A History of the Painter’s Heart

an Interview with Ross Bleckner

Ross Bleckner admits that the idea of beauty has always been a personal fascination, and the result of his compelling interest is the production of bodies of work that aspire towards and achieve the condition of the radiant and the sublime. At the core of his expression is a profound affirmation of the human spirit, and one of its deepest manifestations is a spiritual dimension that has little to do with conventional religiosity and everything to do with an unwavering humanist epistemology. His most recent exhibition, “Ross Bleckner: Pharmaceutria” at Petzel in New York, included 15 paintings, all large oils on linen, that, taken together, are a measure of where he sees himself and the medium that has been his primary focus from the time he left CalArts with his MFA in hand in 1973 and returned to New York.

Bleckner sees these paintings as addressing his awareness of time and mortality. Pharmaceutria is Latin for “sorceress,” and there is something irresistibly seductive about the body of work that carries this name. One of the screens through which it looks at painting today is the history of painting in the past. The surfaces of these new works include visual echoes of painters he has admired, including El Greco, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Emile Nolde, Odilon Redon and James Ensor. There is a rich layering, and an equally rich taking away in the “burn paintings,” that is everywhere evident on the painted surface. For Bleckner, painting is like a skin, so what happens on the painting’s body is a reprise of what has happened on the human body.

Ross Bleckner, Untitled, 2018, oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches. Image courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

Of course, using painting as a vehicle for an investigation of death is one of the things for which he is best known and properly admired. Beginning in 1985 with Hospital Room, a memorial to a lost friend, he began a process of painting through the AIDS crisis and over the intervening 34 years developed a singularly personal language that mourned the devastation of the illness and celebrated the resilience of the gay community that was its principal victim. His visual expression of the epidemic’s effect reached a high point in the “Memorial Paintings” in 1994, but his commitment to recognizing its presence never stopped. Bleckner became the articulate voice, in image and through social activism, of the AIDS movement. “The meaning of being an artist isn’t about going to my studio and choosing a little more white or a little more blue,” he says in the following interview. “The meaning is what’s going on in the world and bringing that into my studio and into my work. … I’m also an artist and a citizen and I’m a gay man and I have to bring all those into the dialogue.” The complexity of the dialogue in which he is engaged is traceable on the skin of his paintings: “My best paintings are about the things that an artist refuses to talk about.”

Bleckner is also capable of pulling out all the stops and painting a gorgeous still life, like Untitled, 2018, a work that will be included in his upcoming exhibition at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Toronto. But it’s worth repeating his awareness that “beauty is a subterfuge” and that even when he is the most sensuous, he will strike a more sombre chord; the radiance of his floral still life is emphasized by its impenetrably dark background, just as the delicate floating shapes in paintings like Crowd, 2016, and Nearer, Deeper, Firmer, 2019, are seductive transformations of the Kaposi sarcoma lesions that were the surface of his AIDS related paintings.

Throughout his work he has effortlessly moved back and forth between contrasting states, the inside and the outside, the microscopic and the telescopic, the absent and the present. Perhaps nowhere is his skill in this shifting visual architecture more apparent than in his portrayal of light. His intention in all his paintings has been to produce a persistent, internally generated light. He told Border Crossings that he has been “trying through all the chaos to find the space of light and clarity.” Elsewhere he has said, “The main thing for me is how the image is disembodied, almost vaporized, into this continuous pulsating glow that emanates from something.” Bleckner will admit that he doesn’t know how he achieves this disappearing presence, but it is one of the singular achievements of his painting. He has been able to make visible the absent, to embody the disembodied. It is a paradox of considerable depth and it has resulted in paintings of—and we go back to where we started—radiant beauty.

Installation view, “Pharmaceutria,” 2019, Petzel, New York. Image courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

Ross Bleckner was interviewed by Robert Enright and Meeka Walsh at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York on June 14, 2019. “Pharmaceutria” was on exhibition there from April 24 to June 15, 2019. “Ross Bleckner” will be on exhibition at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Toronto from November 15 to December 21, 2019.

ROSS BLECKNER: Aging is freaking me out. I’m serious. It was not a surprise, but it played a lot into these paintings. I had the idea that I should leave the city for a while and rethink things and do a body of work that’s about mortality and life and the situation that we live in, and that’s unlike the cartoony, very pop art paintings that I see in the art world all around me. It’s almost like everything has to be visible for an instant at an art fair. I want to do the opposite of that, make paintings that deal with the way your mind works, not a style of painting necessarily but the way consciousness works, which is that it goes off in many different directions. It is dark and it’s light; it’s lyrical, it’s serious and melancholic. It’s not just a way of finding a strategy to make formal marks or make paintings that look good. That also should be something that they do, but that’s just one of the functions. But the beauty in them is a subterfuge to bring you in to what I feel is a more complex narrative.

BORDER CROSSINGS: Beauty is the seduction? That’s how you seduce the viewer into the apprehension of the work?

