“Borges speaks of a labyrinth that is a straight line, invisible and unceasing,” wrote Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson at the beginning of “The Domain of the Great Bear” (1966), their picture-essay pastiche on the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, from which the title of Bochner’s new and long-awaited collection of writings and interviews is taken. (Evidently, it was a real piece of signage in the old planetarium.) The name of that labyrinth is, perhaps, language.
For centuries, it seems, art lingered near the mouth of that labyrinth; some of its adventures there, from the appearance of Annunciation scrolls in late medieval art through the use of newspaper fragments in Cubist collage, were traced by Michel Butor in his book Les Mots dans la peinture (1969). In the 1960s, though, art plunged deeper into the maze, and has yet to emerge. This tropism toward language is inextricable from the emergence of Conceptual art, with which Bochner’s protean early work is usually classified but is not simply synonymous. For art historians, the crux of the matter is this: Did Conceptual artists usher art into the realm of language (or language into the realm of art) or, on the contrary, did the fact that art had already become linguistic allow certain artists to invent a practice that could be called Conceptual art?
In the past, the assumption that Conceptual art was part of the heritage of modernist painting and sculpture made it reasonable to see the movement following in the footsteps of the highly discursive practices of late modernists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Thus, in 1971, Bochner wrote of Johns that “most essentially he raised the troubling question of the relationship of language to art”—but not in the sense that Johns began a process of reducing one to the other, as certain Conceptualists were to imagine they should do. Instead, Bochner explained, “His paintings demonstrated that neither was reducible to the other’s terms.” Likewise, in the earliest scholarly book to approach the theme of language in contemporary art, Art Discourse/Discourse in Art (1991), author Jessica Prinz focuses first on Johns before going on to discuss the work of Joseph Kosuth, Robert Smithson and Laurie Anderson.
A different thesis was put forth by Peter Osborne in his book Conceptual Art (2002); for him, John Cage was the key precursor, thanks to the composer’s reconceptualization of the notion of a musical score. Osborne thereby not only connected Conceptual art to a lineage outside the visual arts but also gave new weight in this story to the importance of what we can broadly term Fluxus. The Fluxus artists were generally denigrated or ignored by the Conceptualists and their admirers. Johns and Rauschenberg, though, were quite connected to Cage, and works like George Brecht’s event-structures and Yoko Ono’s instruction pieces arguably went deeply into the linguistic nature of art in the early ’60s, before canonical Conceptualism had taken hold in the middle of the decade.
Liz Kotz, in her book Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art, follows Osborne’s lead while rejecting Prinz’s narrative, though she does not mention either one; her book is weakened by the limited scope of its historiographical reference. On the other hand, she has delved into the sources, and as a result she gives the picture Osborne sketched out much greater substance and nuance. Like him, she takes the idea of the score as her starting point, beginning her book with a comparison between the several versions of the score that Cage produced over the years for his notorious silent composition 4'33" (first performed in 1952). Kotz shows how, as his understanding of the piece developed, Cage progressed from a version using conventional staff paper through a graphic notation to a written text. She then traces the consequences of this development in a number of language-based works from around 1960, in particular by Brecht and by the composer La Monte Young. Next, she turns her attention to Cage-inspired poetry by John Ashbery and Jackson Mac Low before going on to examine the relationship between the poetry of Carl Andre and Vito Acconci and their better-known works as visual artists. Finally, the confrontation between Fluxus and Conceptual art emerges as Kotz stages a compare-and-contrast of Brecht’s Three Chair Events (1961) and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965). Surprisingly, the fundamental difference Kotz discovers between the two lies in their relation to photography—in a turn “from participatory aesthetics to representational media”—which helps to explain the fact that Brecht and other artists of his milieu rarely incorporated photography into their work while Kosuth and other Conceptualists did so readily.
Having shown the linguistic turn in art to have been an accomplished fact well before the emergence of Conceptual art, however, Kotz uses this idea of a representational turn to “save” the originality of the movement by positing a “larger shift from the perception-oriented and ‘participatory’ post-Cage paradigms of the early 1960s to the overtly representational, systematized, and self-reflexive structures of Conceptual art.” This shift accounts for the difference between works such as Brecht’s event-structures, which take varied forms of realization based on a score, and those that allow for varied forms of representation based on an idea. Kotz’s diminution of the significance of language for Conceptual art is a novel and challenging move, all the more so because Kotz views this “larger shift” dialectically, aware as she is that it brings cognitive losses as well as gains: “If Brecht is programmatically unable to recognize the extent to which the indexicality of events structurally aligns them with the photograph, Kosuth’s Proto-Investigations rest on an unacknowledged relation to something like performance.” Photography had only a subsidiary role to play in Fluxus but became central to Conceptualist practices as “a result of the fact that the work of art has been reconfigured as a specific realization of a general proposition.” She goes on to argue that the “indexical” use of photography as a “seemingly neutral means of recording information” in turn influenced the linguistic usages of Conceptual art, as seen in text-plus-photo works by Douglas Huebler and Victor Burgin. As a logical but hard-to-swallow conclusion, she presents Andy Warhol’s rarely read and little appreciated a: A novel (1968), with its transcription of two days of conversations between Warhol and factory denizen Ondine, as the apotheosis of this indexical esthetic.
