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National Gallery of Art Presents Mel Bochner Thesaurus Works

The National Gallery of Art in Washington presents Mel Bochner’s Thesaurus Works on view, November 6, 2011–April 8, 2012.

In the Tower: Mel Bochner presents 43 thesaurus-inspired works from the last 45 years, including many new and unseen works from his studio. The exhibition provides a compelling view of Bochner’s early and recent work—of the young as well as the mature artist.

In the Tower: Mel Bochner is the latest installment of the Gallery’s series of exhibitions devoted to contemporary art, and the first to be devoted to the work of a living artist.

“Bochner’s thesaurus works force us to look at and think about the words we use; they are portraits of how we speak,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are grateful to Mel for parting with so many drawings and paintings to make this exhibition possible.”

Bochner’s thesaurus series is a format developed by the artist during the 1960s and reprised in the last decade. Born in Pittsburgh in 1940, Bochner received a BFA from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1962 and moved to New York City in 1964, where he became involved in two of the major movements of the period—minimal and conceptual art.

From 1966 to 1968 Bochner made portraits in ink on graph paper based on a descriptive word and its synonyms found in Roget’s Thesaurus. The shapes and words of these drawings evoke such figures as Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Smithson. Bochner’s famous portrait of Eva Hesse from 1966, a circle of synonyms for the word “wrap,” alluding to the rounded forms of Hesse’s art, is on view for the first time in its original frame—a delicate tape and glass construction made by Hesse herself. Portrait of Robert Smithson (1966), based on the thesaurus entry for “repetition,” suggests Smithson’s interest in seriality. Several works in this group of drawings represent friends and acquaintances from the early days of the minimalist and conceptual art movements and have never been shown.

In 2001 Bochner again turned to the thesaurus to develop a series of paintings and drawings derived from everyday speech. Writing out lists of words in his notebooks, he produced a new kind of drawing that ultimately led to the Thesaurus paintings. Boldly colored and impressive in scale, these works are among the most ambitious of his career. These recent drawings include bubbles and arrows that divulge his working method, revealing the paint colors he uses while completing a canvas.

Ten large paintings are installed in the main gallery of the Tower, including four major diptychs that are on view for the first time: Master of the Universe (2010), Oh Well (2010), Amazing! (2011), and Babble (2011). Unlike the black-and-white formats of the ink portraits of the 1960s, the large paintings revisit traditions of modernist painting such as the checkerboard works of Piet Mondrian and the Alphabet paintings of Jasper Johns while depicting everyday speech in a variety of color palettes.

Charcoals—including a second, larger portrait of Hesse from 2001—reveal Bochner’s process of erasure and covering up. Still drawn from Roget’s Thesaurus and dictionaries of slang, the language in the later works is informal and crude, reflecting the evolution of spoken English since the 1960s and into the digital age.

The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are at all times free to the public. They are located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, and are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Gallery is closed on December 25 and January 1. For information call (202) 737-4215 or the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) at (202) 842-6176, or visit the Gallery’s Web site at

Image; Mel Bochner, Sputter, 2010 oil on canvas Courtesy of Hadley Martin Fisher Collection (HMF) © Mel Bochner 2011

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