On the eve of a major retrospective, painter Ross Bleckner has to face an unpleasant fact. He's just too, too popular.
"Show me another profession where you can take a nap," quips Ross Bleckner in his soothing, affable way as we drink coffee in the skylit living room of this TriBeCa loft. A young man puts away what remains of the vegetarian curry with white rice he prepared for lunch-young men, in fact, keep coming and going-and Bleckner muses on stardom. "Success is all about the fantasy you create for yourself," he says. And what about his own celebrity? Firecrackers explode nearby-it's the Chinese New Year-and Bleckner jumps a bit. "That has nothing to do with my work," he says irritably. "I wish my life were as exciting as those people make it out to be."
Call it art-world sniping, but denigration of Bleckner has become routine, even obligatory ever since that August evening in 1993 when Bleckner threw a benefit party for the Community Research Initiative on AIDS (CRIA) on his Sagaponack estate (formerly Truman Capote's summer retreat), and Barry Diller, Bianca Jagger, and "Styles of the Times" showed up. Suddenly, Bleckner, the gay activist, the mentor to young artist, the sweet, awkward, again ingenue still learning to be what his dealer, Mary Boone, once advised him to be -"a big artist"- had become something else: A high society fund-raiser. A schmoozer. A socialite. An opportunist.
Bleckner means a lot of things to a lot of people, which is one reason we're lingering on the subject. As a rather astoundingly large mid-career retrospective of some 70 paintings goes up at the Guggenheim in March, Bleckner, at 45, seems on the verge of apotheosis, a man about to experience genuine American fame. (That he's an early beneficiary of a new Guggenheim policy mandating more mid-career surveys of American artists doesn't undermine what amounts to the sanctification of his work.) Yet no major figure on the art scene since Andy Warhol has inspired such knee-jerk dismissal on the basis of his social life-and at least Warhol was making smirky art about celebrity. There's a little irony in Bleckner's eager embrace of society, and that makes people uneasy. "Artists shouldn't be starving in the gutter," says a prominent SoHo art dealer who asked not to be identified, "but they should aspire higher than the consumer culture they're supposed to transcend."
Envy abounds. It's even murmured that Bleckner, the son or relatively well-to-do parents from Long Island, did some palm-greasing along the way. He did, in fact, lend money to art critic Gary Indiana when the writer was broke in the latter half of the eighties, two years after Indiana gave Bleckner a good review in The Village Voice. Otherwise, Bleckner's record looks squeaky-clean, and he doesn't seem the type to use such strategies, anyway. The Blecknerian assault is charmingly direct; You see him sizing you up - your age, sexual preference, intelligence, knowledge about art, potential friendliness or unfriendliness. He makes the give-and-take of high-end networking seem natural, even appealing; Benignly cunning in a Bill Clinton sort of way, he finds the middle ground, connects with you, makes deals with you. He has never "strategized with an art dealer," he says sharply, but as his friend the artist Barbara Kruger puts it, "Ross has always had a very examined relationship to power. If you understand power, and you're smart, you never believe your own hype. You don't get deluded."
There are no books in the studio; the paint tubes are neatly aligned; turpentine sits in burnished copper bowls on polished wooden tables. In a large white room that forms on half of the studio, Bleckner has put five new paintings up for view. Up on the top floor, a quiet patio garden resembles a landscape miniature; in the apartment, the towels draped over a radiator look as though they were cast in bronze. Bleckner's dachshund, Mini, wiggles around happily. It's like a vast still life - everything is studied, everything is considered. Raw authenticity is not Bleckner's style.
Both studio and apartment are in a building he owns - six run-down floors on a scruffy block on White Street. The real-estate holding is the keystone to Bleckner's rich-kid image, since his father lent him the money to buy it in 1974, when he was first starting out as an artist. In a 1984 review of a show at Mary Boone, for example, critic Brooks Adams wrote that "perhaps because he does not have to paint for a living, Bleckner can afford to have the last laugh." On the other hand, his father paid less than $100,000 for the building-the price of a studio apartment today-and the criticism sounds odd coming from a community where so many are renters or marry well. "It's a very sixties notion, that to be an artist you have to have suffered," says Michael Goff, editor-in-chief of Out and one of Bleckner's protégés.
