PRINT October 1966

Ronald Bladen

WITHIN A SHORT TIME after his arrival in New York from San Francisco in 1958, Ronald Bladen had already achieved an underground reputation. His shows of Abstract Expressionist paintings at the Brata Gallery on Tenth Street in 1958 and 1960, and of painted wood reliefs at the Green Gallery in 1962, had commanded attention, though not as much as their quality merited. So had the four constructions he had completed since 1963 (his entire production) when they were exhibited, one at the Park Place Gallery in 1964, that and two more in the Concrete Expressionism show at New York University in the spring of 1965, and the fourth at the World House Gallery the following winter.

The abstractions that Bladen painted between 1957 and 1961 call to mind hills, foliage and clouds. Toward the end of that period, he began to react against organic shapes. He did not reject his earlier canvases, but they no longer challenged him enough to want to go on working in a familiar Abstract Expressionist vein. In explanation, he commented recently: “I felt that by eliminating some of the organic form—and its associations with nature—I could come closer to a purer kind of abstraction; in other words, to push abstract art a bit further.”

The pictures of the late fifties are composed of cement-like slabs and mounds of pigment, thickly painted because Bladen liked the heft of impasto. But the way in which the surface protrudes into actual space suggested a move into sculpture. In 1961, Bladen began to paste up collages of rectangular paper strips whose ends were folded outward, and soon after, to construct wood reliefs. In them, one or more plank-like fragments of geometric figures (an “L” or an inverted “C”), each a single color, is suspended in front of rectangles of a contrasting color, which are floated away from the wall.

These structures are stark, but on prolonged viewing, intricacies emerge: interplays of diverse paint and wood-grain textures; patterns of metal bolts which join the parts; and particularly, shifting shadows cast on the background plane and on the wall. The shadows call attention to what Bladen has called the “spread” of the work into the space occupied by the spectator. And the visible bolts point to a constructionist esthetic. However, the reliefs are closer to painting than to sculpture in their emphasis on the rectangular plane and on surface incidents (“pictorial” effects). In fact, Bladen’s move into the third dimension was influenced less by contemporary sculpture than by ideas from his paintings and those of his close friend, Al Held. Both artists had enlarged and reduced their forms and had tried to make them thrust out strongly at the viewer.

In 1963, Bladen “spread” into space with a new boldness, coming off the wall into the round and opening up his forms daringly. In the first of his freestanding sculptures, he cantilevered geometric elements over a distance of eighteen feet. He began this construction with the idea of holding in suspension an off-balance rectangular plane (red on the inside, black on the outside). Perched precariously on one corner, it is supported by a black key-like bridge which is anchored by a yellow rectangular column resting on the floor. Attached by metal rods to the outside of this column is a second upright of the same shape and color, but larger and raised off the ground. Despite the fact that it is a suspended element, it provides the extra weight needed to keep the piece from toppling. Performing the same function is a massive block, sitting on the floor and connected by metal rods to the inside of the anchor column. This block is horizontal and painted black, echoing in direction and color the cantilevered form above it. The volumes are sprayed with an even coat of automobile lacquer, each a single color.

The possibilities of suspension in sculpture stimulated Bladen, but he became equally excited by the way in which the parts of a piece could support and be supported by each other. These structural functions provide a unifying principle. However, the sequence of colors works against the logic of construction. The yellow, black, and red and black do not serve to clarify the structural functions of the components (one for the weights, another for the cantilever and a third for the suspended element). Instead, the colors isolate sections in what George Sugarman calls “extended space.” They turn the sculpture into a sequence of disassociated complexes. This kind of serial organization is a departure from the customary arrangement of repeated elements about a central core. The skin of pigment complicates the piece further. Color helps to define mass in space, but the mirror-like lacquer acts to dissolve sculptural mass. Yet, the smooth surface is anti-pictorial; it eliminates textural variations and signs of the hand. The anonymity of the finish is augmented by the ordinary palette that Bladen favors: black, primary red and yellow (but no blue)—unpsychological colors.

