Ross Bleckner: Painting at the End of History
Published in Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 56, No. 9, May 1981.
Gone are the trees and the enclosed spaces. Gone are the skillfully interlocking relational compositions. Gone is the depiction of objects, the eclectic Synthetic Cubist representationalism that linked Ross Bleckner's work to such artists as Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray.
All that remains is light - light created out of a dialectic between opposites, between black and white, between optical and painterly. Light is created out of "bad art," out of an adolescent remembrance of Op Art, of Cape Canaveral, of the New York World's Fair, of America's Golden Age. The thoughts spiral endlessly backwards and forwards. And the light repulses. The eyes cannot focus on the blurred, wavering bands. Then, the light metamorphoses into the bars that block the way into the painting.
Much recent art has taken as its subject images that are in some way emblematic of the modernist era. For Sherrie Levine, that imagery is twentieth-century photography. For Cindy Sherman, it is movie stills, in which her own image replaces that of the "commodity-celebrity." For Ross Bleckner, in his recent work, the subject for discourse is Op Art.
Op Art is chosen as a telling symbol for the terrible failure of positivism that has occurred in the postwar era, for the transformation of the technological, formalist imperatives advanced by the Bauhaus into the ruthless modernity preached and practiced by the postwar American corporation, of the transformation of the aesthetic of Mies and Gropius into the Hoola Hoop, the Cadillac tailfin, into tang and Op Art. How and why did this occur? How could it come to pass, for example, that Joseph Albers was selected by the Coca-Cola Company as a consultant in deciding which shade of red should be used in the Coca-Cola logo?
Bauhaus positivism claimed that the old world of history, or ethnic and regional loyalties, of destructive emotionalism, or irrational adherence to traditional ways, could be swept aside and replaced with rational, formal solutions founded on scientific knowledge and technological expertise. In pre-war Europe, This positivist modernism was applied to the goals of the same social-democratic idealism that had originally fueled its creation. In post-war America, it became detached from this social program and, buttressed by a pre-existing American predilection for functionality, became modernity, the world-view proposed by the American corporation.
But the appeal of modernity to the corporation did not lie in the possibilities for more efficient production created by formal and technological thinking. Rather, modernity became useful because of what it enabled the corporation to tell the community; that technocratic values were modern values; that the consumer should disregard his or her traditional attitudes about what food, clothing, or enjoyment might be, so that the company could provide him or her with a more cost-efficient and hence profitable alternative; that communities should abandon their traditional customs, modes of production, and social organizations so that the corporation could transform the society according to its own needs in order to most effectively exploit natural resources and create new markets. Modernity became a means of stimulating sales and profits in the entire market through the device of planned obsolescence, by which the consumer could be persuaded to discard his or her still serviceable appliance or automobile in order to replace it with one portraying the aesthetic of greater formal and technological efficiency.
Op Art was the embodiment of this aesthetic strategy. Ignoring history. Ignoring traditional historic craft, Op depicted the pulsating, almost electrical energy with which the markets of the industrial world were supposed to function. To create its effects, it used only the scientific rules of optical interaction and the most recently developed synthetic colors and paints. Op Art appeared in 1965, at the height of the Golden Age of American expansion, in the year of that mighty exposition of modernity, the New York World's Fair. It appeared before it became apparent that the bubble of modern progress might burst, before Vietnam, before 1968, before O.P.E.C.. And even more so than most contemporary art movements, Op Art obeyed perfectly the principle of planned obsolescence of the modernity after which it was patterned and faded away after only one season.
The Tower of Light. The Tower of Light was very lonely. Hardly anyone ever went there. It was such a good location. Near the Court of the Universe, near the very heart of things. Near General Electric, and not far from Pepsi-Cola, which was so popular, and near Clairol, the Clairol Pavilion, where women lined up hours at a time to get advice on their hair, how their hair should be arranged. It was a good location, but it was lonely. 1
For a generation of artists today, those years when American power was reaching its apogee have a specific meaning. The American dream was the reality of their adolescence. To explore its meaning, to relive its syntax, has psychological as well as sociological meaning for them, just as for the Surrealists the imagery of the Belle Epoque, the period of their early adolescence, had special iconographic significance. In his recent essay, quoted above, "Within the Context of No Context," George W. S. Trow, Jr. wrote about his adolescent memories of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Artists like David Salle and Steve Keister, and musical groups such as The B-52's and the Modern Lovers, also express in their work a need to relive and make art out of the sociology of the mid 'sixties. Ross Bleckner recounts as well that for him, as an adolescent, Op Art was what he knew modern art to be.
In earlier works, such as Photo-synthesis (Fig. 1) and The First Morning of The Second World (both of 1980), Bleckner had already begun to deal with the issue of positivism. In Photo-synthesis, four panels of imagery-derived from non-Western, Symbolist, and early Renaissance sources, suggestive of some non-rational understanding of the process of plant growth - obscure a black plane into which a white linear grid has been roughly incised. The impression is of the iconography of intuition obscuring and negating the rationality suggested in the title and the background Cartesian grid.
In his new work (Fig. 2), Bleckner has focused on the failure of positivism, not as a philosophical truth, but as a social creed. He ironically sets before us an example of the aesthetic of modernity itself, thus revealing not the possibilities of positivism but rather its failure and shortcomings. (In this way, these paintings are like Warhol's images, especially of electric chairs and race riots.)
