|AN ARTIST'S INVESTIGATION OF LOSS AND MEMORY
HELEN A. HARRISON
Ross Bleckner is one of many prominent artists who have been drawn to the East End since the 1870s. Yet he is one of the few with childhood roots on Long Island. He paints here now, in a studio isolated from surrounding houses by high privet hedges. Mr. Bleckner, 55, bought this property in Sagaponack in 1990. Since then he has divided his time between his home here once the country retreat of Truman Capoteand a loft in Manhattan, where he maintains a high social profile.
Out here, he prefers to avoid the limelight. Some of his longtime friends are nearby. David Salle is a neighbor in Sagaponack; Barbara Kruger is a Springs resident; and Julian Schnabel has a home in Montauk.
They are not just friends and neighbors, but colleagues. Mr. Bleckners work is regularly featured in major surveys of contemporary art and has been in many exhibitions, including a 1995 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
For the last 20 years, his art has been largely an investigation of change, loss, and memory, often addressing the subject of AIDS. But Mr. Bleckner uses symbolic imagery rather than direct representation, and his work is visually elusive, with forms that constantly change focus.
So much of my work is about building up and taking apart, he explained,about how the shapes form and uniform, how they dissolve and reassemble.
In a wide-ranging interview in his studio here, Mr. Bleckner said that in Sagaponack he found it easier to concentrate on his work. But as inviting as the solitude of Sagaponack may be, the East End does not inspire his art. When asked about the sources for the floral images that have featured prominently in his paintings for nearly two decades, he did not mention the summer blooms through the studios glass doors.
Instead, he pointed to a framed poster illustrating a closeup of sunflowers painted by Emil Nolde. When a visitor remarked that a work in progress recalled the floral still lifes of Edouard Manet, Mr. Bleckner readily acknowledged the kinship.
Ive been painting Manet flowers for years, on and off, he said. Manet got stuck in my mind.
Painting those flowers reflects Mr. Bleckners search for the appropriate terms in which to express his consistent themes: the transience of beauty, the fragility of life and the loss of love.
Whether its anatomical, medical, illustrational, metaphoric, he said,Im trying to figure out some plausible way that things work or dont work, to look for some meaning through the language that Ive chosen to speak.
Surrounded by large paintings propped against the walls and by stacks of small canvases he described as studies, Mr. Bleckner discussed his artistic development.
He is 55, was born in New York, but when he was a child, his family moved to Hewlett Harbor. He recalled that a professional career in art was far from his mind during childhood, but that he knew early on that he wanted to be an artist.
His father, a self-made businessman, was sympathetic to his aspirations, assuming his son would figure out a way to make himself a living, Mr. Bleckner said. And although he found few kindred spirits among his classmates at George W. Hewlett High School, he had art teachers who basically let me sit in art class whenever I wanted before school, during school and after schooland play around.
They were very encouraging, he added, and made it fun.
After graduating from high school in 1967, Mr. Bleckner attended New York University, where one of his art teachers was Chuck Close, now his neighbor in Bridgehampton. Mr. Close advised him to enroll in art school, he said. So in the early 1970s, he spent two years at the California Institute of the Arts, where conceptualism and minimalism were holding sway.
His early paintings reflect some of the reductive, intellectualized character of those genres, but mostly, he said, the school helped him affirm his conviction to make art his career. He benefited, he said, from the daily give and take of studio talk.
A community of people, thats the really what art school is, he said.
Returning to New York in 1974, Mr. Bleckner settled in SoHo, where another community was defying the art movements of the day. In 1978, he and other artists, including Mr. Schnabel, Mr. Salle and Ms. Kruger, were taken on by the fledgling Mary Boone Gallery. At the time, Mr. Bleckners style had little in common with the muscular neo-Expressionism of most of the gallerys roster. His early paintings were highly formal striped compositions that only hint at the luminosity and sensuousness of his mature work.
Some of that mature work looks like images of mutations at the cellular level, views of things glimpsed indistinctly, as if in flux, or in metaphors of fragile beauty, like flowers and birds. By smearing and blurring the painted surfaces, he makes the subjects appear all the more tenuous.
Often he superimposes another layer of meaning to the piece, as in Inheritance (Partial K.M.A.) (2003), where a ring of flowers refers to a chain of protein molecules. In works like Small Count (1980), what looks like floating phosphorescent creatures, or perhaps a starry sky, refer to white blood cells depleted by AIDS.
For his 1993 solo exhibition at Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, Mr. Bleckner assembled some 200 small oils and watercolors that collectively formed a constellation of images about loss. These pieces have been called romantic and even sentimental, but it seems more accurate to describe then as spiritual. Indeed that is Mr. Bleckners intention. While he does not subscribe to the notion that artists can claim any special route to spirituality, he does believe that it is a worthy goal.
A spiritual search in art is looking for meaning outside of yourself, he said.
In the 1990s, Mr. Bleckner turned from pursuing the soft-focus ambiguity that had become his trademark, and began a series of explicit paintings of diseased or cancerous cells. Based on microscopic images and as detailed as medical illustrations, they are meditations on mortality, specifically related to his fathers diagnosis of cancer.
As Mr. Bleckner recalled, he was looking at what was happening to his father and trying to understand it. That process, coupled with his longstanding work against AIDS, prompted an obsessive concentration on, as he put it, the idea that the body is so perfect, until its not perfect. He explained,Its a fragile membrane that separates us from disaster.
I took away a lot of the painterliness just at deal more with the methodology of looking into the structure, he added.
More recently, Mr. Bleckner has pulled back from that ultra-analytical approach and returned too more nuanced techniques to express what he described as the dissolution and re-mutation of identity.Looking at photographs of sporting events, in which the athletes are in sharp focus and the spectators are a blur in the background, he recognized similarities to what he had been dealing with in works like Inheritance (Efficacy) of 2003, with its biomorphic structure of cellular globules.
One bit in or out of focus makes the difference between our bodies being ourselves and our being part of a group, he observed. I want to melt the idea of specificity and blend individuality into the crowd.
Mr. Bleckner emphasized his concern with what lies below the surface, both physically and emotionally. For a current series of painting on paper, more investigations of the Manet-inspired floral still lifes, he has the paper prepared with a shiny black coating. After the paint has dried thoroughly, he abrades the surface until the white paper is exposed, leaving a dark aura around the painted area, which the rubbing has given a velvety matte finish. Thus the image is defined as much by what has been removed as what is left after you negate a lot.
The positive side of that equation is the resulting work of art. The process is kind of aesthetic alchemy by which Mr. Bleckner realizes his creative impulses. Like the images themselves, it is based on an appreciation fo the imaginations transitory nature.
If you follow the process of a thoughtany thought, not just about artthe thought changes, he said. It has to do with what you can hold in your memory and what you lose. Thats an interesting thing to try to paint.