The suburb Bleckner grew up in-Hewlett Harbor, in one of the famous Five Towns-was indeed, in the 1960s, a warehouse for much of Manhattan's freshly accumulated wealth. What he remembers of his childhood and adolescence, however, is crashing his Pontiac GTO and a sense of alienation he later described in Art in America as "a certain sadness"- the estrangement he felt as a gay youth: "I would mimic the social strategies I saw, but I knew that for me they didn't have resonance."
After graduating George W. Hewlett High School in 1967 - other students from the era included Donna Karan; Sam LeFrak's daughter Francine, the producer; the photographer Susan Meiseles; and Art & Auction editor Bruce Wolmer-he enrolled at New York University, eventually transferring to its studio-art program. He considered a career in journalism, but also "thought about being an artist a long time," he says. "It's scary to take the plunge." He adds, "It came to me during an acid trip."
Bleckner's education was eclectic. He studied with conceptualist Sol Lewitt and photo-realist Chuck Close at NYU, then did graduate work at CalArts, where John Baldessari held sway with his own highly theoretical brand of conceptual art. He returned to New York in 1973. "I first met Ross in the mid-seventies," Julian Schnabel remembers. "I needed a job and he needed the paint on his ceiling scraped off. It was horrible, thankless work, and after about half an hour, I said I didn't want to do it. He said he wouldn't want to, either. From that day on, we were the best of friends." Schnabel invited Bleckner to stay at his studio in Texas for his very first show, at Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum in 1976. Things went a little awry, though. "At dinner before my opening, my mother was complaining about my attire-she didn't like my leather jacket," says Schnabel. "So I got angry, walked out of the restaurant, and left Ross at the table." Bleckner finishes the story: "I ended up escorting Julian's parents to their son's first opening."
Nowadays, Bleckner likes to pretend that he didn't crawl out of his studio until the later eighties, but the truth is that both his remarkable discipline and his love of schmoozing were manifest early on. That night, Bleckner hung out at the Mudd Club-conveniently located right downstairs, since he'd rented the owners the space in his building-earning the attention of dedicated clubbers like Stephen Saba, the nightlife critic for Details. "That was in the Mudd club's heyday," Saban recalls wistfully. "Bleckner was always there." Says Kruger: "Ross always zigzagged between being very social and pulling back. I remember him saying all the time, 'I'd be a recluse if there weren't so many people around.' "
By day, however, Bleckner worked in his studio, churning out pastiches in a laborious quest for a style. "Ross represents an interesting confluence of all these styles floating around in the mid to late seventies," says critic Lisa Liebmann, who just published a book on David Salle. "He represented an abstract flip side of New Image painting, and then he was influenced by the 1979 [Cy] Twombly show, which was seen as a failure at the time but influenced a lot of younger painters." He had a few shows in some small and now-forgotten galleries, with only middling success. "Whenever you wanted to talk to a dealer, they were sick," he recalls. "I used to think every dealer in New York was sick." In 1978, he met Mary Boone, a young dealer who was just about to start her own gallery. At his urging, she also signed on his friends Schnabel, Kruger, and Salle, who (along with Eric Fischl) would form the nucleus of her celebrated eighties stable.
"I saved Ross's life," Schnabel explains, "several time. The night after my opening at Mary's, I went to Ross's loft and found him unconscious, his leg hanging by a piece of skin." A falling counterweight had pushed over a ladder, which had dragged Bleckner's leg into the open elevator shaft and severed the main artery. " We took him to the emergency room at Beekman Hospital, and he was lying around waiting for a doctor while there was no pulse in his foot. Luckily, I reached my cousin, who is a vascular surgeon, and we moved him into St. Vincent's and took Ross right into microsurgery.
