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Excerpts From Speculation (1967-1970)
Mel Bochner

For a variety of reasons I do not like the term “conceptual art.” Connotations of an easy dichotomy with perception are obvious and inappropriate. The unfortunate implication is of a somewhat magical/mystical leap from one mode of existence to another. The problem is the confusion of idealism and intention. By creating an original fiction, “conceptualism” posits its special nonempirical existence as a positive (transcendent) value. But no amount of qualification (or documentation) can change the situation. Outside the spoken word, no thought can exist without a sustaining support.

A fundamental assumption in much recent past art was that things have stable properties, i.e., boundaries. This seemingly simple premise became the basis for a spiraling series of conclusions. Boundaries, however, are only the fabrication of our desire to detect them . . . a trade-off between seeing something and wanting to enclose it. For example, what we attribute to objects as “constancy of size,” during their progressive diminution when we walk away from them, is not a set of snapshot images gradually blending together. Concentration produces the illusion of consistency. Sight itself is prelogical and without constants (out of focus). The problem is that surrendering the stability of objects immediately subverts any control we think we have over situations. Consider the possibility that the need to identify art with objects is probably the outgrowth of the need to assign our feelings to the things that prompt them.

The “history of art” and the “history of painting andsculpture” are not the same, but merely coincident at some points.

Immediate experience will not cohere as an independent domain. Memories tend to be remains, not of past sensations, but past verbalizations. The discussion of much recent art has attempted the substitution of stimulus information for sensation (exterior vs. interiorization). This has not resolved discreteness with continuity. Perception of an object is generally preconceived as taking place within a point-by-point time. This disconnected time, a lingering bias of tense in language, restricts our experiencing the conjunction between object and observation. When this conjunction is acknowledged, “things” become indistinguishable from events. Carried to its conclusion, physicality, or what separates the material from the nonmaterial (the object from our observation), is merely a contextual detail. A structure that concerns the nonobject oriented artist is the language that he uses to formulate his thoughts. There is nothing inherently antivisual about this pursuit. Works of art are not illustrations of ideas.

If, as it has been said, time presupposes a view of time, perception also includes its presuppositions. Perception is geared to cancel out whatever is stray or unaccountable. “Back-ground” is characterized negatively as the unclear, indistinct, and nonarticulated. But background is neither the margin nor fringe of the implicit. It is only through the function of its “opening out” that we are presented with a passage to the density of things. The realm of ideas is the operative link preceding any of the forms of objectness: it is an expanse of directions, not dimensions; of settings, not points; of regions, not planes; of routes, not distances. Beneath materiality are not merely facts but a radiation spreading out beyond dimensionality, involvement, and signification.

What if we were to think only about the place from which works of art enter our consciousness? Five possibilities come to mind:
1) what we look up at
2) what we look down upon
3) what we see straight on
4) what we are surrounded by
5) what is not seen by looking
(One dividend of such an approach could be the erasure from our minds of all vestiges of the listless “object quality” of paintings, or the leaden “specific materials” of sculpture.) We could then simply concentrate on where we are looking. Consideration of “where” implies more than an ontology of position. It suggests that differentiations by style need not be made and then transformed into values. All art exists as it exists within its own described set of conditions. The only esthetic question is recognition . . . re-cognition . . . thinking it again.

A desire to eliminate “furniture” from art is not nihilistic. What does initially appear “sterile” is an attitude that establishes nothing, produces little, and by its very nature cancels out results. Also there is the gratuitousness of being unwilling to transform the world or accumulate in it . . .

At the risk of appearing self-contradictory, I do not believe art is understood through intellectual operations, but rather that we intercept the outline of a certain manner of treating (being in) the world.

Thinking via the constant intervention of procedures, one over another, filters out the arbitrariness of conventional thought patterns. Any sort of in-formation or re-formation can be diverted by externally maintained constants. The fascination with seriality and modular form (which continues, disguised, in the work of many artists) made it possible, at one point, to clarify and distinguish the processes involved in the realization of the work of art. Ordered proceduralism often led to an inversely proportional visual complexity. Suppression of internal relational concerns opened the way for the involvement with ideas beyond the concentricity of objects. It became apparent that the entire foundation of art experienced from a “point of view” was irrelevant to art of attenuated size or total surround, i.e., works without experienced centers. A case in point is the work made in and for a single place. Wall-works, for example, simply bypass double supports. Marks on the wall, here forward and in view, there only peripherally visible, held where they are by the wall’s mass . . . spread along the surface. They cannot be “held,” only seen. As such they are neither copy nor paradigm. Art of this nature is not secondly present. Its uniqueness (single placedness) is its coexistent unity with its own appearance.

