PRINT February 1995

Easy Virtue

IF HISTORY, as the saying goes, repeats itself, then Baudelaire’s observations of life at the beginning of the Modern-era might apply equally to its end. What he saw, in terms that exceeded the purely sartorial, was “an immense procession of undertakers, mourners, political mourners, mourners in love, bourgeois mourners. All of us,” he went on to surmise, “are attending some funeral or another.”1 In the ’70s, when Ross Bleckner’s work first came to public attention, it too partook in a procession, announcing if not the death of painting, then its terminal exhaustion.

Back then, painting appeared dependent for its success upon its ability to reflect its condition of loss. Venting the air of lament, the language of post-Structuralism was recruited to legitimize death throes manifest as stylistic pastiche and ironic appropriation. Bleckner, who was either at or near the inception of the painting styles that have dominated the last decade or so, has been seen as both protean talent and anointed custodian of the signifiers of loss and bereavement. The twinned strands of his endeavor, the stripe paintings and the memorial ones, converge not so much stylistically as in the singular sensibility that underwrites their origins. Writing in 1962, in an essay titled “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer,” Susan Sontag baldly states, “The anguish of prematurely disillusioned, highly civilized people alternating between irony and melancholic experiments with their emotions is indeed familiar.”2 To which we might add, nowhere more so than in Bleckner’s brand of fin-de-siècle Romanticism, with its alternating currents and melancholic moods.

In early 1982, fellow artist Peter Halley, progenitor and spokesperson for the then nascent, awkwardly named Neo-Geo movement, published a text that proved decisive in supplying a contextual framework from which painting, in resuscitated form, could withstand the lingering charges of anachronism and bad faith. Titled “Ross Bleckner: Painting at the End of History,” the essay traces Bleckner’s confiscation of the techniques of Op art to that school’s own curious upbringing as the bastard offspring of Modernist positivism.3 Criticisms to the effect that Op was the child more of science, or of pseudoscience, than of art had from the start deprived the Op movement of critical legitimacy. Before Bleckner and others of that moment, its retinal puppet-mastering had mostly looked less like a means of eluding the space of pictorial materialism and more like a cheap trick, a sleight-of-hand neither painterly nor scientific and indelibly tainted by the woozy psychedelicism of its album-cover heirs. But it was exactly this perceptual indigestibility that suggested to some artists the possibility of reworking the pictorial space of Op as a form of critique, of the sort that was then reaching speed in the photo-oriented work of Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, et al.

The attraction cannot be underestimated. Cries for a critical framework for painting as robust as the one used to support the “Pictures” group had been audible from the late ’70s onward, notably in Bleckner’s own essay, of March 1979, titled “Transcendent Anti-Fetishism.”4 But no amount of critical corsetry seemed capable of restraining the swelling obesity and indulgence that many thought characterized the ’80s renaissance of painting. Bleckner’s impenetrable essay, and others that sought to recruit the services of post-Structuralism to the cause of painting, did little more than confirm the suspicion that much of the wind fluttering the pennants of painting’s critical revival in the early ’80s was just that.

Astute, perhaps, to post-Structuralism’s shortcomings as the grand unifying theory of anything, let alone of painting, Halley shifted the focus of Bleckner’s stylistic fusions from the rarefied atmosphere of critical theory to the relative terra firma of America’s late-century character and consciousness. Tremulous and carceral, the vertical bands of light and dark dissecting the surfaces of the stripe paintings were seen to speak less of the condition of painting itself than of the conditions underlying that condition. This shift in emphasis was significant: from the frying pan of post-Modern autism, painting was dropped into the fire of social accountability. Reading this move into Bleckner’s work proved easy: Halley mapped the simultaneity of seduction and repulsion, place and placelessness, held in the surface tension of Bleckner’s optical effects onto the metaphysics of undisclosed threat heralded by the dark clouds of terminal history. He butted up the quasi-science of late-Modern pictorial realism against a much older tradition of visionary and romantic apocalypticism. At the time of his writing, that vision, with its invocations of madness and death, was found in the specter of nuclear terror, of the final dissection of nature by the atomic sciences. This, Halley claimed, with Bleckner’s concurrence, was “the primary factor precipitating transcendental content in his own work today.” That was in 1982.

