PRINT February 1995

Critical Camp

True High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.

—Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening, 1954

ROSS BLECKNER’S ART has been variously interpreted, much celebrated, yet not entirely understood—in short, it has struck a nerve. Situated at the center of the various crosscurrents that have informed New York painting in the past decade and a half, Bleckner’s oeuvre affords a particularly revealing vantage on the curious recent history of that art. For this reason, the opportunity to consider his achievement when his midcareer retrospective opens next month at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, will be an especially welcome one.

The story begins, for all practical purposes, with Bleckner’s slow digestion and eventual transformation of the first art exhibition he recalls seeing, “The Responsive Eye,” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. (He was 16.) That show’s vision of the history of Modernism from Impressionism to the present failed to take lasting hold with the public; Bridget Riley, who played a key role in it, soon ceased to attract attention. Looking back, as Peter Halley had already noted in 1982, what seems dated about Op art is its uncritical positivistic world view.1 Blithely optimistic, an art of perception that sought to eliminate (or repress) the role of the beholder’s body, Op art was all too easily associated with the idealism, or hubris, of the ’60s. Bleckner’s early achievement was to turn Riley’s aggressive Op art inside out, taming its strident futurism and uncoupling its positivist associations. In a remarkable act of impersonation he made this apparently impersonal style both a vehicle of self-expression and a response to his own, later moment.

Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” of 1964 suggests the spirit in which Bleckner appropriated Op: for Sontag, camp involves seeing the world in terms of its “degree of artifice, of stylization.” With its love of exaggeration, of “a seriousness that fails,” it often seeks out things that are “old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé.”2 Op art dated fast, so was soon ready to be camped. Like Clement Greenberg's essay on kitsch, Sontag’s commentary is one of those exemplary texts whose history of reception inadvertently reflected successive sea changes of sensibility. Generously enthusiastic, hopelessly optimistic, her view of camp as “depoliticized—or at least apolitical” soon seemed very much of its moment. Dedicating her notes to Oscar Wilde, she praises him without really discussing his political significance; she is respectful toward camp, but her celebration of its ecstatic marginality downplays its implicit subversiveness. For her, camp offers “a supplementary . . . set of standards.” It is to be defined only in opposition to serious art.

As early as 1979, Bleckner had come to believe that abstract painting had to be politicized if it was to have any staying power;3 camp, contra Sontag, offered a means of doing this. Once Sontag’s contrast between camp and serious art was deconstructed, it was possible for high camp to move to center stage, replacing “serious” high Modernism. As has been understood for some time-the best account is Gerard Froidevaux’s Baudelaire: représentation et modernité4—Modernist conceptions of beauty were bound up with fetishism, in ways that by the ’70s made them widely unacceptable. Bleckner discovered that one way to reanimate painting-to rescue it from its late formal predicament and make it speak to his own moment—was to camp Op art as an already travestied Modernist distillate. Inverting Riley’s resolute optimism, making the ubiquitous “death of painting” as it reflected the more generalized bankruptcy of Modernist orthodoxies figure the literal specter of death precipitated by the AIDS crisis, Bleckner effected a transfiguration of Riley’s style to mirror the anxieties and fears of the ’80s (and ’90s) American art world. In this sense his art acquired an extraordinary political urgency.

In melancholia, according to Freud, libido is withdrawn from some object, but not displaced to another. Rather, “The shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object.”5 It is as if such a shadow, falling on art history, created the darkness prevailing in Bleckner’s paintings. For Freud, melancholia is a pathological condition, healthy mourning gone wrong. Melancholia is a deep failure of self-understanding. For all his pessimism, Freud could not envisage a culture in which melancholia would become the ruling condition. In his relatively optimistic era, the melancholic painting of someone like Gustave Moreau was marginal. Only when memory is weakened and historical consciousness disrupted, when an ongoing tradition no longer seems possible, can there be a major melancholic artist.

There is built into Bleckner’s melancholic appropriation of Op a promising blankness that makes it possible for commentators to describe his art in very diverse ways, some finding him a society painter, others a political thinker. This is why, as has often been noted, he influences artists whose work looks different from his. Of course, all challengingly original art inspires multiple interpretations: Baudelaire’s Manet differs a lot from Zola’s or Mallarme’s. But what distinguishes Bleckner from a Modernist like Manet is both a resistance to developing a signature style and a denial of the life-force of art’s history. The young Manet sought to link himself to the strongest living painter in the old master tradition, Delacroix; Bleckner appropriated the weakest Modernist style, Riley’s dead-on-arrival Op art. That is the difference between a Modernist attempt to extend tradition and the melancholic insistence that the past is truly dead. A ’70s abstract artist interested in engaging with the strongest recent tradition would have looked to Abstract Expressionism. Bleckner’s backward-looking art, so obsessed with death, was deeply ambivalent about bringing tradition back to life. The calming stillness of death seemed preferable.

I find Bleckner’s sensibility too distant for me to respond to his paintings with absolute admiration. Yet it amazes me how much he achieves from his seemingly unpromising starting point. Insofar as melancholia involves a refusal of change, and a denial of the possibility of development, it is an emotional state that makes artmaking difficult. Without David Salle’s rebarbative imagery or Barbara Kruger’s verbal provocations, Bleckner creates a screen on which can readily be projected many broader cultural concerns. That is a remarkable achievement. The hostile reviewer who described his painting as “not a generous art, although it is extremely open to suggestion” was onto something, though I would dispute his evaluation.6 Unless abstract painting can insert itself into the world of public discourse, it remains caught in the cul-de-sac of late formalism. No pure melancholic could be so sensitive to history, or socially aware, as Bleckner. And in any event, even melancholic artists at some level must be hopeful.

Notwithstanding all of Bleckner’s obvious reservations about contemporary America, his art seems the perfect mirror for our art world, and perhaps even for our society. Myself, still an unrepentant child of the ’60s, I think that the greatest art, from Poussin to the present, tends to resist, in some way, its dominant culture. Painting has to be critical if it is to have any staying power. I see Bleckner as the ideal artist for a culture self-condemned to melancholia. Certainly his art was perfectly adapted to the curious synthesis of Marxism and French-style psychoanalysis that dominated ’80s American writing, a hybrid discourse he appropriated in his own writing. It’s a little scary that as a young artist he was already so preoccupied with death. How, I wonder, will he now develop? How, I wonder, does a melancholic handle success?

Melancholia and its less passive cousin, camp, can too easily become sentimental. That danger Bleckner mostly avoids. His struggle to transcend the narcissism and potential self-deception inherent in melancholia is a moving one—indeed for me it is the basis of his achievement.

David Carrier’s books include The Aesthete in the City (Penn State Press, 1994), and High Art: Baudelaire and the Origin of Modernism, forthcoming from the same press.


1. Peter Halley. “Ross Bleckner: Painting at the End of History.” Arts 56 no. 9. May 1982, pp. 132–33.

2. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York: Delta Books, 1966, pp. 277. 283, 285.

3. See Ross Bleckner, “Transcendent Anti-Fetishism,” Artforum XVII no. 7, March 1979, pp. 50–55.

4. Gérard Froidevaux, Baudelaire: représentation et modernité, Paris: José Corti, 1989.

5. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia,'' The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey, London: The Hogarth Press, 1957, XIV:249.

6. Brooks Adams, “Ross Bleckner at Mary Boone–Michael Werner,” Art in America 72 no. 5, March 1984, p. 160.