Formalist art is predicated on a congruency between form and content. Any artist who considers this dichotomy either irreconcilable (or desirable) is no longer interested in formal relationships. For this artist the activity of making is not equivalent to the informing of content (a more appropriate word would be “intent”). Certain intents are capable of various equally viable realizations.

Imagination is a word that has been generally banned from the vocabulary of recent art. Associations with any notion of special power reserved for artists or of a “poetical world” of half-dreams seem particularly unattractive. There is, however, within the unspecified usage of the word a function that infuses the process of making and seeing art. The root word “image” need not be used only to mean representation (in the sense of one thing referring to something other than itself). To re-present can be defined as the shift in referential frames of the viewer from the space of events to the space of statements or vice versa. Imagining (as opposed to imaging) is not a pictorial preoccupation. Imagination is a projection, the exteriorizing of ideas about the nature of things seen. It reproduces that which is initially without product. A good deal of what we are “seeing” we are, in this sense, actually imagining. There is an overlap in the mind of these two dissimilar activities. We cannot see what we cannot imagine.

One does not frequently think with his eyes closed, although what one is thinking at any moment need not be directly concerned with what one is looking at. A nonvisual thought (one without background) seems highly unlikely.

Ultimately, description as a critical method fails. Pretending to a nonsubjective rendering of the object, it cuts off the peripheral pressures of experience. When visual data is accepted as the only basis of apprehension, there is no possibility for an account of intentions. At the same time, descriptive self-enclosure does not create itself as its own sole recipient.

Would anything change if sensible things were conceived of as “across” space, rather than “in” space? First, objects would cease to be the locus of sight. Then, no longer centers in themselves, they would demand to be perceived as the organization by everything around them. What might result from this conjecture is a sense of trajectory rather than of identity. What common sense has always presented as a unity (objects) become only the negatives in a field of determinants. Opaque, yet fragmented, what is seen is only what stops my view beyond . . . it is in front of me but without being in depth. Profiled in this way, matter surrenders its obstinate chunkiness to reveal only a position in a cross section of orientations and levels, these levels merge on but one plane into dimensional sense data. And even on this plane, thought can efface them.

A procedural work of art is initiated without a set product in mind. In a piece of this kind the interest is only in knowing that the procedures, step by step, have been carefully and thoroughly carried through. The specific nature of any result is contingent on the time and place of implementation, and is interesting as such. It is the “proceeding” that establishes it.

On approaching the threshold of nonenduring art, we can easily postulate an art of microseconds . . . but rarely see it. Why does art have to be any more distinct than peripheral vision? I do not mean this in the sense of “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t.” I am imagining an art which by taking up all the expected requirements of our basic modes of perception would, in so doing, render itself invisible.

In the context of visual art what could the term “dematerialization” mean? I find that it contains an essential contradiction that renders it useless as an idea. The inherent weakness is revealed when the derivation of the term is examined. Tracing the origin of the idea leads one back to the basic confusion in the notion of “abstraction.” All “abstract art” is premised on the belief in a first-level reality composed of constituent and separate qualities. In order to arrive at a truer “reality,” the abstract artist must take apart this composite structure. The act of disjointure was to result in an intensification of the abstracted quality (color, shape, texture, etc.). This then became the material for further manipulation. The entire substructure of this concept is flawed. It simply is not possible to break things down into classifiable components, at least not without destroying the essential unity that is their existence. The blue of my typewriter is inseparable from its smooth surface. The blue-smooth surface was not created by combining a “blue” with a “smooth.” Abstraction is an analytical method and not a reversible equation. One further step along this same line of reasoning yields “dematerialization.” If all qualities are taken away, you have de(no)-materialization (components). But given the evidence that abstraction itself is without credible grounds, can one derive from it a second level . . . a completely nonontological art? My disagreement with dematerialization goes beyond a squabble with terms. There is no art that does not bear some burden of physicality. To deny it is to descend to irony. Words set up circumstances for understanding, and this particular one only perpetuates old confusions. It is misleading to the intentions of artists finding different ways for art to come into being . . . and both how and how long it stays there.

Reprinted from Artforum (May, 1970).