Since then, Bleckner has continued to pursue the parallel courses of a divided sensibility. His painting has become more polished while arguably becoming more dependent upon painterly effect. Humming birds hover between fibrillating bands of light and darkness, effete symbols of movement without motion, incarcerated within these strangely timeless phenomenologies. Light is both the material and the immaterial substance of these works; painterly space is asked to stand in as both metaphor for and literalization of the materiality of the painting, the corporeality of the viewer, and our entrapment within the physical world. The optical transcendence promised by the stripe or gate paintings is withheld by the delicate birds, heraldic rebuses, and fleur-de-lis that adorn works such as Cage and Gate #2, both of 1986, or Demotion of Affection, of the following year. But to suppose that Bleckner’s painterly effects are deployed not to illusionistic ends, but rather to suggest a kind of “undifferentiated vision”—an antirationalist space, perhaps the painterly equivalent of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s celebrity schizophrenic out for a walk—is a view from which we now find ourselves irrevocably deflected.

Staking out a middle ground between the stripe paintings and the increasingly allegorical bent later realized in the memorial works is the “Architecture of the Sky” series, 1987–90, a middle ground that might also include the “cell” paintings begun in 1990 and whose lineage descends back to the “Weather Paintings” series of 1983. Moody and brooding, the “Weather Paintings” read as nocturnes that poeticize the death of the image by offering in its place the luminous vacuity of a surface effect deprived of incident. Technique is made to stand in for painterliness, the hypnotic allure of Turner-esque glazes and scumbled historicism for temporal and psychological depth. Hardening those paintings’ amorphous space into the vaulted domes of the “Architecture of the Sky” series produced a series of works both compelling in their description of the material space of the painting and tautly evocative. Lit from the top, as if from the oculus of an open dome, a spectral light floods through the darkness, picking out the marks of wax resists or impasto dots that hang like celestial bodies caught in the ageless light of a long-extinguished star. Here surface incident warps the picture plane. Unlike the light of orthogonal space, the light of deep space follows a secret curvature mimicked in the physicality of the painting, suggesting the metaphysical fingerprint of some distant event.

Slipping easily between the cosmological and the microscopic, Bleckner’s view of the material substance of the world appears to belong to either end of the telescope of time. The life depicted could be at the beginning or end, cellular structure or stellar constellation, big bang or apocalypse. Protoplasmic blobs hang in the crepuscular space of paintings such as Knights Not Nights, 1987, or Microscopic Life, 1989. Streaks and trails incised into the dark surfaces of other works equally suggest shooting stars or the particle trails of electron tracking chambers. It is the domain of occluded metaphor.

The more you look at Bleckner’s abstractions, the less they seem to speak the vernacular of painterly deconstruction to which they were at first so confidently assigned. These paintings appear to have employed a language of formal investigation only to turn toward thoughts of other contents. But Bleckner’s metaphysical architectures provide the viewer with few clues as to what those contents are. Mapping the urge to transcendence onto nuclear threat redeems only a degree of pale social dignity from surfaces otherwise estheticized and impotent. And so the question continues to nag, with an urgency proportionate to their decorative elegance, that these enigmatic and fractured abstractions amount to thoughts—but thoughts of what?

Bleckner’s memorial paintings, which since the early-to-mid ’80s have provided the contextual framework for his entire output, repose the question in the light of the self-evidence of the answer. And for anyone who has had to grow up in the shadow of AIDS, the question itself might well seem unnecessary. Titled Hospital Room, Memoriam, X-Friends, 8,122+ as of January 1986, and so on, these paintings bear little ambivalence as to their content. Testimonies to loss, they poeticize death, in a decadence that they gloss over and cosmeticize. Condensing narratives of mourning into single emblematic moments or motifs, Bleckner’s allegories of grief represent the idioms of 19th-century Symbolism and neoclassical funerary kitsch in the vocabulary of secular commemoration. Estranged from the past, the language of painting comes to describe a twofold loss: that of friends and comrades, but also that of its own ability to recoup a language capable of addressing that loss.

