Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Acts of Friendship on Display

Mel Bochner

(American, b. 1940)

Counting (1-100) with 5 Writing Instruments on Ellen Johnson’s Table, drawn in Ellen Johnson’s guestbook, 1972

Ink on paper

On display at the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin, Ohio


The making of this piece itself seems to have been an act of friendship, a shared moment.  As viewers, we must imagine that the significance of the moment went beyond the simple counting of numbers, that meaningful memories exist for those involved to which we will never be privy.  But it is a gift that we will never know them, because we must build our own scene.  Thus the work invites us in, to construct the scene at Ellen Johnson’s kitchen table along with Mel Bochner.

True, the full implication of this work may only have meaning for the select few who were there for its creation.  What prevents this from being a painful reminder that friendships, even at their most exuberant, can be exclusive?  The critic Van Wyck Brooks, whose music and literary criticism conversed with American art’s conception of itself during the early 20th Century, proclaimed that the best art would neither blindly embrace nor entirely rebuke entrenched tradition.  He coined a famous term, “usable past,” to represent the idea of putting traditional narratives and institutions to use inclusively and constructively rather than destructively rejecting them as exclusive relics.  Bochner’s counting puts Brooks’ vision into practice by using the institution of art exhibition, not to be stuffy or pretentious, but to invite the whole host of people who will visit the museum to observe, imagine, and ultimately enter into what would otherwise be a private inside joke among an exclusive handful of friends.  The museum saves the guestbook from being exclusive.  The guestbook is dependent upon the institution of the art museum for its ability to extend an inclusive offer of friendliness, and in turn this friendliness elevates and redeems the art museum, generally seen as an exclusive and snobbish institution.

As for the contents of the page itself, we are seeing a literal and symbolic act of friendship on display.  We have been talking in class about how repetition and the mundane are elevated to a place of importance in friendship.  Bochner’s repeated count symbolizes both: one hundred simple numbers repeated in the same way, in the same order, a repetitive act but one which we are taken to believe has meaning because of its association with Ellen Johnson’s table and guestbook; the same for its mundanity, nothing fancy in the pattern of the numbers, counting, an everyday task.  Even the place of the repetition is mundane, ordinary and everyday, a table—but intimate and unique because of the person whose table it is and who uses it.  A friendship makes the table—and the act of counting to a hundred—into a meaningful and fertile platform.

What is it a platform for?  Literally, it is a medium for trying out a variety of writing utensils, each with its own qualities which make the numbers slightly different each time.  The way a variety of friends, with their unique qualities, bring out different aspects of their fortunate friend.

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