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Art for all

Philbrook’s new exhibit blurs the line between poetry and art

Mel Bochner is no poet.

At least, that’s what he says. While the eloquent contemporary artist’s ability to spin simple words into compelling art speaks the truths of our time similar to poetry, it’s the visual element that makes his work pop. Bochner’s exhibition, “Amazing! Mel Bochner Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation,” is on display now at the Philbrook Museum of Art, the exhibition’s debut venue.

The collection contains work from Bochner’s days as a budding artist in the 60s, playing with numbers and perspective, to his most recent work that you’ve probably already seen around town on billboards: large monospaced type with incredible depth, texture,
and color.

“Blah, Blah, Blah” and its numerous iterations are some of Bochner’s most popular works. The simple word repeated three times in large, textured yet uniform text, forces viewers to think about the word—and about the meaning of language and speech.

His evolution was gradual, but Bochner recalled a moment in 2002 when his “thesaurus works” came to life.

“I was writing something and I hadn’t brought my thesaurus with me, so I went to the book store and they had a very new edition of the thesaurus. And I bought it and was looking at it—and it wasn’t like the thesaurus I had in college, which I’ve kept all these years,” Bochner said. “It was a new kind of language. Obscenities. Very rough stuff. And I thought, this is really interesting because the thesaurus is a picture of language, and children get to look at this book. So that meant to me that the politics of language had changed.”

Entering the gallery on the left side, a striking piece will catch your eye, but the language it explores will be unfamiliar to many Tulsans. The vibrant yellow felt words contrast with a dark backdrop in “The Joys of Yiddish,” a nod to Bochner’s roots, and a reminder of the yellow felt stars Jews were forced to wear while Nazis ruled most of Europe.

As you make your way around the exhibit clockwise, Bochner’s earlier work starts to appear—work that followed the movements of abstract expressionism and pop art—and, though he loved both of those styles, Bochner wanted to carve out a space for himself. So he started using numbers and playing with perspective.

“I was trying to find something that could just belong to me. And it occurred to me that there’s nothing in the world that can just belong to you, but there are things that belong to everybody—so in a way, by belonging to everybody, they belong to nobody,” Bochner said. “There's a built in order [with numbers] that you adopt and you use, and I wanted to see how far I could take that and what I could do with that, and if I could even use that to make work that was interesting.”

One example is the 1979 piece “Range,” a silkscreen print that contains alternating sets of black and red numbers—zero through nine. Up close, the numbers are clear and legible, but take a few steps back and the interchanging black sets and red sets morph into strips of sporadic color. The work hinges on your perspective.

When asked why he was drawn to Mel Bochner, collector Jordan Schnitzer said it’s because artists are chroniclers of our time, and Bochner is one of the best because he uses symbols—words and numbers—that anyone can connect to, allowing his work reach broad audiences.

“If we look nationally about how we talk to each other, about discourse, about words and what they mean or do not mean, there is no one better in the art world today than Mel Bochner,” Schnitzer said. “[His work] forces us to deal with our thoughts and our words.”

Schnitzer and Bochner both stressed that art is for everyone. It’s not an elitist experience. Bochner’s work connects with anyone who uses words and numbers, with anyone who appreciates stunning variations of color and texture.

Schnitzer also emphasized the importance of approaching art without being overly analytical. “Go to a gallery, go to a street fair, go anywhere, and just look.” He relates this simple act of experiencing art to a particularly blissful brush with Oklahoma barbecue. “I was in heaven. The brisket was amazing. The links. The chicken. I didn’t sit there and think, ‘Well, How do they cook it? ... I’m just experiencing the flavors and the taste and feeling so lucky to be in Tulsa eating this barbecue that I love.”

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