Ross Bleckner has lived and worked part time on the Sagaponack property that was once Truman Capote’s writer’s retreat since 1990 and has been showing regularly since the 1970s. Yet, it has been four years since his last solo show in New York City at Mary Boone, his gallery for almost four decades. It makes the exhibition of works he has made in the past year now on view an event, a chance to reflect on the direction he has taken familiar themes and some new directions in style and subject.
Now in his 60s, Mr. Bleckner’s last museum retrospective was at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum in 1995. While an argument can be made that not much has changed in his work, because of the continual return to certain themes, it would be a mistake to think that a new assessment is not in order. His series continue to evolve and it is illuminating to see which ones have maintained vibrancy to him.
It is worth discussing those themes as Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return is a central tenet of the postmodern idiom that Mr. Bleckner helped foster, beginning in the 1970s. There are the early stripe paintings from 1981 that confounded critics at the time who were not sure what to make of their apparent reference to Op-Art, as noted in the Guggenheim catalog essay by Lisa Dennison. These were redeemed by others who perceived the changes being wrought by Mr. Bleckner and his contemporaries, such as Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel, who saw strict modernism and formalism as no longer relevant, choosing instead to subvert it, or in Mr. Bleckner’s case, approach abstraction with irony.
Represented here by “Act of Enthusiasm,” from this year, the painting continues to play with light and the balance of dark with it. The luminosity is striking. More than any other work in the gallery (many of which alternate their surfaces between glossy and matte) the work glows and vibrates with the application of glazes and varnishes akin to an Old Master’s techniques. In the latest version there is a flaw amid the allusion to precision, although at second glance none of it seems too precise, with lines of slightly varied widths and tones. A slight drip or smudge on the side of one stripe reintroduces the painter and his hand to the otherwise mechanically applied application. It appears to be a nod to the hummingbirds or introduction of colors or even bows that Mr. Bleckner has also used to interrupt the clean balance of these works.
“Act of Enthusiasm” is not in the main gallery, but its inclusion is a reminder that themes, no matter how old, are not forgotten. Other familiar series demonstrate the effects of time and maturation on perspective and meaning. It is one of the few fully linear paintings, with the new “Treasury of Light (Black)” and “Treasury of Light (Grey)” comprising the other two.
Each one, with quite similar compositions, creates an effect akin to the nearby latest renditions of the “Architecture of the Sky” series that the artist began in the late 1980s, the lines replacing the dots that achieve perspective and the suggestion of church domes from the Pantheon to the Renaissance and beyond. While the dots in the one series hint at stars or small mosaic tiles that decorated these domes, the “Treasury of Light” paintings suggest the trajectory of comets racing toward a single point. Rather than plodding and ponderous, the mood is fast and streamlined: the way thought, data, and communication move in the contemporary world. The tonalities show the artist at continual play with the effects of surface paint on the light that is focused on it, its interruptions by incisions on the surface, and the absorptive or reflective qualities affecting mood and spirit.
At the same time, there is a sense of all of his memes melding together in this show. The “Architecture” series seeps into the “Brains” of recent years, some of the imagery associated with brains could be lower forms of plant life, and flowers emerge through fields of dots, inspired initially in his work by the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that came with AIDS, which carry over from both. The use of white in certain settings seems new, such as in “Doctor (Dr. Donald Kaplan).” The painting is done in the style of the Mausoleum paintings, yet it is white that now obscures the rest of the floral tribute, providing a translucent skin to see their veiled colors emerge rather than be obscured by the traditional black.
The series of red, black, and white paintings is familiar from various art fairs of the last few years. They are inspired by, one assumes from the titles, the scanned imagery of his sister’s brain, and feel new and fresh, even with their allusions to earlier paintings. The graphic simplicity of hue teems with activity, evoking energy on a cellular and universal level. Their dynamism suggests that one flipped a switch on the more static works on the wall, implying that all of these paintings have an inert life to them that has either left them or has yet to arrive, an animating force seen more literally in centuries past in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” In a secular age, creation of atoms might be a more suitable association.
While much of his career was spent distilling others, whether it was the light of Turner or Whistler, the orthogonals and physical space of Tintoretto, or the symbolism of Redon, as noted by Ms. Dennison, he is now fully distilling himself.
In a 2012 interview on Artforum.com, Mr. Bleckner said, “Your artwork looks like your personality in the end. I’ve always said that. I’ve tried to develop a signature style. Perhaps the paintings have been more about real life than anything else.”
The paintings remain on view through April 26.