PRINT May 1986


WE ARE LIVING IN A paradoxical epoch with too little real art-historical memory and too much art-historical consciousness. There are a number of artists around with highly distinguished track records whose careers, strangely enough, are certainly almost unknown to the younger generations today. Several possible reasons for this leap to mind, the most salient of them the need for simplification, the reduction of admittedly complex developments to a single catch phrase or concept. The attempt to explain the development of Modem and contemporary art as a linear progression that can be divided into contained periods by decades or marked off into thematic phases by “isms,” the “isms” always represented by a select few artists, has been hugely successful, despite any argument against it, as we all know. Yet in the study of older periods of art the need for reevaluation of these assumptions has been recognized, and it has given rise to what is called revisionist art history. Not so with the recent past.

With this in mind, I ask the reader to consider what he or she knows about contemporary American sculpture during one of its most pivotal periods, the ’60s. Anyone who was looking at it at the time will have a different memory of it than the view set forth nowadays in the usual surveys, which have come to resurrect the sculpture of the ’60s basically under two dominant labels of interest: Minimalism and, for want of a better word, Post-Minimalism, the umbrella term covering process art, earth art, performance art, and others. In those overly sanitized surveys the “must-includes” are always the same. But what about some of the other artists whose demanding, passionate vision asked a lot from art and from us?—for one, Ronald Bladen.

During the ’60s the radical impulse in sculpture—the impulse that filled the air, and that was responsible for kicking the medium off its vaunted pedestal and freeing its structural face from any and all restraints of the past—received no more powerful expression than in the works of Bladen. Ask anyone lucky enough to have seen his sculpture The X, 1967, in the exhibition “Scale as Content” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., in the same year. The big bold form, with its 22-foot-high vertical structure, appeared to rise up and fling its outer, barlike elements clear across the interior of the peristyle hall of the Corcoran like splayed limbs. Standing before the viewer in this way, The X encouraged or better yet demanded one to see its powerful contained energy and consider its monumental presence, as well as to feel the awesome mystery of its form in anthropomorphic terms—figural terms which opened up the empathetic dimension to the viewer. As Bladen himself, in a 1969 interview, remarked about the work, “The X is like a human being to me.”

This work and others by Bladen, including his Three Elements, 1965, another well-known floor sculpture notable for the impression of precarious balance made by its three tilting slablike elements, were part of the adventurous critical dialogue of the period, as they well deserved to be. Once this dialogue became dominated by the new formalism that came to define Minimalism, works like these were simply viewed as hallmarks of that style-cum-movement. And the discussion of them was reduced to the single issues so beloved of Minimalist lore. For example, The X would be regarded as a striking example of scale as content, or a bold illustration of structure as image. But these are anxious, overcompensatory ideas, with no spiritual sensitivity. They fail to encompass the expansive quality of Bladen’s vision, the very aspect that makes him a major artist.

While I’m on the subject, just as it is mislabeling to simply designate Bladen a “Minimalist,” it is equally misleading to solve the issue by describing him as some sort of “neo-Constructivist,” which is the tag that his large-scale sculptures of the ’70s and early ’80s, made for public commissions, attracted to him, with their asymmetrical and boldly energetic structures of which Black Lightning, 1981, is a prime example. The specter of neo-Constructivism seems also to hover over the response to his most recent group of works. Unlike the historical Constructivists, Bladen’s main concerns are rooted less in the absolute materiality of forms than in their relation to space. In fact, it was the desire to better understand space that originally led him to turn from painting to sculpture, in 1963. In contrast to painting, sculpture offered greater opportunity to clarify his feelings about space. And the need for clarity that runs in a continuous thread through his career is the impetus behind the most recent wall sculptures as well.

In this body of work, which may be considered “private sculpture” to distinguish it from the work done for public commission, Bladen is once again posing hard questions about sculpture as structure and experience, as is his style. The work was inspired by an accidental discovery. Working with aluminum one day, Bladen was struck by the way light hitting the metal surface could produce a beam running across it. He decided to investigate the phenomenon further, to make sculptures that would allow him, in his own words, “to achieve the light, all I saw.” This is what he has done, using aluminum and wood. In each of the smaller pieces one or more beams of light are visible in the aluminum portions. In the larger sculptures too, the play of light on aluminum surfaces is a significant feature.

If light is the recurrent theme of these sculptures, then structure is the key leitmotif. Each sculpture is built to manifest light. They are all reliefs, not because Bladen intended them as by-products of the relationship between painting and sculpture, but because they have to be to best illuminate the space he seeks. Consider the small sculpture Aura, 1985, whose dimensions are 20 by 14 by 8 inches, and whose upper portion consists of a curved sheet of aluminum, its concave side toward the viewer, supported by a symmetrical frame assembled from rectangular wood strips. The eye trained by the pet issues of Minimalism might scan and savor the articulateness of the composition, and stop there. The mind attuned to the rigorous dictums of Constructivism might revel in the matter-of-fact organization of the materials, in the absolute image, and stop there. The gut sympathetic to the so-called “new organic sculpture” of the ’80s might tend to respond to Aura in terms of the abstraction of primitive sculpture, and stop there. But the narrow beam of light seen crossing the lower portion of the sculpture aims at the heart. And the same is true of the other examples, like Double Edge, Fan Dancer, and Grand Prix, all 1985. Each one, when placed before us, appears to live a life and light of its own, and to have the capacity to involve, indeed immerse the viewer in the drama of its life. In Aura, this drama centers in the atmosphere that envelops the structure, sparked by the tensions embodied in this frontal form that stem from the linear and planar face-offs between the curving aluminum and the flat, rectilinear surfaces of the wood. One’s objective reading of the sculpture as “on edge” has broad subjective repercussions. If Bladen has anything to teach us all about sculpture, it is this: the end, that is, the completed work of art, is where the magic begins. Nothing more, nothing less.

Ronny Cohen is a writer who lives in New York and contributes regularly to Artforum.