New York

Ross Bleckner

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Ross Bleckner’s favorite color is black, in the tradition of artists fascinated by the phenomenon of light. Bleckner is best known for his re-presentations of Op art patterning; these paintings have influenced younger artists such as Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, particularly in the way they question Modernism’s exclusivity and marginalization with notions of “major” and “minor” genre. Lately Bleckner has begun to re-present another “minor” eccentric genre, that of fin-de-siècle symbolism, or the paintings of Odilon Redon, Henri Fantin-Latour, and John Frederick Peto.

The real change in Bleckner’s work, however, is not in the site of excavation but in what he is trying to do with it. It seems he now wants to go beyond dissembling Modernism. With such images as hummingbirds, chandeliers, silver urns, wrought-iron gates, faded flowers, and the smudged light of street lamps, Bleckner is reprising fin-de-siècle emblems of despair as instances of our own grief. These paintings are not intended to be art about art: they are about death, and many are meant as elegies for those who have died of AIDS.

Given the terribleness of the AIDS disease, as well as the heated debate that surrounds it, Bleckner’s new paintings at first seem curiously distanced and reserved. They pay mute homage to the victims rather than attempt to instruct the survivors. Clearly, Bleckner is aware that grief is private, and these paintings embody an unapproachable sorrow for an unaccountable tragedy. They are also elegant and fatalistic. The black is atmospheric, part oil slick and part urban night, with a bit of slightly hazy cinematic focus and soft spotlighting thrown in. Consequently, the paintings glow, flicker, and pulsate, exquisitely seductive and finally disorienting. A chandelier in a blackish abstract space; a randomly distributed group of hazy orbs: these moments in the paintings remind me of looking at a city street through a distorting windshield on a rainy night. Rather than being emblematic of the ritual of grief, as the images of the silver urn and the bouquet of faded flowers suggest, they convey the sense of dislocation and extreme isolation that is grief itself.

It seems to me that Bleckner’s real accomplishment has been to make his ironic Op art dislocations more emotionally substantial. However, these paintings are weakened by his reliance on fin-de-siècle symbolism. In the Peto-like image, for instance, Bleckner does not go as far as the master of muffled grief and morbidity, Jasper Johns, would have it: Bleckner does something to Peto’s cup but he does not, to paraphrase Johns, do something else. Consequently, the paintings carry with them a faded decadence and dandyish pose that undercut the utterance of grief. They soften the impact.

I think these paintings are transitional ones for Bleckner. They are the perfect products of someone who is very savvy about painting in the Post-Modern period, yet Bleckner’s intent to do something more is clear. The next step will have to be a giant’s step away from the past; once taken, Bleckner’s paintings will begin to succeed at the level of his growing ambition.

John Yau