In his use of geometric forms and commonplace colors; in his emphasis on suspension and on structural stress and counter-stress, and in his introduction of a paint-job finish which hides the wood and causes it to look machine-made, Bladen appears to have been influenced by industrial structures, such as bridges. However, he meant only to move away from organic imagery and its associations with nature toward a purer order of forms. But the new forms pick up references to architecture, mathematics and technology. This is unavoidable, so Bladen accepts it. “It is not my intention, but my intention gets captured by these things.”

In Bladen’s next construction, an all-white one, 10 1/2 x 4 feet, two rectangular planes are placed one above the other and are tipped to create a wide angle. Color is eliminated, and in this sense, the piece is not pictorial, but, in its frontality, it reverts to the earlier reliefs. Yet, standing directly in front of it (and one naturally takes this position) the sculpture is surprisingly massive. The incline of the planes suggests stooping, making the work seem too big for an ordinary room.

The third piece, 20 feet tall, 15 feet wide and 11 feet deep, consists of two wide-set, yellow rectangular uprights, resting on a horizontal black plane, supported by three yellow pontoons. Frontal, spare and lofty, it is reminiscent of the all-white sculpture. The color and the open arrangement of the two shafts quote the first cantilevered construction. And the backward tilt makes the columns appear off-balanced like the tilted rectangle of the earlier work. But the later one does not reveal its formal mechanics as much. Swaying in the wind (it is meant to be installed out-of-doors, as it was at N.Y.U.) and leaning back, the pillars soar majestically, like the projected World Trade Center—on rockers.

While building the rocking piece, Bladen was so struck by a section of the inner scaffold which bolted the two columns in place that he decided to construct a replica of it. It caught his eye because it was involved with interior space, unlike his earlier works, and because it was small, and he had yet to create a small sculpture. It also engaged him because it was precisely designed to perform a structural function, yet looked right esthetically. To make sure, Bladen juggled the elements, but in the end returned to the original form. The construction is composed of two-by-four-inch bars, assembled into a cage-like framework of uneven intervals, sectioning space into interpenetrating, oblong voids of unequal dimensions. As sculpture, the scaffold does not manifest stresses and counter-stresses, like the cantilevered piece, nor does it suggest skyscrapers or towers of bridges, like the rocking piece. Instead, it looks like a three-dimensional neo-Plastic composition—purer and more abstract than the earlier works, even though it is actually an illustration of a pre-existing object. It differs from the “original” however, in the choice of materials. Bladen could have used ordinary two-by-fours, but he chose to construct forms of this size from plywood and to paint them white to disguise what he felt to be the clumsiness of ready-made boards. The cage-like sculpture is spatially complex, but its uniform color and its all-over shape—compact, despite its openness—are simple.

Bladen concentrated on the potentialities of elementary geometric forms in his latest construction, the untitled sculpture that provoked so much attention at the “Primary Structures” show in the Jewish Museum last spring. It consists of a row of three free-standing rectangular volumes whose bottoms are cut off at a 65° angle to produce rhomboid-like masses. (They are not true rhomboids.) The topmost planes are not parallel to the floor but are slanted down at a 90° angle to the steep incline of the forms. The rhomboids are separated by intervals of eight or ten feet depending on the space they are in. The top and three sides are enameled black; the outer surface is faced with a thin aluminum sheet of subdued luster.

This sculpture diverges sharply from its predecessors in that its components are more massive. There is less “drawing in space” with planar and linear elements. Furthermore, the parts are identical and repeated. Despite its “minimal” character, the three-part construction incorporates most of Bladen’s earlier ideas and motifs. Like the cantilevered piece, its forms exist in “extended space,” spread by the voids between them. These intervals are also forms, given definition by the solids, as in the cage-like structure. The rhomboids echo the two pillars of the cantilevered and rocking works. (Initially, Bladen planned to build two volumes, but his eye and its sense of rhythm demanded another, bringing the total to three or rather to five, counting the voids.) Like both earlier constructions, the three-part sculpture is precariously balanced. It rests solidly on the floor, but the stability is offset by the asymmetrical slant of the forms, which appear to be on the verge of toppling. In color, it also resembles previous works, the expanse of the black calling to mind the all-white planar and cage-like pieces. The introduction of aluminum is a departure, even though its surface is as machine-like as lacquer or enamel.

