PRINT April 1972

Ronald Bladen

RON BLADEN’S WORK IS SURPRISINGLY difficult to talk about. Most commentary on it has been terribly bland, stopping usually at description. This apparent foiling of criticism can’t be a function of the Minimal character of the work because people seem to find it easy enough to discuss Robert Morris’ work or Tony Smith’s. At the same time my feeling is that Bladen’s best pieces are the ones that are hardest to talk about. Writing about the difficulty of writing is a ruse I resent when other people do it, but I think that the way Bladen’s art poses this difficulty really has a lot to do with how and when his work succeeds.

One thing common to Morris’ and Smith’s Minimal pieces of the mid-’60s is a concern with what is given in an experience and what is not. Morris’ arrays of solid boxes, for instance, make the viewer feel that any visual or, so to speak, sculptural information about them can be had from virtually any point of view. The element of expectation in perception is fully gratified in these pieces; and the point of that aspect of them seems to call this feature of perception to our attention or, for a moment, to make it the condition of our attention.

Smith’s pieces from about the same period, such as Amaryllis and Cigarette, frustrate the ability of concentration or focus to, allow the viewer to anticipate the look of the sculpture from points of view other than the one he physically occupies. Smith’s pieces thus engender a kind of illusionism based on the mobility of the spectator’s point of view. Moving around Smith’s pieces discloses what cannot be given in the experience of them from a stationary point of view. One’s attention is sort of divided up and associated with specific areas of space around the sculpture. Crucially different views of a particular piece may be so opaque to the spectator that he may feel that his mobile point of view less allows a check on present perception than it undermines a certain ideal of perceptual certainty.

What makes Bladen’s work so much harder to deal with, I think, is that it steers a sort of middle course between Morris’ and Smith’s ways of dealing with point of view; their works are as much about what is given in the fact of limited point of view as about what is given by a specific object.

There is a particular experience that can be had in my apartment that I associate with Bladen’s art. The bedroom is in the front of the building, four flights up. It has two windows, one facing the street and the other in the adjacent wall, facing a court which opens onto the street. One naturally tends to assume that the front of the building is parallel to the street, but it turns out that this isn’t the case. Looking out the latter window, one sees the street angling slightly away from the building as it recedes. But the assumption that the street and the building are parallel is so hard to correct that, as one looks at the street, the corner of the room between the windows is felt to be defined by an acute rather than a right angle, as if the room must necessarily be a rhomboid to conform to the line given by the street. A glance into the corner of the room corrects this impression instantly, of course; but it is the experience of an intuition on the periphery of one’s attention that connects somehow with Bladen’s art. I think perhaps the reason why Bladen’s art is so difficult to talk about are those aspects of it which really characterize his sculpture as operating within this kind of peripheral region on the outskirts of one’s perception. And, as in the experience of the distorted room corner, a shift of attention to the phenomenon at the periphery causes the phenomenon to disappear. This is not the same thing as saying that Bladen’s work involves illusionism, although it does, because though illusionism may be quite explicit, in any case, the nature of illusionism as a phenomenon can be grasped by critical examination. What I’m saying is that Bladen’s most interesting work can’t be looked at too closely or too deliberately or with too sharp a focus — not because it will look flawed, but because in a real sense the essence of the work cannot be seen that way. It seems that an important part of Bladen’s work occurs in that peripheral, inexplicit zone I’ve been describing. I do not mean to imply, either, that the work takes refuge there.

Bladen’s recent show at Fischbach consisted of a single large piece painted black. The sculpture was obviously designed and scaled to specifically fill and disrupt the gallery space. Roughly, the sculpture is like an L with its shorter leg tipped up at an angle of perhaps 35°. The rising leg also tapers upward, but does not end in a blade edge as one expects at first. The larger leg of the L is 56 feet long and connects the two spaces that comprise the gallery. The sculpture as a whole was impossible to grasp to one’s satisfaction; there was no point of view on it that one could regard as summary or encompassing. But rather than finding that the sculpture concealed parts of itself in order to reveal others, one kept feeling that parts of the piece that one wasn’t looking at underwent some sort of change as one’s own focus shifted. One of the reasons why this occurred, I think, could be seen when standing at the extreme end of the longer leg. The face of the sculpture at that end is a trapezoid, two sides of which are oriented upward. The longer side terminates what might be described as the top face of the sculpture, and the smaller side forms the edge of the “front” face, that is,the side which faces the viewer if he stands anywhere within the crook of the L. Looking down the long leg of the L, the top face converges predictably as it recedes, but the front face appears to remain the same width throughout its length, as if its edges were infinitely parallel. The normal illusion of convergence that one expected to see in the front face was displaced into the perpendicular plane defined by the tipped-up leg; however, the convergence occurs literally in the inclined leg. The sense here was of the sculpture connecting two different kinds of space, one pictorial and one that might be described as conceptual.

The deformation of the gallery space by this sculpture was one of those occurrences that couldn’t really be focused on (it doesn’t read in photographs) and which seems to me linked crucially with the optical paradox just described. Where that deformation was most obvious was again at the end of the longer leg. There the trapezoidal end face gave the impression of a tremendous twist, as if the force needed to keep the far leg of the sculpture elevated originated at that point. But one equally sensed that the floor slanted to the one’s left and downward along the length of the sculpture. The latter illusion was apparently due to the thickening of the sculpture near its angle. Again, these impressions were only available to a sort of loose focus perception. If one bore down too hard on the sculpture, it would retreat into a kind of inert obstructive aspect. This was also the case with the maze piece that Bladen showed at Fischbach last year.

The sculpture I’ve been describing is one of Bladen’s best works, I think, insofar as it made evident his control over the factors involved in large-scale indoor sculpture. This piece profited from not being too dramatic and from the balance of latency and explicitness that it offered the spectator. It seems that Bladen has been a long time achieving this balance, and that he may have arrived at it too late for it to have the influence that it might have had, say, five or six years ago. But there are few artists around who can manage a steady output on the level at which Bladen works.

Kenneth Baker