New York

Ronald Bladen

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

RONALD BLADEN IS TODAY A SOMEWHAT OBSCURE figure. This was not always so. His Three Elements, 1965, identical rhomboids perched at a 65-degree angle, was a standout in the Jewish Museum’s landmark “Primary Structures” in 1966, vying for attention with Donald Judd’s static cubes and Robert Morris’s L-Beams (it was Bladen’s work in fact that dominated the coverage in the New York Times and Life). Another sculpture, the extraordinary X, 1967, headlined the Corcoran Gallery’s 1968 “Scale as Content” exhibition. For a few brief years, Bladen was a player in the fiercely competitive Minimal arena. The attention was short-lived. Rhetorically outpaced by Morris and Judd, formally less rigorous than Flavin or Andre, he never achieved the lasting notoriety of these artists despite the critical support of Irving Sandler, Lucy Lippard, and others. The P.S. 1 show, mounted more than a decade after Bladen’s death in 1988, was a much-needed overview. Like the Museum of Modern Art’s recent retrospective of another fellow traveler of Minimalism, Tony Smith, it made a strong case for an artist worth looking at again. For it confirmed that Bladen—an idiosyncratic, if not always satisfying formal intelligence—produced notable work.

Yet Bladen stood apart from the Minimalists in nearly every way. A full generation older than its key figures, he advocated an art that could capture the sublime experience of natural phenomena, an attitude more in keeping with Abstract Expressionist aesthetics than Minimalism’s refusal of transcendental meaning. (Bladen described his work as a “phenomenon that I can go to in order to feel, be moved, exalted.”) The earliest painting in the show, a Bentonesque scene of a telephone pole etched against a twisting road, already suggests this Romantic aspiration. The drawings he produced during the late ’40s and ’50s in San Francisco, where he encountered the work of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko and befriended Allen Ginsberg, contain recondite, dharmic allusions. Bladen begins to come into his own, it would seem, in the large-scale allover paintings he executed in the late ’50s, whose luxuriant, tarry surfaces, spread like butter, suggest a Still disciple gone wild (in some works, the paint is a full inch thick). His transition from these canvases to the geometric sculpture for which he became known was a lacuna of the P.S. I show, which leapt from the late ’40s to the ’60s. But the holes in the story, such as the influence of the geometric painter Al Held in the ’50s, must be credited to Bladen himself, who destroyed much of his early work. We do know that he developed a series of painted metal reliefs in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Exhibited at the Green Gallery in 1962, these prescient works, which reveal their bolts and the mode of their construction, bring to mind nothing so much as the constructed reliefs Judd would show at the same gallery that year, as well as the later work of Robert Ryman. (In a dismissive review, Judd, clearing a space for his own work, criticized the underlying “naturalism” of Bladen’s efforts.)

Given Bladen’s emphasis on subject matter, what is notable about his “Minimalism” is its dynamism and scale and its handmadeness. The tensile energy and precarious balance of his best works capture, through abstract means, the sublime impressions of crashing waves and suspension bridges. The cantilevered Three Elements and Cathedral Evening, 1969, held up by elaborate wooden armatures, are minor masterpieces of engineering. Bladen was hardly alone in exploiting such dynamic sculptural effects. The intersection of art and engineering in the work of those associated with the cooperative, Greenwich Village–located Park Place Gallery—Mark di Suvero, Forrest Myers, Robert Grosvenor, and Edwin Ruda, among others—with which Bladen was identified, is a forgotten episode of ’60s sculpture (the leaning plates of Richard Serra, whose work is less sui generis than commonly believed, would be hard to imagine without these precedents). Though unabashedly technophilic, Park Place retained a Romantic attachment to the handmade. Bladen’s pride in building his monoliths was admirable, but this decision compromised the impact of his work. Seen from afar, Cathedral Evening packed a wallop, but up close, its handpainted surface looks cheap. Covered in painted plywood, with cracks in the seams, the hemicycle Curve, 1969, lacked the power of Serra’s Torques, to which it has been compared. The show as a whole makes painfully clear why Serra and the Minimalists turned to industrial fabrication.

As Judd tirelessly argued, the handmade quality favored by Bladen hindered the reading of whole, monumental shapes. Curve exposed another weakness of Bladen’s work. Painted white on front and black in the rear, the piece reduces three dimensions to two; it feigns an embodied spectatorship in real space à la Minimalism, yet sets up an essentially pictorial schema. And in Mother and Child, 1970, two concentric triangles (the larger one “holding” the smaller) are resolved in a quasi-figurative image of embarrassing sentimentality; one can only assent to Judd’s unforgiving critique. Part of a handsome installation of scale models, the work reveals Bladen’s reluctance to fully grapple with the spatial implications of his monumental forms. The best of the models are more abstract, consisting of odd, interlocking shapes; if they, like much of the artist’s work, are inevitably less resolved than the Minimal cube, they also offer more to look at. As this welcome exhibition confirmed, Bladen conceived shapes that, failing to conform to then-current theoretical constructs, were very much his own. In the end, Bladen’s eccentricity was his strength.

James Meyer’s history of Minimalism in the '60s is forthcoming from Yale University Press.