[lg policy] From Guard to Guarded

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 2 16:35:12 UTC 2012


When he was a guard at the Jewish Museum in New York nearly 50 years ago,
Mel Bochner was leading a double life. “I would work at the museum all day
and paint all night,” he recalled in a telephone interview. “I would come
to work tired. One day I got caught taking a nap behind a Louise Nevelson
sculpture and got fired.”

Back then the Jewish Museum was where artists like Jasper Johns and Robert
Rauschenberg had major exhibitions well before they were as famous as they
are today. “It was the premier venue,” Mr. Bochner recalled. “I never
thought I’d have a show there.” But at 72, Mr. Bochner is poised to be the
subject of an exhibition scheduled to open in May 2014. It will focus on
his thesaurus-inspired paintings — canvases that chart his nearly 50-year
exploration of words, language and text.

In anticipation of the show, the museum recently acquired his newest
thesaurus painting, “Joys of Yiddish” (2012). Painted in glazes of vibrant,
greenish yellow scrawled over a black surface are words like kibitzer and
kvetcher; nudnik and nebbish. Over the years, Mr. Bochner said, he has seen
these words from the “ghetto language” that he had heard as the son of an
immigrant seep into the mainstream of American life.

The genesis of this painting dates to 2006, when the Spertus Museum in
Chicago asked Mr. Bochner to decorate a 50-foot barricade in front of a
construction site for a museum addition. He created a work with a boldly
lettered list of 24 Yiddish terms. When Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator at
the Jewish Museum, saw it, he asked Mr. Bochner to create a canvas version.
Mr. Bochner eventually did. It is his first work to enter the Jewish
Museum’s collection and was purchased from his dealer, Peter Freeman.

“It’s all the Yiddish that has made it into the American vernacular,” said
Mr. Kleeblatt, who is also organizing the 2014 exhibition. “It has that
kind of bifurcation of nostalgia and discomfort, that edge between language
and painting. Do you read the words or look at the painting?”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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