The three-part sculpture has affinities to the prim mary structures of Robert Morris and Donald Judd. They stress the physical and literal attributes of their forms—their object-ness. Judd aims to create pieces which are “seen at once and not part by part,” that is, works in which the emphasis is not on relationships of varied shapes and colors. Morris also tries to provoke a total apprehension of a simple geometric element, to make its “gestalt” immediately apparent. “Characteristic of a gestalt is that once it is established, all the information about it, qua gestalt, is exhausted.”

There is some of this matter-of-fact quality in Bladen’s rhomboids. However, unlike Morris and Judd who favor ordinary geometric figures because they are immediately perceived, Bladen prefers less generalized volumes. His rhomboids, inclined at an unusual angle of 65°, are particular and individuated. In this, they are closer to Al Held’s forms than to Morris’s or Judd’s.

The works of these sculptors are static and contained (Morris dislikes sculpture that resists gravity). Bladen’s off-axis monoliths are dynamic and expansive. Where their primary structures “occupy” space passively, Bladen’s “conquer” it, to borrow two words Lucy Lippard once used. His active, giant masses are assertive. Morris’s and Judd’s constructions are not, but their ideas strike one as aggressive. As Barbara Rose observed, “a bland, neutral-looking form is the vehicle for a hostile, aggressive content.” Both Bladen and Judd repeat elements, but the effect is different. Judd’s iteration of boxes appears mechanical and deadpan. One senses that Bladen built three rhomboids because the three would create more of a visual and emotional impact than two, one, four or more would.

Much as Morris and Judd try to construct objects that assert only their physical attributes, they do evoke extra-esthetic allusions. Judd’s hollow, galvanized iron cubes call to mind mass-produced artifacts. Morris’s pieces are like Pandora’s box; their off-white finish, though blank, has a mysterious cast. Bladen’s sculpture is also haunting, but unlike Morris’s, it is monumental.

The three-part construction looms like a section of Stonehenge, geometricized as if conceived by a master of International Style architecture. But the incline of its elements reduces associations to modern buildings, whose sheer size would eclipse the piece. Rather, the rhomboids are perceived in the context of sculpture, and compared to most sculpture, they are heroic in scale. At the same time, the slant is a human gesture, suggesting falling or bowing, signs of vulnerability, or marching, more the latter, for together the three masses in a line form an awesome procession—anthropomorphic menhirs on the move. (Judd, on the other hand, repudiates as outworn what he calls “anthropomorphic” sculpture, that is, sculpture reminiscent of bodily actions.) The oblique thrust of Bladen’s forms is also past art’s heroic diagonal in a contemporary vein. Indeed, they achieve a grandeur akin to Rodin’s Balzac.

Mass and size contribute to the monumentality, but this quality issues more from scale. Al Held once remarked that when he arrives at the kind of scale he desires, the forms appear larger than they are. The same applies to Bladen’s volumes. The difference between scale and size was clarified for both artists by a stone Olmec head that was displayed outside the Seagram Building in the summer of 1965. It was a large sculpture, nine feet tall, but size alone could not account for the way it dwarfed the surrounding skyscrapers and made them look cardboard thin. The Olmec head was on Bladen’s mind when he began the three-part construction.

Scale is an ineffable quality, inexplicable in material terms. It can provoke a sense of enigma, and in Bladen’s work does. The black enamel coat and aluminum sheeting of subdued luster also contribute to the sense of mystery. The pigment is sprayed, and the finish would look mechanical were it not for the “poor” paint job. Both the irregular painted skin and the metal reflect and absorb light unevenly. The dark shimmer over the surface acts to veil and soften the stark, hard volumes and to create hallucinatory effects.

It is frequently assumed that geometric art is pure, detached, intellectual, objective and universal, and, therefore, is the opposite of romantic art which conveys the artist’s particular, subjective and often irrational experiences. This classical-romantic polarity is, of course, an untenable oversimplification, for geometric forms can embody every kind of content—even geometry. Some critics have treated primary structures as a new and radical variant of classicism. A greater number have stressed their probable negative meanings, an impassiveness and impersonality so extreme as to separate them from past art. Bladen’s three-part sculpture evokes sensations of a different order—more romantic, and in a sense, more traditional—for it is dramatic, epic, beautiful—and masterly.

––Irving Sandler