Kotz’s readings are richly exploratory but very selective; one sometimes wonders if she isn’t generalizing from too few examples. Among the many artists who are less crucial to her study than might be expected is Bochner. Reading through his criticism, statements and interviews from a period of more than 40 years, one is more impressed than ever with the power of his restless mind, so ready to stake everything on an extreme view yet equally able later to calmly reconsider and revise the view so passionately espoused. The principle Bochner never gives up on is that of self-criticism. Reading Bochner with Kotz’s analyses of representational modalities in mind, one notices with interest that his book includes not only various genres of writing (exhibition reviews; critical, speculative and historical essays; collages of quotations; notes; interviews; etc.), as one would expect, but also various modes of representing those writings visually, and it mixes them up in a canny and unconventional way. Writings here may be newly typeset (with or without illustration); they may be reproduced as facsimiles of the original layout of a publication, pictorially preserving its illustrations and typography; or they may be presented as photographs of handwritten note cards or notebook pages. Moreover, texts may be presented not as “texts” but as “illustrations” (e.g., Self-Portrait, 1966, one of a series of ink-on-graph-paper text “portraits” that Bochner made using Roget’s Thesaurus). By mixing these various modalities, Bochner continues to do what he has been doing all along: questioning the relation of language to representation and the manifold ways language can be a medium for artistic work.
In a stunning passage in his first extended piece of published writing, a consideration of the 1966 “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Bochner announces that “such words as ‘form-content,’ ‘tradition,’ ‘classic,’ ‘romantic,’ ‘expressive,’ ‘experiment,’ ‘psychology,’ ‘analogy,’ ‘depth,’ ‘purity,’ ‘feeling,’ ‘space,’ ‘avant-garde,’ ‘lyric,’ ‘individual,’ ‘composition,’ ‘life and death,’ ‘sexuality,’ ‘biomorphic,’ ‘biographic’—the entire language of botany in art—can now be regarded as suspect. These words are not tools for probing but aspects of a system of moralistic restriction.” This could be read as nihilistic posturing, but only to say that sometimes nihilistic posturing is right: concepts that might have been useful at one time or another—and may become useful again—are always threatening to become restrictive contrivances. Bochner’s strength is that he has never hesitated to cast them off. Over time, his writing has naturally tended to become more retrospective in character, but he has been no more willing to take his own earlier ideas on faith than those of others.
Already in 1973 he writes, “Baffled, I discover my art opaque to the very mind which postulated it. This reveals the absurdity of faith in ‘ideas,’ which are merely artifices of the mind devised to protect itself from itself.” Among the most fascinating of Bochner’s writings is a series of reconsiderations of modernist precursors—Matisse, Bonnard and, perhaps most surprisingly, Renoir, among others—which rigorously eschews the dead-end words of “moralistic restriction” he had earlier derided. But when he speaks of Cézanne’s “refusal to smooth out the gaps between thought and perception,” the sense of identification is patent—and earned.
The issues raised by Bochner’s work always resonate beyond the work; he makes you question things you never questioned before. Speaking about his measurement pieces in a previously unpublished interview from 1969 with curator Elayne Varian, the artist explains, “The way things are contained physically and mentally is an important issue to me. For example, the measurements that are marked on the wall around the sheet of paper read 36" x 48". However, to measure the entire work you must include the 2" width of the numbers, which makes the actual measurement of the piece 38" x 50". In other words, in order to contain the boundaries you must inevitably enlarge them, ad infinitum.”
Having been infected by Bochner’s fascination with the ever-receding nature of boundaries, I wonder about something that Kotz never explains or considers in her 45 pages on John Cage: If 4'33" is a work in three movements, of (in one of its versions) 33", 2'40" and 1'20", how can the work as a whole be only 4'33" long? Because if there are three movements, there are also two pauses between the movements—unscored silences between the scored silences, the times during which David Tudor, in the work’s first performance, closed and then reopened the keyboard to indicate the end of one movement and the beginning of another—and those two intervals must have increased the work’s actual length beyond that indicated in the title. Here, time is the infinite labyrinth. If time and silence are essential to Cage’s piece, why isn’t the actual length of 4'33" an issue for Kotz? I’m just asking.