New York

Ronald Bladen

Washburn Gallery

These heavily impastoed, abstract paintings come as a bit of a surprise: Ronald Bladen is usually seen as a Minimalist, not as an Abstract Expressionist. The works shown here, all from the late ’50s, are not entirely successful. Some are a little too thick with paint, the application of which seems belabored in its arbitrariness; others struggle too hard to undo a sense of horizon in the very act of mediating it. But the best of them—for example, Untitled No. 3 and Untitled No. 11, both ca. 1956–59—convey a kind of truculent intensity, a sense not simply of the insistence of paint, but of some force the paint is meant to imply and stand in for. There is a burdened character to the surface of these works, suggesting the magmatic indicator of an uncontrollable force. The look of uncontrollability—of somehow breaking through and escaping the code—is really quite hard to achieve, its law being so absolute. The mutant quality of some of these works suggests a deviation from that look, or at least a spontaneous twistedness. The most interesting Abstract Expressionist painting achieves a sense of the possibility of difference within the code—a difference significant enough to suggest the code’s incomplete power of determination. It may be that the indeterminate look has been so eagerly pursued in the modern world because that world is felt to be constraining, regimenting—manipulating toward uniformity. In the best of these works, Bladen takes his place as one of those who resists this tendentious homogeneity—totalitarianization.

At the same time, most of the paintings show the danger inherent in a determined pursuit of indeterminacy: petrifaction of the spontaneous. Bladen’s edges, for all their irregularity, are too manicured; the break between his colors is not visually disruptive; there is little sense of transgressive discontinuity between the gestures. Nothing in his work is truly mechanical—Bladen does not work from a formula—but his gestures do not have the pulse we have come to expect, rightly or wrongly, from Abstract Expressionism. Perhaps the sense of impacted surface he creates means to allude to the same “depth” that Jackson Pollock did in The Depth, 1953—a work equally problematic because equally forced. To dive into the depth is not necessarily to reach it; to insist upon it is often to add to surface, rather than to realize its intense fluidity. Typically, Bladen monumentalizes gesture, resulting in expressive paralysis. He tends to sculpt gesture, unwittingly betraying its transient energy, and thus its poignance.

Donald Kuspit