New York

Ronald Bladen

This exhibition of forgotten paintings by a well-known but marginalized sculptor reminds us that history is capricious, that it is a complex dynamic rather than a series of static events. None of the convenient art-historical models used to designate artists or oeuvres accommodate Ronald Bladen’s five-decade career very precisely. Bladen’s subtle refusal to work in a mainstream style raises a number of important questions about the way the art world admits artists into the canon. Is, for example, the course of mainstream art the result of each generation connecting itself to official history via a critically sanctioned style?

Bladen’s career can be divided into at least two phases. In his second phase—the one for which he is best known—Bladen worked as a sculptor. From the mid ’60s until the late ’70s, his sharply angled, planar sculptures lurched and extended like dancers, in a witty and unabashed defiance of gravity. During the ’80s, he mounted curved aluminum sheets on the wall to catch, reflect, and redirect light. Common to both periods is Bladen’s ability to make work, the formal emphasis of which appeals directly to the viewer’s imagination and sense of measure rather than to theoretical or abstract agendas. In part, this explains why Bladen’s work never conformed to the stylistic agendas associated with Minimalism and post-Minimalism.

This selection of untitled, abstract paintings done between ’56 and ’59 suggests that Bladen produced a body of mature work before he emerged as a sculptor in the mid ’60s. Made after he moved to New York from San Francisco, these paintings owe something to Clyfford Still, but they also suggest that Bladen had already found a way to “correct” or disagree with the thinking of this formidable precursor. Instead of using scale to supply drama, Bladen’s modestly proportioned paintings invite a closer look. The paint has been troweled, layered, and brushed onto the surface. Each composition consists of an impastoed monochromatic field in which thick “islands” of paint erupt through the encrusted surface. Bladen places these “islands” near or on the edge, causing a tension between field and support, painterly plane and sculptural form.

Bladen’s work is less aptly characterized as action painting than as a record of accretion. Ultimately, Bladen’s paintings seem attuned to geological time, to the realm of shifts and eruptions, as opposed to the automatic gestalt associated with Abstract Expressionism. In his paintings the viewer is confronted by the artist’s patience, his evident love for the slowness of paint, as opposed to Jackson Pollock’s speed or Willem de Kooning’s frantic attack. Bladen changed the terms he inherited from Abstract Expressionism and in this lies his contribution. Yet, like Pollock, Bladen knew when to stop. He avoided the trap of fetishizing process. There is both a variousness to the paintings and a specificity. Bladen’s process never leads him to the same place twice.

John Yau