The irony of these paintings is carried over into the arena of artistic procedure as well. Bleckner establishes an ironic stance toward the art-about-art strategy he is using. While artists such as Bill Jensen and Gregory Amenoff, or the new Italian or German painters use as their models widely accepted aspects of early modernist art, Bleckner chooses to quote from a style without critical legitimacy. He has created not art-about-art but art-about-bad-art. Furthermore, his strategy is even more complex than that of other recent artists who find their sources for "bad art" in the folk, commercial, or fantasy art that have always been outside the purview of critical acceptance. Bleckner is drawing from art that is today inconsequential, but was once, albeit briefly, thought to be significant.
But Bleckner's paintings do not remain simply a critique of postwar American culture, for Bleckner has recovered another important key: the knowledge that inherent in Op, inherent in the abstract, pulsating cosmos that it suggests, is the psychadelic and the transcendent. In fact the '60's exploited this potential fully. The syntax of Op Art, the light and dark undulating bands, was dislocated from its technocratic context and adopted as a symbol for the psychadelic, the visionary quest of the post-industrial age.
Bleckner has enhanced this realization in a series of strategies that emphasize the transcendental quality implicit in his white bars. As we strain to focus on the pulsating surfaces, we begin to notice the presence of drips and brushwork. The mammoth scale of the paintings creates the impression of Abstract Expressionist walls of light rather than of the discrete, portable aesthetic objects of Op. (The largest is 8 by 18 feet - the proportions of Barnett Newman's Vir Herocious Sublimis.) Bleckner has simplified the Op vocabulary into vertical parallel bands, provocatively reviving the seemingly exhausted device of all-over composition in which the even distribution of energy in the painting echoes the pervasiveness of transcendental presence in the universe. Thus we are given the disturbing aspect of irony and transcendentalism coexisting in the same body of work.
Today, modernism is described by two opposing camps, the relativists and the transcendentalists, in two different ways. The transcendentalists have attributed to modernism the primary quality of presence. To them, modernism is idealist and Jungian. They look to Matisse, to Mondrian and to Kandinsky as exemplars and seek the roots of modernism in French Symbolism and in Emerson. They consider the work of Pollock, Rothko, and Newman to radically embody such presence. Recently, the transcendentalist position, articulated by no one more convincing than the reactionary Barbara Rose, has fallen into disfavor.
On the other hand, there are the relativists. Anticipated in Manet, fully expressed I n Picasso and Duchamp, the Rauschenberg and Johns, relativism considers us imprisoned within our systems of signs, unable to apprehend the world around us. With its sources in phenomenology, Freud, and Heisenbergian uncertainty, this modernism expresses itself as irony and doubt, as humor and play.
In these paintings of Bleckner's, the schism between these two modernisms is bridged. These works are ironic and at the same time indicate presence; they are black and white. The image we are given is both metaphysical and jesting: it is the image of a laughing god. But the deity that Bleckner has created has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian and Greek pantheons with their stern and tragic deities. Bleckner has instead created an transcendental image in the tradition of Eastern thought, of Buddhism and Hinduism with their mirthful, ironic deities.
When we consider Eastern religion, we can locate a source for this kind of thinking in Bleckner's work. It is reminiscent of the ironical transcendentalism that filled the work of the writers of the Beat period:
I sit in my house for days on end and
Stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk
and I never get laid.
My mind is made up there's going to
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly
I have mystical visions and cosmic
America I still haven't told you what
you did to Uncle Max after he came
over from Russia.
This passage from Allen Ginsberg's America constitutes a statement akin to that which Bleckner has constructed in his recent work. The last two stanzas, in which the experiences of "mystical visions" and ironic disillusionment are simultaneously expressed, especially reflect Bleckner's ironic and transcendental content. In Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, a similar state of mind is realized.
But why has transcendentalism continually reasserted itself in the secular atmosphere of the postwar era? Why is it such an important factor in the character of the arts in the '50's and in work like Bleckner's today? It is clear that the development and use of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, followed by the development of the hydrogen bomb in the early '50's, had a decisive effect on the subject matter of both Abstract Expressionism and the Beat literature of the period. In talking about his work, Bleckner also points to nuclear terror as the primary factor precipitating transcendental content in his work today.
The historical phenomenon of nuclear weapons has acted in several ways to revive the transcendental impetus in the arts. The destructive force of nuclear arms - their power to bring to an end our entire civilization - has the potential to make irrelevant the elegant syntactical games of the relativists. In this same way, nuclear weapons have changed the relationship of human beings to the absolute. We have cause to believe we can eradicate our own species from the planet, that we can destructively transcend our own existence: we seem to have ourselves acquired a power that has in the tradition been attributed to super-natural beings.
The power and method of nuclear destruction have also reinforced the point of view that human beings can penetrate the a priori structure of the universe, that there is a superhuman code to knowledge that we are at least beginning to unravel. We are given to the belief that, in making nuclear weapons, humankind has penetrated both the structure of the atom, said to be the basic code to matter, and that of the sun, the pre-eminent physical force in our universe. Nuclear weapons have lent credence to the assumption on which the transcendental viewpoint is based; nature is structured and its structure is in some way knowable.
Bleckner's painting in many ways seems to reaffirm this transcendental viewpoint. Their vibratory incandescence creates an analogy to the rhythmic substructure of a knowable nature. At the same time, Bleckner is moved by darker historical events. His work is a reaction to the failure of positivism, its commercial debasement in the postwar era, and to the final madness it has precipitated- nuclear terror. His work conveys a mood of questioning in the wake of this troubled history, and a realization, relatively novel in Western civilization, that knowledge may be doubt and that doubt may be light- that the reality of disillusionment may also offer the possibility of transcendence.