Mel Bochner's Syncline was painted on a wall at Carnegie Institute in May 1981. Shortly after the installation Bochner explained his choice of title:
This piece deals with opposing forces, and so I chose a geological dictionary to look for titles. It's not an illustration since the paintings came first. A syncline occurs in plate tectonics; where two land masses meet and one slides under the other, you get a syncline, a slippage. A similar kind of force happens across this curve, a slippage that goes outside and inside. But the word is only an analogy; it's not the meaning. It's just the title, and I don't see a title as being a lot more than an identification.
Although the composition of Syncline is clearly and carefully worked out, on first viewing it seems to be a more or less arbitrary assemblage of geometric shapes executed in bright but harmonious colors. In fact, it is based on four units made up of triangles, squares, and pentagons, whose presence is implied but not immediately apparent. Bochner described this substructure in the following terms:
There are four units in this piecethe blue, the brown, the yellow and the violet. Each one of those four units is composed of three tangent parts a pentagon, a square, and a triangle. What interests me about these shapes is that each one of the four units is identical in area. However, depending on the order of the three parts, that is, if the square is tangent to the pentagon and the triangle is tangent to the pentagon; or the square and the pentagon are tangent to the triangle; or the triangle and the square are tangent to the pentagon on opposite sides; or the triangle is tangent to the square which is tangent to the pentagon, you get a completely different character of shape. The character of the yellow shape is not the same as the character of the violet shape. So, the same shapes can convey entirely different thoughts and meanings.
Bochner works out these complex and precise relations between the elements of his wall paintings by first using maquettes for the larger geometric shapes. Then he makes charcoal drawings to determine the size and position of the interior bands. Next comes a series of small color studies on paper which lead up to a full-scale painted study on his studio wall. After the studio installation Bochner made a series of three works on paper related to Syncline. Although they are preliminary to the public installation of the finished work and are clearly intended to be used in making it, they are in no way studies in the traditional sense. What they record is not the artist's creative processthat is, his search for a formal and iconographical unitybut rather the solution itself, already arrived at. In reality, these drawings are more like memoranda for the artist's own use, maps for reinstalling the painting in another location. ln 1980 it had been executed on the walls of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York and also at the Pittsburgh Plan for Art.
The first drawing, in pencil and red pencil, is a series of measurements of various parts of the composition. The second, in the same media with the addition of blue pencil, is a schematic color diagram of the pigments to be used, the artist's reminders to himself of how many coats of casein to use, and a record of the results he wished to avoid: "keep from going opaque," "get density," and so on. The last drawing is really another version of the second drawinganother reminder, this time in casein rather than in words, of which colors go where.
The drawings thus share with Bochner's other work a determined objectivity, a thoroughgoing intelligence that is found everywhere in the artist's oeuvre. There is nothing overtly "expressive" here, and the drawings are clearly meant for use, almost like architectural plans. They are tools that do not take into account the sites at which Syncline was painteda fact made evident by their being centered on the sheet with ample margins all around, quite unlike the final installation on the wall at Carnegie lnstitute, which almost touches the floor at the right and has far more blank space above than below it.
In fact, Bochner's drawings on paper deliberately preserve their separateness from the work of art itself. The wall painting, as Bochner has pointed out, "has no back," unlike these sheets of paper, the verso of which the artist used for another apparently unrelated composition. Moreover, their scale is enormously reduced, making impossible the experience of multiple points of view and the dependence on peripheral vision that are crucial to the effect of the finished work. On the wall Bochner's work takes on a mysterious life of its own. Resolutely matter-of-fact and two-dimensional, it has at the same time an oddly ethereal third dimension. Robert Pincus-Witten perceptively observed that he found Bochner to be "a kind of sculptor more than just a draftsman," a remark that probably originated in the complex and slightly disorienting experience of viewing Bochner's full-size work.
Here, in the drawings, no such illusory and indefinable three-dimensionality can occur. What they give us instead is a sense of the artist's resoluteness and the integrity with which he goes about making his art. Bochner's refusal to attempt to reproduce in another form the effects possible only in the full-scale work comes through strongly in the drawings; their honesty and absolute clarity give them an ascetic power.