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Mel Bochner

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Release Date: October 25, 2011 (Updated February 7, 2011)

Mel Bochner's Thesaurus Works on View at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, November 6, 2011–April 29, 2012


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

Washington, DC—Mel Bochner's renowned innovations in conceptual art come to life in the words he paints on canvas. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from November 6, 2011, through April 29, 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."

Exhibition Support

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Suzanne F. Cohen and The Kraus Family Foundation.

Additional support provided by Judith Racht and Irving Stenn Jr., The Exhibition Circle, and The Tower Project.

The Exhibition

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.

Exhibition Curator

The curator of the exhibition is James Meyer, associate curator, modern and contemporary art, National Gallery of Art.

A fully illustrated brochure is available in the exhibition.

Related Activities


Introduction to the Exhibition—In the Tower: Mel Bochner
Sunday, November 6, 2:00 p.m., East Building Auditorium
James Meyer, exhibition curator

Conversations with Artists: Mel Bochner
Wednesday, November 9, 3:30 p.m., East Building Auditorium
Mel Bochner in conversation with James Meyer


Regular public tours of In the Tower: Mel Bochnerwill be offered by the adult programs department of the education division.

In the Tower: Mel Bochner
Sally Shelburne
November 16, 23 at 12:00 noon
December 13 at 12:00 noon
January 21 at 12:00 noon
February 8, 28 at 12:00 noon
45 minutes
East Building Ground Level, Information Desk

ART TALK: In the Tower: Mel Bochner
James Meyer and Sally Shelburne
January 5, 11 at 12:00 noon
50 minutes
East Building Ground Level, Information Desk


The Gallery Shops will offer an array of related items for the In the Tower: Mel Bochner exhibition, including a postcard of the artist's brightly-colored text-based work Amazing! (2011). A selection of related books will also be available, such as Solar System and Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007 by Mel Bochner and Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties by James Meyer, and among others.