New York

Ross Bleckner

Mary Boone Gallery

Ross Bleckner’s paintings walk a fine line between painterly flourish and shimmering smoothness. The sheer dexterity with which darkness and luminosity are integrated in these works bespeaks a master of surface, as does their abiding transparency, which opens onto infinite, unsettling, and unsettled depths. Bleckner has created a new vertigo of the sublime, in which disorienting space and flickering, tenuous substance converge to create a subtly turbulent, cosmic effect. Indeed, the paintings have a diabolical, cabalistic, ingeniously disturbed look.

For me the alpha and omega of Bleckner’s intention are revealed in The Sixth Examined Life, 1989, and The Tenth Examined Life, 1991. In the former—a kind of cosmic landscape—forceful black arrows radiate from a blinding luminous center to the upper edges of the canvas and implicitly beyond. In the latter, a grid, the sectors of which contain globules of luminescent matter—or is it antimatter?—the cosmos has settled into eccentric predictability. In The Sixth Examined Life Bleckner seems to articulate the primary act of differentiation between light and dark, and to invoke the energy implicated in that act, while in The Tenth Examined Life he articulates the entropic rut that differentiation settles into: the homogeneity and stability that are the unpromising dead end of the process. And yet the mystery remains.

The pictures also walk a fine line between symbolizing and expressive intention; they seem both to convey a particular “philosophy” and to evoke a general mood. I think they encapsulate the gnostic conception of creation and salvation—of salvation as a return to creation. They seem to show the forces of light and of darkness in unresolved Manichean conflict. The light source—according to gnostic doctrine beyond the demiurgic, matter- and world-creating struggle—is symbolic at once of the divine and of the moment of illumination that, at the instant of death, unites the human with the divine. Of the many artists interested in the so-called new spirituality, Bleckner has, with these works, definitively asserted himself as the most innovative, both visually and conceptually. One troubling thought: as The Fifth Examined Life, 1989, suggests—by reason of the way the colorful earth is set in an (Einsteinean) curved cosmic grid, amidst a glowing candelabra and a “spaceship” whirling like a dervish—Bleckner’s picture of the universe is derived from science fiction fantasies. But maybe that is not so troubling; maybe the only way we can come to a perspective on our existence—become aware of the truly wondrous character of our existence—in an age in which transcendence seems to have become a bankrupt idea, and religion, the institution that was its caretaker and mediator, a reified farce, is through science fiction.

Maybe we need the myth of the possibility of an encounter of the third kind to keep the faith, that is, to remain subliminally aware of our existence in the starry cosmos. The popularity of the science fiction genre is symptomatic not just of a fascination with special effects—and Bleckner’s paintings certainly have their share of these—but of a yearning for a meaningfulness that can only come from beyond. Bleckner has taken what is semiludicrous in popular culture and made it genuinely visionary. Unlike many others who accept the inescapability of pop cultural imagery, he has not capitulated to it in order to capture his fair share of the audience, but rather used it as a springboard to truly meaningful visions of the impossible—of the unbelievable but inevitable. He has established pictorial control over what is uncontrollable. He has shown us cosmic fate itself, with all the visual cunning necessary to make it unironically immediate and uncannily personal. His images will continue to preoccupy us inwardly long after we have seen them, and it is rare that pictures have such an aftereffect.

Donald Kuspit