PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Ross Bleckner

ROSS BLECKNER: You’ve got your work cut out for you. I’m sure it’s going to be very difficult to extract the kind of memory trace you’re after from all of these artists because everybody will have the same thing to say. They’ll all rail on about decade-ism. They’ll naturally protest the idea that any artist—least of all an artist as interesting as themselves!—could be categorized in such a fake historical way, considering of course that all of these artists are still actually alive and hopefully still productive.

DC: And doing the best work of their careers!

RB: Naturally. [Laughter.]

DC: When I saw the recent “Transavanguardia” show at Castello di Rivoli, what struck me was how retrograde certain approaches to painting now seem. Twenty years later, that stuff, with the exception of Francesco Clemente, is really like a bad memory. When you started out in the early ’80s, your work got lumped in with that work. How did you react to that?

RB: Well, my feeling was that expressionist figuration had developed enough of a critical density by 1981 and that the only way I would be able to function was in an adversarial way. I remember Francesco coming to New York, and I certainly remember Julian [Schnabel]’s first and second shows, David [Salle], Eric [Fischl], among others. While they were having their big shows with figurative work, I had the show of what I thought of as Op art—those big paintings with stripes and spiraling things. And what can I say? I remember being disappointed by the response to my work, and that the elation of other artists at the response to their work obviously created a sort of gap.

DC: So were you going against the grain?

RB: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. I was just going with my grain while this kind of figurative expressionism seemed to blossom very quickly—very quickly. It was like generic German photography is now. Suddenly you see so much of it that you become dizzy.

DC: It seems like your first exhibition at Nature Morte, in 1984, was a pivotal moment. You finally had your context.

RB: That’s exactly what I would say. If ’81 was somewhat disappointing, then in ’84 suddenly there was the possibility that the changing context could reenergize me. I saw it as a kind of release from the dominant style, which my painting didn’t work with.

DC: You might not exactly be seen as an antidote for the expressionism overdose when your work was seen in that context. But if seen in another context, like Nature Morte, which was a very unusual gallery . . .

RB: In what had become a kind of extremely overheated situation, from ’81 to ’84, the gallery provided a more casual way to present work to an audience I thought would be largely younger artists. Little did I know that I was still a younger artist, only ever so slightly less young than the rest.

DC: I think this whole Cash/Newhouse, International With Monument, Nature Morte phenomenon allowed a generation of younger artists to pick their heroes, to say, “All right, SoHo can have whatever it’s having, and we’ll show Ross Bleckner, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Allan McCollum.” I remember ’84 to ’86 as years of enormous upheaval in the art world, which set up a different context for the work. AIDS was also contributing to that, because by ’83 everyone, at least in the gay community, understood what was happening. And the way in which the crisis in the art world was happening against this background of a much larger social crisis made them not such separate issues. There was something about the excess of that early-’80s style that suddenly seemed galling.

RB: That’s true.

DC: Throwing out the old and dragging in something really disturbingly different isn’t something that happened in every decade. But ’85, to me, was one of the big years in terms of everyone realizing, “We can’t go on this way. We have to change it. We have to make it different.”

RB: I think the awareness of AIDS—first a slow, creeping awareness, and then that very explosive and devastating awareness—politicized me a lot, like many gay men. I had always had the suspicion that the art world—maybe it’s not like this anymore—was much less gay than people on the outside thought it was. It’s one of those myths that hit home very intensely, because I later realized that I developed more or less alone.

DC: And AIDS wasn’t hitting everybody you knew.

RB: Maybe it was just out of insecurity, but I remember there was a time in my life where I would only do things with artists, and I really didn’t pay that much attention to the gay part of New York. It just didn’t occur to me. I had my life. I mean, maybe that world scared me is what it boiled down to.

DC: And AIDS definitively, dramatically changed that for you.

