“I don’t think you can look at my work and learn a great deal about the facts of my life. But if you pursue the work, you can learn a great deal about me.”
— Mel Bochner
The reinstallation of the contemporary galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art features the work of one of Pittsburgh's homegrown art heavyweights, Conceptualist Mel Bochner, whose love of art and words was nurtured at the museum's Saturday art classes.
By Christine H. O’Toole
Once a student in Saturday art classes, Mel Bochner now has a room in the museum dedicated to his work.
photo: Tom Little
Brainy, post-Minimal, and challenging, Mel Bochner’s art offers a glimpse into a restless and playful mind. A new installation of the Pittsburgh native’s work in the contemporary galleries of Carnegie Museum of Art spotlights a career spent exploring how three languages—words, numbers, and shapes—influence perception.
“I don’t think you can look at my work and learn a great deal about the facts of my life,” says the 69-year-old artist and pioneer of Conceptual art. “But if you pursue the work, you can learn a great deal about me.”
The five works on display are part of the museum’s commitment to collecting nationally known Pittsburgh artists, like Duane Michaels and Philip Pearlstein. The works move chronologically from 1966 to 2008 and include Measurement: Plant (Palm) from 1969, which has been described by former museum director Richard Armstrong as “black vinyl tape, a little architecture for support, the living specimen, and the artist's intention to incorporate thought into the act of viewing.” The bright geometrics of Syncline, painted on a gallery wall by Bochner in 1981, are newly uncovered after several decades behind a false wall. Two of the other paintings were created just last year.
“Richard had long wanted to get one of my ‘thesaurus’ paintings for the museum's collection,” says Bochner about his loud, provocative paintings that toy with synonyms. Go Away was acquired with the help of museum supporters Jill and Peter Kraus in honor of Armstrong's departure. And since the former director is a personal friend of the artist, Bochner also donated one of his vivid Blah, Blah, Blah paintings “in recognition of Richard's brilliant tenure at the museum.”
While Bochner’s work has long been exhibited worldwide, local connections make the new installation that much more intriguing. He grew up near the corner of Beechwood Boulevard and Wilkins Avenue in Pittsburgh’s East End (“it wasn’t called Point Breeze back then,” he notes) and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University in 1962. Though he no longer has family in the area, Bochner’s 2004 collaboration with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh brought him back to his roots. Their innovative Kraus Campo, in its simplest form a rooftop garden, crowns Carnegie Mellon's Posner Center, just a few hundred yards from the Museum of Art. The garden plays with shapes and numbers, and turns a quote by one of Bochner’s favorite philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, inside-out. When deciphered, Bochner notes, it’s a metaphor for the garden as a labyrinth.
That fascination with language and its interpretation in visual art developed from an early age. “My father was a sign painter,” says Bochner. “That certainly has something to do with the way my work has evolved.”
Meyer Bochner painted window signs, signs above stores, and paper signs in shop windows. “At one time, about a third of the signs on Forbes Avenue, from the university to Magee Women’s Hospital, were painted by him,” his son recalls proudly. “A big client was the Original Hot Dog [Shop],” the famous Oakland landmark.
Bochner also clearly recalls his first drawings of letters and numbers. “My mother saved everything I ever did—even the first-grade papers where you traced over the numbers. Some of them look remarkably like what I do now!” he says with a laugh. “My work is about unlearning what I learned, then re-learning it from my own experience.”
Bochner’s art education began when he was chosen to attend the Museum of Art’s Saturday art classes as a third grader at Linden Elementary School. “Each week, six kids were picked to come up on stage and do a large-scale pastel drawing to reproduce their drawing from the previous week. And everybody would clap,” he recalls. “You can imagine what that meant. They would call on a Thursday morning to tell your mother you were ‘on the easel.’ You’d race home—‘did they call? Did they call?’ It was huge. And the classes got me into the museum every week. [Staff artist] Ottmar von Fuehrer was then creating his murals in the old dinosaur hall—his gigantic T. rex. I would sit on the floor for hours watching him, high up on the scaffold, painting. I was mesmerized.”
In 1964, the young Pittsburgher headed to New York. “I was—what’s the word I’m looking for?—provincial. I was completely unfamiliar with the contemporary art scene,” he confesses. “Pop was being established. Minimalism was beginning. Abstract Expressionism was waning. There were so many exciting young artists at work.” Short on cash, he turned to writing brief art reviews for Arts Magazine. “It put me in the trenches,” he says. “I was confronting the work of serious artists who had thought through what they were doing—and I learned that I must do that at the same level.”
Forty-seven years later, as Blah Blah Blah and Go Away attest, Bochner remains fascinated by words. The vivid fields of color on his canvases interfere with the viewer’s comprehension of the text, turning words into objects.
These days, his teenaged daughter brings new forms of language to his attention. “A perfect example is text messaging; I had my daughter Piera teach me. The language that exists is really a new kind of shorthand—u for you, cd for could. I’ve thought about how to use text messaging in my art,” though he adds he has not yet found a way “to make it interesting.”