Bleckner kept his leg, but the episode ushered in a bleak phase of his career. While Salle and Schnabel soared. Bleckner stalled. His "stripe painting"-op-art candy striped on a Barnett Newman scale-bombed on arrival at Boone in 1981. "People just thought I was perpetuating a joke," Bleckner later told FlashArt. Boone's interest in Bleckner dwindled rapidly until, Schnabel says, he intervened: "I told Mary, 'If you cancel his show, I'm going to leave the gallery.' "Apparently he was persuasive, and Bleckner's next (1983) show would sell out, although Schnabel is still dismissive: "It was frustrating, because I really believed in Ross's work. When people came to my studio, I'd often show them his work. She must be doing something right if he's still showing with her after fifteen years, but this stuff about her or anyone else making someone's career is a load of horseshit." (Boone denies that Schnabel ever confronted her; Bleckner says he doesn't know.)
It wouldn't have been hard for Schnabel to defend Bleckner, if in fact that's what happened. Bleckner's dense, meditative, nice paintings posed no threat to Schnabel's aggressive, splashy Neo-Expressionist aesthetic. But Bleckner went even further than Schnabel did, actively seeking out and helping young artist who could conceivably become his competitors, buying their work, introducing them to clients. His was "a kind of godfather role," says dealer Perry Rubenstein. "Ross will embrace something that is subconsciously threatening to him. And most artists don't do that. They surround themselves with artist who reflect some part of their work and don't threaten them."
Thirty-two-year-old Alexis Rockman, whose hallucinatory zoological paintings have made him an up-and-coming star of the next generation, managed to turn a brief and ill-fated apprenticeship into a friendship. "I was a miserable assistant, and Ross fired me after three months," he says. "But we became very good friends. Ross taught me a lot about how to be an artist, both socially and professionally - how to make myself available, how not to alienate anybody."
The mentoring paid off: As Schnabel and Salle began living like movie stars (and, indeed, preparing to become movie directors), Bleckner was quietly being taken up by the East Village art scene. Peter Halley, a young painter who rejected the kitschy heroics of Neo-Expressionism for something cooler and more cerebral, wrote in Arts in the early eighties that Bleckner's striped were a missing link between a romantic modernism (Mark Rothko, say, or Willem de Kooning) and a doubting post-modernism (Salle, for instance). Suddenly, younger artists began to tune in. "He really orchestrated everything brilliantly," says Rockman. "These younger guys like [painted and International With Monument Gallery director] Meyer Vaisman and [painter and Nature Morte Gallery director] Peter Nagy started getting interested in his work, and Ross was smart enough to encourage them. Not that it wasn't opportunistic, but there was also something genuine."
It was at Nagy's storefront gallery that Bleckner held his pivotal 1984 show, in which he displayed just one large painting, which combined text and abstraction. "There was a whole discourse about the process of making art the Halley and Ashley Bickerton and Sherrie Levine had reopened," remembers dealer Pat Hearn. "For Ross to use that painting was really clever." When Sonnabend Gallery brought together four East Village artist-Halley, Vaisman, Jeff Koons, and Bickerton-for its infamous 1986 "Neo-Geo" show, Bleckner's coterie was suddenly on top, and Bleckner, whose work was always more sensual than intellectual, more incidental than theoretical, ended up riding on the coattails of Neo-Geo, an aridly ideological movement rooted in half-understood ideas of structuralism. The irony was not lost on him. "There's always something that somebody looks at as a precedent," he says. "maybe people got tired of slopping a lot of paint around. If my work looked fresh to somebody, I never knew, because people were whisked past my shows to see some ink drippings in he back room." The idea for this show came to me during the renovation of this building," says Lisa Dennison, the curator at the Guggenheim responsible for the Bleckner retrospective. "One day," she continues, "I climbed up to the skylight, and I was reminded of Ross's dome painting. I thought of Ross's sense of the sublime quality of light-and one of the emphases of the renovation was the restoration of the natural light that previous administrations had blocked out." Bleckner's feel for chiaroscuro and his darkly luminescent paint (he varnishes his paintings to get that dim glow) did flower into some sublime works in the past ten years, and Dennison has the pick of the lot: the dome paintings, candlelike light throbbing in vast domes; the starry constellation paintings; and the paintings that use urns and other funereal motifs as an allusion to AIDS.
