Mel Bochner's Theory of Sculpture: Fontana's Light

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Walking into the Mel Bochner show at Marc Selwyn Fine Art is a little like entering an observatory, but looking down instead of up at the sky. On the concrete floor are simple chalk marks, drawings of circles and lines and lists of numbers. Strategically placed among them are large chunks of richly colored glass that look like emeralds, rubies and sapphires glistening in the reflected light like stars. Minimal? You bet, yet memorably and unpredictably uplifting nonetheless. The title of the show and the story behind it add to the intrigue. Called Theory of Sculpture: Fontana's Light, the pieces extend the visual language of the influential Italian artist Lucio Fontana, who worked with broken glass in the 1950's and 60's.


Mel Bochner, Meditation on the Theorem of Pythagoras, 1972 / 1991
47 glass stones and chalk on floor, 55 x 50 inches

Bochner first rose to prominence in 1966 with Conceptual art and his work is often about systems, about ideas. His writing is astringent and lucid yet, as critic Eleanor Heartley observed, "In Bochner's work, perception constantly trumps idea, reaffirming the artist's belief that the sensuous is an essential element in even the most conceptual art."



Mel Bochner, Five By Four, 1972 / 1991
20 glass stones and chalk on floor, 52 x 52 inches

In 1991, when Bochner was living in Rome, he was approached by art dealer Sergio Casoli to show at his gallery in Milan, which had once been the studio of Fontana. In a dusty back room, Bochner found all of Fontana's old art materials, including the Murano glass that he had smashed to bits to attach to his paintings. Bochner said that opening the box was like opening Ali Baba's cave, filled as it was with chunks of raw glass in the "most beautiful and luminous shades imaginable." Bochner made what he considers sculptures with the chalk drawings and glass but assumed that over the years, those delicate pieces had been lost. Then, thanks to Google, his L.A. art dealer, Marc Selwyn, was able to locate Casoli as co-author of a book on Fontana. He was contacted and they discovered that Casoli had saved the glass!


Mel Bochner, 5 Stones / 4 Spaces (Hinge), 1972 / 2012
9 glass stones and chalk on floor, 26 x 26 inches

Last September, 20 years after Bochner had visited Fontana's studio, a crate was sent to him and inside was an old gym bag with each piece of glass carefully wrapped in a sheet of 1992 Italian newspaper. In this way, Bochner's sculptures could be recreated at Selwyn. Like Sol Lewitt, John Baldessari and other conceptual artists, Bochner feels some of his works exist as primarily as ideas and other people can follow his directions in executing the pieces. That was the case with the chalk drawings and the placement of the glass. In reconnecting to this older work, with its jewels of color, Bochner realized it was a precedent to his more recent paintings of words, which are often executed in bright colors.

The show continues through April 27.

Banner image: Mel Bochner, Cardinal vs. Ordinal 5, 1972/1991; 15 glass stones and chalk on floor; 26 x 31 inches. All photos courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art