The strange process of illusion


There is something confounding – embarrassing sometimes -about minimalism. So spare and pared-down, just a shape in itself, non-figurative. A reduction to the essence. But the essence of what – what does it mean?

It was in part to escape this confounding essence, this in-your-face physicality of minimalism, that Mel Bochner, one of the founding figures of conceptual art, turned to photography. He wanted to get away from the object, and get behind the object, get at the process and the ideas behind the art, rather than the art itself.

The first work in the Sackler Museum exhibit, “Mel Bochner Photographs, 1966-69,” attempts straightforwardly to do just that. In “36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams,” Bochner created a series of structures made of simple wooden blocks based on a predetermined mathematical sequence (which he illustrated with numbers on a grid). He then photographed the structures in black and white against a stark white background, transforming them into two-dimensional floating geometries. At first glance, this series of photographs of abstracted block structures looks like a wall full of Escher images, a bunch of black and white geometric structures reminiscent of the suspended visual puns of the famous Dutch artist. The numbered diagrams, which Bochner includes above each series of photographs of the block structures, evoke the graphite studies for paintings from the Renaissance, in which carefully drawn perspectival rays revealed the minutely calculated blocking of the figures and objects within the composition.

Which was exactly Bochner’s point with these photographs. He was interested in those semi-hidden systems that define art – things like perspective and scale – those choices that the artist makes without us knowing that there are any choices being made at all. The explicit point of this work was to illustrate his particular creative process of calculation.

But for all the self-proclaimed clarity of Bochner’s purpose, there is also something enigmatic and weird about these images. Even as Bochner seems to be revealing his hand, he is blurring his sources, reconfiguring wooden blocks to resemble flattened etchings. In two other works, “H-2” and “H-3,” the artist blew up to massive proportions those same images of the block structures, and then mounted them on masonite, turning them into sculptural wall hangings measuring four feet by six. The wooden texture of the unfinished blocks, the magnified shadows and light of the unsanded material’s natural crevices, become materials themselves. These images, which in the previous work had been subsumed in the idea of their ordering, mere elements of a methodical composition, suddenly become blown up again into objects. So which is the art part of the art – the method or the thing? Bochner can’t quite seem to get away from physical form.

There is a cheekiness in all of this geometric sobriety, the sleight of hand and messing with your head. In another series of works, called “Perspective: One Point (Positive)” and “Perspective: Two Point (Negative),” Bochner covered a large table in a grid of tape, which he then shot at an angle, creating huge images of perpendicular black and white grids. We are meant to be looking at the very concept of perspective: As the titles indicate, the system which allows artists to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface is the subject of the work. But in “Convex Perspective,” a large photograph of a distorted white grid on a black background looks stubbornly three-dimensional, as though the center of the image were raised out into a convex point.

Even as you get closer, with that anticipation and dread that the illusion will collapse at any moment, it endures. And in the moment when you’re close enough to want to reach out, actually tempted to feel what still looks so real – then photography has suddenly become sculpture. Even as the viewer looks at the representation, the representation is acting on the viewer, creating illusions. That’s the little frisson of this kind of art, which undermines any sense of certainty that what you’re seeing is really what’s there. And for Bochner, the thing the viewer sees is not what matters. What matters is that process of distortion behind the image of whatever appears to be there.

It’s almost relieving though, when these abstracted distortions give way to more physical ones. Bochner made a series of large photographs by crumpling prints and then re-photographing those, creating two-dimensional images of blown-up crinkles and texture, playing again on the sculptural potential within photography. In “Perspective Insert (Collapsed Center),” Bochner overlaid one of his crumpled images on the center of the original, pristine image, creating a strange internal window within the photograph, like a view into the disturbed core of some all-too-ordered exterior. The ultimate effect is physical and, strangely – refreshingly – emotional. A little crumpled rage amidst all this overbearing process.

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