Whitechapel Gallery's current exhibition is the first major survey of New York based artist Mel Bochner to be held in the UK. Widely regarded as one of the pre-eminent figures associated with American conceptual art since the 1960s, an opportunity to view a selection of his works spanning the beginning of his professional career, right up until the present day, is one that should not be missed.

Bochner's practice has been seen to reflect on the triumphant claims of neo-avant-garde Abstraction Expressionist painting and other Modernist endeavours originating in New York City during the late 1940s and 1950s. If Jackson Pollock and other painters championed by art critic Clement Greenberg took the conquest of their medium as subject, then artists including Bochner sought to complicate conceptual engagement with the visual arts in addition to a reflection on contemporary materials.

The first work viewers will encounter, Blah, Blah, Blah, (2010) consists of ten panels mounted in two rows of five, aligned horizontally across the wall. The word "BLAH" is repeated forty times across ten black velvet grounds. This work is a recently realised example of the artist's on-going "Thesaurus Paintings" project. Initiated through an interest in Roget's Thesaurus, Bochner has since the mid-1960s examined the objectification of language as a form of representation. Here, the painted letters that make up the text on the surface of the work were prepared using stencils, which are then fed through a hydraulic press and applied to the velvet surfaces under significant force. The result is precisely rendered lettering mixed with a build-up of surplus oil paint. Colour seems at certain points to have separated from the oil and consequently splattered across the picture plane. In some respects the word "BLAH" might be though of as onomatopoeic. The sound accompanies the associated physical movement of pronunciation, at which point both language and the act of painting begin to be thought of as performative.

Other works in this series take one word, or short phrase, as a starting point and develop aleatory – though usually vulgar – synonyms from top to bottom. Works such as Master of the Universe (2010) include phrases like, "GOTCHA BY THE BALLS", which might be considered as a relatively recent linguistic development, derived from contemporary speech. Elsewhere, the work Obscene (2006) includes the characters "$#@!!!%?*&…" as part of its textual progression, calling into question certain disjunctions between language transcribed and language spoken. An alternating mix of colour is matched with serial textual developments descending the surface of the canvas. The lettering on these canvases is hand rendered, and very much evokes the skill of a sign painter. No planning goes into the works ahead of their conception, meaning that their making is very much in keeping with a kind of alter-compositional stream of consciousness.

The title of the exhibition, If the Colour Changes, alludes to several aspects of Bochner's work. Firstly, in the "Thesaurus Paintings", colour variation means that the viewer is forced to moved their body around in front of the paintings in order to clearly read all of the words. However, if the colour changes, what else might? Another key work in the exhibition is Theory of Painting (1970), remade and installed at Whitechapel. Blue spray paint covers newspaper pages spread across the floor, arranged in four sections according to an accompanying label suggesting the arrangement of each."COHERE/DISPERSE" for instance, dictates that the alignment of the newspaper pages is uniform – the blue spray paint is dispersed and fragmented. "COHERE/COHERE" means that the newspaper is once again arranged in a grid-like formation, the paint this time forms a complete rectangle on the newspaper ground. The installation of the work can be related to the legacies of modernist painting, where artists including Pollock removed the canvas from the traditional easel during the painting process, and placed it on the floor. However, it is also important to note other conceptual aspects of this piece. For instance, the work is made with materials of the everyday, departing from those that may usually be associated with "high art". Furthermore, the dating of the "current" newspaper stories printed on the pages is paralleled by the discolouring or ageing of the paint that will occur over the course of the exhibition.

At the top of the stairs, between the ground floor and first floor level of the show, the artist has recreated another of his seminal works. A black rectangle is painted directly on the wall, which plays host to the chalked-out words, "2. NO THOUGHT EXISTS WITHOUT A SUSTAINING SUPPORT". Recalling to some degree the pedagogy of the schoolroom blackboard, the formal qualities of this piece challenge the temporality of thought and opacity of language. If thoughts themselves resist fixed meaning, then so does the idea communicated through the text, according to the ethereality of its medium.

The significance of Bochner's work resides in the deceptive simplicity of his gestures. At once polemic and playful, the viewer is encouraged to carefully consider what he or she sees or knows. Thoughts might be fleeting; their realisation here provisional. But it is through experience of these works that the viewer is encouraged to measure reading against looking, at which point Bochner's provocation becomes provocative

Mel Bochner, at Whitechapel GalleryTom Snow reviews Mel Bochner's If the Colour Changes at the Whitechapel Gallery.4