Prim and Proper, Crude and Vulgar



Enough Said

Mel Bochner, Enough Said, 2012, oil on canvas, 24″ x 30″. © Mel Bochner

Our Spring issue, available now, features “Thesaurus Paintings,” a portfolio of text-based paintings and drawings from Mel Bochner. They have a focus on ordinary language, specifically the “emotional trajectory” that emerges when one riffs on words and phrases of a certain theme. The direction, Bochner says, is evident in

how one gets from the first word to the last word—from the prim and proper to the crude and vulgar. I concentrate a lot on the sense and sound of the language. The flow of words has to have a certain kind of rhythm—or a certain kind of lack of rhythm. That’s how the narrative of the painting is constructed.

You can see what he means by looking at Easy/Difficult, a painting that wends its way from a breezy, “easy” high point, to, well, “some deep shit,” as optimism shades into fatalism:


Easy/Difficult, 2014, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″.

The work often garners surprising reactions, as The New Yorker noted last year in an interview with Bochner:

“One of the guards came up to the curator and said that my show had meant a great deal to all of them, because of this painting,” Bochner said, gesturing toward Die, a thesaurus painting against a Pepto-Bismol-pink background that begins, “DIE, DECEASE, EXPIRE, PERISH, SUCCUMB, PASS AWAY.” “Some of them had looked at it and cried,” Bochner said. “Now, I couldn’t have anticipated that response. I never thought, What would a war veteran think looking at a painting that said, ‘Buy the farm, cash in your chips, kick the bucket’?” He paused. “You put these things out in the world and you just back off, let people make of it what they want.”

Born in Pittsburgh, in 1940, Bochner began to show his work in the midsixties; he designed a cover for The Paris Review’s Spring 1973 issue.


Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras.

As coincidence has it, he has a show up now with work very much in the vein of that cover: New Yorkers can see a collection of his early drawings at Craig F. Starr Gallery through May 22. Some samples:


Plan for Color Photo Piece, 1967, ink, felt tip pen, and pencil on graph paper, 13″ x 19″.


Solid with Three Volumes Subtracted, 1966, ink on graph paper, 5 1⁄2″ x 11″.


Mel Bochner, Triangulations (3/3/3), 1966, ink and spray paint on paper, 18 3⁄4″ x 24″.

 Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.