Despite Bleckner's rich web of social and professional connections, the show itself betrays less evidence of back-scratching than usually crops up under close examination of a major exhibition. His good friend David Geffen did contribute a small amount of money through his foundation, and recent dinner partner Ron Perelman has shown a great deal of interest in the Guggenheim lately. But Dennison, the curator, says Ross kept the influence of collectors upon the exhibition to a minimum. " A lot of collectors yelled at the two of us, demanding to have their pieces included," says Dennison. "Ross couldn't be swayed."Bleckner's relative independence from collectors' whims (in this instance, at least) may stem from the fact that he is much better represented in European collections than in American ones. Neither Geffen nor Barry Diller-another close friend-has ever bought a painting. His biggest collector is the late Thomas Ammann, a Swiss dealer who discovered Bleckner early on, in 1981. Spanish painter Juan Usle explains Bleckner's Continental appeal: The paintings, he says, "have this kind of old memory. It's like the light and atmosphere of El Greco's View of Toledo-it's really close to a European sensibility."
Bleckner may play the social role of a society painter - a Sargent for our time-but is his art society art? Not in the narrow sense of a conservative portraiture, certainly, but Bleckner's art sometimes seems to reflect the concerns of his glamorous circle more than any personal vision. This seems especially the case with the AIDS-related work. While undoubtedly sincere, it sometimes has the feeling of those Victorian marble monuments under weeping willows-it's too perfect, too composed. Bleckner deserves credit for trying to do something seductive with paint; his shimmering surfaces are all the more powerful for being impossible to interpret rationally. But there is a sense of finish to Bleckner's paintings-a slickness-that reduces some of their gestures to rhetoric rather than passion. As Jerry Saltz writes in Art in America, it's "more melodramatic than dramatic."
Bleckner's penchant for being all things to all people deeply informs his recent work. Not only is he catholic in his choice of influences, but he seems so happy to accommodate that people from wildly disparate camps accept his as their own. "There's something in there for everyone," says Lisa Liebmann. "For those who had a formal sense for abstraction, those looking for a historicized ironic message, and those who had a romantic sense of fin de siècle."
Bleckner's Zelig-like nature - he's ubiquitous, yet hard to pindown-underpins his social persona as well. He often talks about himself with mildly false modesty - it's his way of encouraging your sympathy. But he seems genuinely needy, too, and this craving for affirmation does a lot to explain his binge-purge attitude toward celebrity, which has him swinging wildly between solitude and gala events. "I'm like any other insecure guy." he says. "I'd rather be in some hypersocial environment where I can avoid real interaction."
"Part of me wants to say," his friend Rockman mock-admonishes, " 'Don't worry about getting in the magazines every two minutes. You're not going to become extinct.'"
Bleckner's insecurity also reveals itself in a very thin skin. At several points during our interview, he lashed out at the art press, mentioning in particular reviews in Art in America by current New York Times critic Roberta Smith and a snide remark in Art & Auction by Smith's husband, Saltz, to the effect that Bleckner used to be a painter but is now a socialite. Yet if you go back to these reviews, you find that they were more or less positive.
What should we make of Bleckner's famous friends? His friendships with Geffen et al. have to be understood in the context of his sexual identity: The gay world is at the core of Bleckner's many circles, and he's become enmeshed in the tiny power elite that also revolves around other gay starts. It seems more inevitable than egregious. And a lot of the other flak just seems unfair. Roy Lichtenstein and Ellsworth Kelly, for example, are both richer than Bleckner and do just as much schmoozing, although they do it out of sight. A Lichtenstein painting commands roughly four times what a Bleckner painting does; the older painter also has a house in the Hamptons, and also attends the same functions as Ron Perelman (who, through Marvel Entertainment, underwrote Lichtenstein's Guggenheim show last year). And so what if Bleckner is socially adept? Success like his does not occur without someone's working some angle, and Bleckner happens to be a very good painter who knows how to work the society angle. There are equally good painters. But here are also plenty of artists Bleckner's age whose only talent is for schmoozing.
Besides, as Bleckner asserts, and as his friends confirm, he genuinely adores the people he socializes with. He's an opportunist with heart: If his favorite people happen to be among the richest, most powerful, and most glamorous people in America, hey, that's between God and Ross Bleckner.