New York

Ross Bleckner

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Ross Bleckner’s six new “Meditation” paintings—one a diptych, all but one involving high-intensity black and red, often enmeshed in gray and auratically luminous, and all representing a kind of abstract naturalism (leaf gestures, sometimes lushly intermingled, abound)—bring to mind Rudolf Arnheim’s analysis of “the power of the center,” Robert Motherwell’s remarks about red, and Wassily Kandinsky’s analysis of the affective significance of color. All of these connections underscore the evocative power and structural intricacy of the work.

Simultaneously a tour de force of nuance, Bleckner’s new canvases (the ongoing series of which they are a part was begun in 2006) are a struggle to capture the vibrating sensations of nature, and an ambitious attempt to show that impulse painting can still make a spiritual point, as it did in Kandinsky’s early works. I think the dialectic works, which is why Bleckner’s paintings can be understood as a dereification of painting—a regeneration of what has been thought to be outmoded. His paintings can be understood as takes on the mandala as well as retakes on avant-garde painting. They are caught between purity and naturalism, however naively aspirational the former and decadently attenuated the latter.

Every Bleckner painting has a hypnotic center, implicitly that of a flower’s stigma, from which the rest emanates like an electromagnetic field—a “holding point,” as Arnheim calls it, from which “sheaves of concentric radii . . . emerge” even as they “converge toward it.” Bleckner’s center is not a “static point, at which action ceases,” but rather the “node” in which the energetic action is concentrated in “dynamic . . . arrest.” There is a spin-wheel look to the paintings, at once centripetal and centrifugal.

“The ‘pure’ red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist,” Motherwell wrote. “Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps, and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise we should have no feeling toward red or its relations, and it would be useless as an artistic element.” It seems clear that the concrete phenomenon in which Bleckner’s vivid red is rooted derives from nature, but red, as Kandinsky writes, also conveys “a steadily burning passion,” suggesting that Bleckner’s red “represents” libido. If, as Kandinsky says, black conveys “nothingness bereft of possibilities . . . silence without future, without hope,” then Bleckner’s paintings are an allegory of the struggle between life-giving libido and the deenergizing death instinct—indeed, black and red seem to be wrestling with each other even as they are locked in a paradoxical embrace—played out on a “toneless” field of gray, alleviated by moments of dim “illumination.” Is Bleckner a gnostic? Does the phoenix of red rise from the cosmic gray and black abyss in a moment of enlightenment? Bleckner seems to be an abstract symbolist, a mystic who sees in the traces of nature renewed hope for romantic painting.

Donald Kuspit