The content of Bleckner’s work, variously mapped onto imported theory and nuclear terror, has come to be contextualized exclusively within the social context of AIDS. But if death has always been the subject of Bleckner’s work, the trajectory through the various rituals played out in the paintings is one that has also seen the progressive devolution of the criticism attendant to the work. Discourse other than that related to AIDS (and this took the most remedial form) has been virtually suspended. Paintings once thought to embody the metaphysical tensions of nuclear threat do so no more. Stripes formerly read as appropriative plays with the debased pictorial idioms of Modernism are now retroactively revealed, in the words of one commentator, as “a highly distilled metaphor for gay urban culture in the last several decades.”5

But if Bleckner’s work can speak of multiple deaths, it also addresses none. As allegories of vanitas, Bleckner’s postmortem on loss rejects the specificity that might allow it to speak. Detached from their historical moorings, his central motifs—the gates, chandeliers, trophies, flower vases, and urns—float free in a disembodied space. The chandeliers could be space ships, the chalices barbecues, all adrift in the now vacant proscenium of the Modernist frame. Within this space, silence dominates. But like the momentary silence in one of the fireworks displays that the paintings sometimes resemble, it is the silence that precedes a visual effect. Simultaneously proffering and deferring meaning, these are ruined signifiers, their former transparency occluded and opaque. Ashen and phantasmagoric, their uninflected universalism seems to speak less of the present crisis than of the prelapsarian innocence that seemed to precede it—a nostalgic construct figured as a paradise lost of whole meanings and bucolic society. The tragedy embodied in the memorial works is not that of social reality but rather of the failure to give it adequate expression in the fractured tongues of post-Modernism. Dreaming that their own dreams might be fiction, they are allegories that reach out across history only to find that, like Narcissus, they are forever pursuing themselves. And so Bleckner’s painterly discourse is garrulous about its very silence. Seeking fortification from the pathos of the lost referential, it vaunts its powers of enigma and seductive uselessness as if in sacrificial offering to that which it can never recoup.

To return to Baudelaire’s observation of 1846 that “all of us are attending some funeral or another”: we might say the same of the mid ’90s, but with their own particular urgencies and needs. To elide the occasion of the funeral with the generalized subject of loss, however, is to run the risk of piety without content, religiosity without faith or observance. Bleckner’s singular funeral is called to stand in for manifold deaths. Congregating in the hushed atmosphere that envelops the work, we look for nourishment and hope, finding instead only a baleful reflection in which we see ourselves committed to nothing much more than the reverence of our own spectatorship. Like any other era, ours brings with it the responsibility and commitment to face the reality and iniquity of our times in both life and death. But within this endeavor, the privileged role of the artist as exemplary sufferer—a privilege that Bleckner appears to enjoy without reservation—brings with it another set of real dangers: for as Sontag wryly puts it, the artist who uses suffering in the economy of art is like the saint who discovers “the utility and necessity of suffering in the economy of salvation.”6 And the company of saints, it need hardly be said, is hard company to keep.

Ross Bleckner’s retrospective can be seen at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, from 3 March to 14 May.


1. Charles Baudelaire, quoted in Peter Schjeldahl, “A Visit to the Salon of Autumn 1986,” Art in America 74 no. 12, December 1986, p. 12.

2. Susan Sontag, “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer,” Against Interpretation, 1961, reprinted. New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1990, p. 40.

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

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

5. Lisa Liebmann, “Ross Bleckner’s Mood Indigo,” Artnews 87 no. 5, May 1988, p. 133.

6. Sontag, p. 42.