RB: It forced me to play my hand more directly, in the sense that I wanted whatever had been latent in my work—the light, the image, all the senses of things—to be more explicit. It was a way for me to make sense of what was going on; there was something very clarifying about having to make a painting of flowers, for instance. There was a potency for me—that’s the only way that I can describe it—in painting certain images. I just felt like whatever they are, regardless of whether they’re important or unimportant, interesting or uninteresting, they are records, they attest to a moment in time that I was living through. What was odd was that, three years before, if someone had said to me that I was going to be painting flowers, I would have thought it ridiculous. AIDS, and fear, made me make the images a little more representational, and at the same time personal and more political. It made me identify myself more as a gay man. So I guess it was oddly liberating. You identify yourself more as a gay man, or whoever you are, and it helps you to realize more who you are as an artist.

DC: In many ways, you were the first artist to actually explicitly address AIDS in your work. A couple of years later there were Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. But I remember that your first show of that period was really cathartic for people. They were looking around desperately seeking something that would help pull that grief out and express it.

RB: People wanted to historicize it, to contextualize it, to try to see all sides of it. You know, when you put into perspective the rupture in consciousness that AIDS engendered for gay people—the stigma, the confusion, and the hysteria—I think it was very profound. It ruptured my sense of unending optimism—of being young, being American, coming to New York, being an artist, the energy, all that.

DC: I want to tackle your work from another angle, beginning with the premise that abstraction isn’t really abstraction anymore, that what we call abstraction is so well understood as a system of signs and symbols and modes of representation that it’s really just another kind of representation. Oddly enough, your work was making the same argument then, as now. It wasn’t “not abstraction.” You created these images that, although they were representational, still seemed very much your work in a kind of hard-to-define way.

RB: Well that’s it—the “hard-to-define” way. Suddenly it occurred to me that you could put representational images under a microscope and they become different kinds of entities. I don’t know if they lose their property as representation, but they take on other properties that are harder to define, more abstract. Some of the paintings that seemed the most abstract were, in fact, the most realistic, whether it’s the mutating cells, DNA structures, or blood cells.

DC: But you know, prior to the work that was explicitly employing flowers or heraldic imagery, you were already sitting on the fence about abstraction and its role.

RB: I think it has to do with how much narrative—in the sense that the things they depict are actually in the world—I’m going to let into the work, and how far or how close it is to an apparent abstraction. I mean, sometimes the paintings show a fragment. Sometimes they blur the object. Sometimes they move further away from it, or sometimes they need to go very close, as they did in the mid-’80s. There’s some other point where you can back up more as well, both on a psychological and formal level. You need to and you want to, just to keep things refreshed—or in the vernacular, “to keep it real.”

DC: Do you always recognize what that reality is?

RB: I can always describe paintings in a very explicit way, which might sound comical to someone else. In fact, my description might be comical to me at some point. But it’s the thing that gets me from one thing to another. It’s as if you can see and know something if you can describe it. I’m trying to get away from that kind of obsession, but at the same time, in a primitive way, it almost seems that if you can describe it, you can change it.

DC: If you could describe the experience?

RB: When my father was dying of cancer, he showed me all the medical pictures he had. He thought he could conquer cancer by understanding it. I think that idea of understanding things so close-up is what I didn’t want to get away from. I also thought that by moving up close, I could describe an image more and yet distance myself from the emotional part of it, which I just wanted to do and needed to do for whatever reason. I mean, for a few years my work was focused on electron-microscopic images and mutation. You know, it’s really a cell wall that separates us from disaster. That is a lot of what these paintings are about. There is that tragedy, that beauty, that fear and fascination. It’s a scary beauty.

DC: But the emotionally explicit work led you where, exactly?

RB: To my awareness of the fragility of your mental health, your financial health, your health. You know, your body is so perfect and so beautiful until one thing isn’t. You live with that; what can you do? In a way, for me, you could only make what’s more buoyant, more . . . like you have to celebrate something.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and is organizing the 8th International Istanbul Biennial.