capital formation (big paintings sell for lots of money) and art making (these works, unlike the earlier graph scribbles and magazine text pieces, have the problem of looking exactly like art) that leads one to suspect that the last paintings in the show might as well be the very paintings Mr. Bochner’s initial, radical work set out to critique.

(Through Sept. 21, 2014)