Yes. I’ve always had an anxiety about the difference between the bigness of ego and the dissolution of ego. I want my paintings to be more about its dissolution into this ethereal and ineffable ‘other’ space. But I also want them to be a body of strong paintings that say something and that have an identity. But I don’t know what my identity is.

Untitled, 2018, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches. Image courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

But of the painters of your generation, you have been able to develop a pictorial language that seems entirely your own. And it has a lot to do with the tension between spectral dissolution and then the appearance of something. Was a lot of that strategic in the way you made pictures?

No, it wasn’t. I see a lot of paintings that I think are terrific, but to me they look like the layering of strategies to make a terrific painting. Especially now, where you start with, let’s say, a printed background and you get some images from Photoshop, and then maybe you spray on something. And on top of all of that you create a drop shadow. That is a pop culture-oriented modality that you see very often. My problem with it is that I couldn’t care less about pop culture.

But you had an early interest in the tropes of Op Art.

It’s the way perception works and I still have an interest in that aspect. That has to do with what I was saying before about the ineffable. It’s the space in consciousness where something makes sense to the eye and then dissolves and it does both those things simultaneously. An image is there and fades right in front of you and you can’t quite locate what’s going on. What I felt I was bringing to the idea of perception wasn’t the pop culture thing; it was actually the science thing. When I looked at a lot of Op Art, I was trying to give it some reason to be other than just being art for art’s sake. So, for me, it was connected to science and perception, but the problem was it was very mechanical.

The story goes that you were 15 when you saw the “Responsive Eye” at MoMA in 1965 on a school trip and were knocked out by it. That show included Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely and a beautiful stripe painting by Morris Louis called Number 33 that must have hit your optic nerve.

That’s what it did. The idea that things can hit your optic nerve is a foil for their going deeper into your body. So your relationship with the painting isn’t in you and it isn’t in the painting. It starts to become a circular space between you and the painting based on vibratory energy. That’s what fascinated me then and I am still fascinated by the idea that painting can actually have a vibratory energy.

Burn Painting (Crossing the Border), 2015, oil on linen, 96 x 72 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

What’s extraordinary about this exhibition is the way it keeps confusing you. Wanting to Fall (2019) is overloaded at the top, and as you move down the compression changes, and by the time you get to the bottom of the painting, it opens up. As a result, you’re always trying to find the right distance from the painting to properly read it.

I take that as a compliment because I’m not smart enough to think through something as evolved as that. Actually, all that is, is me trying to find my way through the painting; it’s a lot about not knowing. I have that Zen thing about not knowing.

What you end up saying is what you don’t know?

Yes. I’m making the painting and then I’m erasing the painting, and I’m scraping the painting. And then I’m burning the painting. I’d done that in the past and because of the atmosphere in this country, and also in the world, I started doing it again. I first burned a painting in the “Examined Life” series in the ’90s. They were black paintings but very perspectival. Rooms and layers and places that were deep and then far and close.

They have a strange and sometimes spectral quality that makes me think of Odilon Redon and Gustav Moreau.

I guess you process it all. I still basically think of the same handful of artists. As much as I live in the world and see myself as political and pragmatic, I also have this utopian sense of possibility. And something that people don’t talk about, including me, because they don’t know how to talk about it properly, is spirituality. But that was mostly what Rothko and the abstract expressionists were about. It was about trying, through all the chaos, to find this space of light and clarity. That always appealed to me. Rothko appealed to me a lot. He’s an artist whom I certainly go back to because of the spirit and the feeling and the aspiration.

One of the things that fascinated me in reading through the criticism about your work is that nobody has pinned down your relationship to irony. Peter Halley calls you an “ironical transcendentalist.” He’s trying to characterize you as a painter who aspires toward spirituality at the same time that you’re aware of the irony of being a painter at a time when the medium is distrusted.

I hate to say it, but there is not that much irony. The irony that I do feel has to do with the cosmic awareness that we’re here for such a short time and that we take all this bullshit so seriously. That in itself is ironic, that our system has created our minds and our minds are geared toward competition, things my better self wouldn’t want to be involved with. I don’t want to know who’s better, who’s not better, who’s selling more, who’s selling less. Does it matter? So you have to take a breath and try to find this other place. It’s really the projection of these places. I could never be out of our system because you can’t be outside something that you’re inside. You could look at it, you could analyze it for yourself, you can express your feelings about it, but we’re all stuck because we’ve been articulated and conditioned through propaganda from when we’re tiny, tiny children. It’s all geared and structured, so that it puts us on a path that leads us to be complicit and complacent with our political system and be quiet and be good consumers because that’s what keeps everything running. I don’t want to be any of that but I am. But you can have feelings about it and sometimes there’s a little anger, sometimes a little melancholy. Why did it have to be like this? Things could have been arranged differently; we could have inherited a different mindset. Everybody knows that it’s unsustainable as it is now, except the politicians.

…to continue reading the interview with Ross Bleckner, and others such as with Wanda Koop, Alex Janvier, and Tammi Campbell, order a copy of Issue #151 here, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.