East Hampton

Ross Bleckner

Guild Hall Museum

Selected from work ranging from 1985 to the present, this show consisted of some two hundred small paintings, mostly on canvas but a few on paper, as well as a single large painting (made specifically for this exhibition) representing the brick wall of Ross Bleckner’s studio with a number of the works shown here laminated onto it. The paintings may be rough and informal or, more often, quite elaborately worked, but in either case tend to project their autonomy and their contingency at once. While Bleckner’s larger works always seem to involve themes of mourning and ascension, vision and spirit—issues that are hardly absent here—these small paintings also reveal earthy, playful, more immediately perceptual aspects of the artist’s work. It’s reassuring to see the high themes anchored in direct experience, and good to be reminded that Bleckner is as unafraid to be obvious as some of his predecessors were resolute before unintelligibility.

Although Bleckner was often linked with the notion of appropriation in the ’80s, these paintings reveal an artist unembarrassed by a multitude of borrowings and influences, worked through in quite traditional ways. Happily rare here is the search for a signature quality, either in style or imagery. While a number of the paintings explore elements familiar from Bleckner’s large-scale canvases, just as many include something quite unexpected. Indeed, the less interesting of these works are often just those that read too immediately as “Bleckners,” because they are the ones that can seem too involved with merely working out a detail or polishing an effect—dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of presentation. What makes these pictures work best are not the obvious traits but rather the hidden theme that can make Bleckner’s big paintings so poignant—his interest in what he has referred to as the question of what constitutes an image—in other words, indefinition as an activating factor in understanding.

Beyond that, these paintings reconfirm the great constant of Bleckner’s search: the examination of the phenomenology of light in its relation to darkness, which has come increasingly to center on the body as a perceiving entity. The paintings project one’s body as darkness—the opacity of matter. One knows it as weight or lightness, pain or pleasure, but to know it visually is to know it as one knows everything one is not. Light represents the invasion of this darkness by the Other. Visibility is the knowledge of the Other in its distance from oneself. The most worldly light, the light of material luxury, may also be the most unworldly, which is why in Bleckner’s paintings chandeliers hover like flying saucers. That’s the situation of the paintings themselves: stationary vehicles of light, channeling it from an undefined elsewhere into the intimacy of the perceiving—perhaps I should say receiving—body in its concrete social being.

Barry Schwabsky