Artist Mel Bochner obscures words to reveal their dangerous potential

"All abuses of power begin with the abuse of language.” On a limited edition cover for Document's Spring/Summer 2020 issue, Bochner responds to the pandemic with a warning from the past

In 1970, Mel Bochner revealed a text-based wall piece titled “Language Is Not Transparent” at Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. The groundbreaking conceptual work has been displayed several times over the ensuing 50 years, but never once appears as it has before. (This would be near-impossible, as Bochner typically painted and scribbled directly on the gallery wall, allowing the paint to drip and bleed right down to the gallery floor—a method that was revolutionary in its blurring of the distinction between work and setting.) With each iteration, “Language Is Not Transparent” forces us to think harder about the opaque nature of words. Bochner has created the work in languages ranging from English and French to Flemish to Yiddish, and often scrawls the same sentence so many times it morphs into babble. “Language Is Not Transparent” might not be Bochner’s most confrontational work linguistically—his other text-based pieces from that era declare, “EVERYBODY IS FULL OF SHIT,” or ask us, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND?” But its central warning is endlessly pertinent.

The most recent iteration of “Language Is Not Transparent” appears on Document’s Spring/Summer 2020 issue. In a limited edition art cover responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bochner translated the work into 15 different languages—“I have a friend who’s an ambassador at the United Nations,” he explained—all superimposed to conceal and confound any literal readings whatsoever. The resulting black-and-white image reflects the chaotic nature of the world right now while reminding us there are truths to be found beneath all the bullshit. “My work attempts to address the hidden agendas and ideologies of language,” Bochner said in an artist statement. “To confront the barrage of bullshit that daily threatens to drown us. Because, as recent history has painfully taught us, all abuses of power begin with the abuse of language.”

Here Bochner talks to Document about isolation, irony, and why there’s no such thing as ‘innocent language.’

Hannah Ongley: What made you look to your 1970 work, ‘Language Is Not Transparent,’ as a starting point for the new piece?

Mel Bochner: A couple of years ago I had a show in Brussels. The thing about Belgium is that it’s dominated by two languages; French and Dutch. So for the exhibition, I did ‘Language Is Not Transparent’ in French and in Dutch, which seemed indicative of the political situation in that country. After I’d done that it occurred to me that, rather than having them parallel, I could have them superimposed. So I did that in my studio, then I thought, ‘Well, what about having other languages as well?’ Sort of a Tower of Babel idea.

Hannah: You also recently revisited another work from around the same period [as ‘Language Is Not Transparent’], 1969’s ‘Measurement Room.’ Is there something about that earlier particular time period, circa 1970, that feels important to you now? Or important for us to consider now?

Mel: I think of everything I’ve done, or that I’m doing, to be contemporary. I don’t see things as historically ‘past.’ When I have a chance, especially when it’s installation work—which doesn’t have a permanent format, like painting on a canvas, let’s say—it offers opportunities to bring the ideas of an earlier period into confrontation with the new historical context. So they’re never done exactly the same way. The Dia piece was just an opportunity—I don’t know if you know the spaces at Dia, they’re enormous.

Hannah: Dia was actually the last place I went to before the New York lockdown.

Mel: Then you saw my piece, it’s bigger than a football field.

Hannah: No, unfortunately! We were only allowed into the basement, it was after-hours, for a performance. But I was looking at the work, your work at Dia, online.

Mel: It was not done exactly the way the earlier ‘Measurement’ pieces were done. It was adjusted to that situation, to that historical context. I like to think that all ideas are continuously renewable. That’s sort of the reason why I do these things.

Hannah: How then does having your work on a magazine cover differ from having it on a wall or as an installation? Maybe it’s a matter of [the viewer’s] physical proximity to the work, or experiencing it in isolation, in the home rather than in a gallery surrounded by people…

Mel: Well that’s a really good question. There’s the work and there’s the representation of the work. They’re two different experiences. Part of the meaning of working with language and measurement—with words and numbers, and things which are readable to most people who speak that language—is that you’re working with ideas, and ideas can be transmitted in many different forms. I do think that seeing it live, in person—painted on the wall, for example—is a very different experience than seeing it on a magazine cover. But the number of people who are going to see it in an art gallery in Chelsea, or Tribeca, wherever, is very few. The number of people who are going to see it on a magazine cover is going to be exponentially larger. For an idea, a magazine cover is a perfect vehicle.

Hannah: I suppose that’s something, at this moment—a lot of artists must be trying to adapt their work, or at least get used to seeing their work, in a digital or print format rather than on a museum wall.

Mel: I think that’s right. But, you know, the reason why I do things is not for display. I don’t think about what anybody’s going to make of the work or what they think about it. I’m interested in making it clear and definitive for myself. And I figure I’m not that much different from anybody else. If I find it interesting, hopefully other people will find it interesting. If they do, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s okay too.

Hannah: Well, considering it’s been 50 years, it seems like people find it interesting.

Mel: Well, that’s certainly a gratifying thing, that something I did 50 years ago still interests people. That’s encouraging.

Hannah: You chose ‘clear’ and ‘definitive’ to describe the values that were important to you, and obviously those are things you consider in your artwork. I wonder if you think transparency in language is always a positive thing, or that opacity has an intrinsic virtue. Or can there be danger in being too opaque and revealing too much?

Mel: [Laughs] That’s a moral and political question.

Hannah: It is!

Mel: My feeling is that, with ‘Language Is Not Transparent’—not that you can’t see through it, because often you can—it always has an ideological point to make. There’s no such thing as innocent language, as we’ve learned over the last 75 years, 100 years. That has been made perfectly clear by the present political situation. Every abuse of power begins with the abuse of language. So we have to hold language to a certain skeptical standard. What does this mean? What is this saying? What is it hiding?

Hannah: How are you seeing the potential danger of words and language manifest itself in the present political situation, in this crisis?

Mel: They had a couple hundred calls in one day about people drinking Lysol.

Hannah: Is that the real stat on his claim? Insane.

Mel: Yep. So how dangerous is that? Pretty dangerous. I mean, words lead to actions. Actions have consequences.

Hannah: It seems like your previous artwork has a sense of humor to it. I don’t know if you would agree with that statement, but it feels like the humor is there even if it is shrouded in a sense of dread sometimes. Do you think there is humor to be found in this piece? Or in this moment?

Mel: [Laughs] ‘Shrouded with dread…’ I would like my work not to be monovocal—to have many voices, to evoke many responses. But I think it can take on different meanings to what I thought it meant when I made it. In other words, a new context changes the meaning. Humor is a weapon. It’s a way of engaging and holding a viewer. It’s not the same as making a joke, but a sense of irony, a meaning inside the meaning. And, I think, in terms of what they call ‘institutional critique’—institutions are very good at fending off direct assaults. They’re much less good at dealing with humor, irony, sarcasm. If they do take it too seriously, they look foolish. If they take it as a joke, they still look foolish.

I once had an opportunity for a commission for a major corporation, but when they figured out what the possible interpretations were, they said, ‘Corporation X does have a sense of humor, but we’re not about to make fun of ourselves.’ I think that pretty well sums things up. So, yes, if you catch the irony or the humor in my work, you’re not making it up. It’s there. But I think it’s there in a lot of art. In Duchamp, in Picasso, in Warhol. It’s a fundamental response to the human condition.