Incipient Terror and the Incomplete Sublime

Ross Bleckner once made reference to a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1912). The first elegy opens with the following passage:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me from among the

orders of angels? and even if one were suddenly

to suddenly hold me to its heart, I would die from its

mightier existence. For beauty is only ever

incipient terror, which we can still just endure, and which we

so revere because it impassively disdains to destroy us. Each

and every angel is terrible.

The poet is considering contact with—and the unattainability of—what he calls angels. The terrible thing is the difference between the human being and the angel, whose beauty the human reveres. When Bleckner cites this passage (in agreement), his focus is not so much on pursuing the poet’s line of thought in its entirety but rather on a similarly glittering coexistence that inevitably also affects his own art: the painful intertwining of beauty and terror, of light and darkness, of illusion and disillusion, of hope and despair, of Heaven and Earth (as some might say). A picture title such as Architecture of the Sky combines these contradictions in a metaphor that connects the rational, hands-on activity of construction with the other-worldly, boundless dimensions of the universe. As presumptuous as it is reassuring, this metaphor attempts to make something never fully comprehended comprehensible, to incorporate the heavens into the realms of human jurisdiction. But “only” as a picture, that is to say, as the visualization of a utopia.

The paintings referred to as Architecture of the Sky or as Dome are among the most abstract works by an artist, who never in fact signed up to abstraction as it is understood in the context of historic modernism. Whereas in other paintings by Bleckner objects such as flowers, candelabra, or birds appear in undefined painterly realms, in these works the real is reduced to individual dots, to elementary geometric units and the structures these form. Perspectives loom into view, there are hints of three-dimensional constructs. In the sciences at least, constructs are edifices in the mind’s eye that can be used to reinforce explanations. But the painted constructs on these canvases explain nothing; on the contrary, they suggest that there is no more than a minimum of familiar footholds on this pictorial journey into the unknown, into the uncomprehended. The arcs and “domes” of dots form what might be described as a spatial, organic-constructive grid. They bring an aspect of the rational into play and could thus be seen as an attempt—by measuring out unarticulated space—to determine their/our place in the universe. Yet this “architecture” does not set up a straightforward system of coordinates; it remains fragmentary. These are gestures into placelessness. And this means that, at the same time, they only manage to properly articulate the emptiness of space by means of an implicit Other. Bleckner has himself talked of an “ellipse of thought” in this context, that is to say, of a place that thought cannot extend into, where—for all our efforts and longings—the thinker is left behind. And in that sense we really are operating in a very abstract field here in these paintings.

So let us take a look at their physical constitution. The surfaces of the canvases conceal more than they reveal. Closer observation alone is enough for viewers to sense that there are multiple layers of paint here, that intense work has gone into these paintings—not in the spirit of trial and error but almost as a form of physical discipline or exercitium. The painter takes his time, he needs time to develop what he wants to show. The topmost layer of the paintings is made up of almost indefinable gray and brown earth tones, not painted smoothly, certainly not virtuosically, but applied dully, languidly, even doughily. Repellent stone, rough metal, even hardened skin come to mind as comparisons. But then it turns out that the numerous dots marking out the dome-like grid of the “heavenly architectures” are in fact wounds. Before applying the topcoats of paint, the artist stuck small clumps of resin onto the painting. Once these had been painted over he then filed the mounds down again: pale dots now appeared, in places it seems as though they have been dug out of the paint skin, broken out, torn out. Wounds create the actual picture, the illusion of space, the “vaulted skies.” The suggested order, even of a symbolic image, arises from the baseness, the rawness of corporeal, earthly experience. The physical matter of the painting is dark, desolate—in its original sense of alone or abandoned. But every so often a legible form emerges, a geometric projection. It would be too much to describe these forms as shining. One wonders whether they may in fact be the remnants of residual light, gradually dying away, or the faint flickering of lights trying to penetrate the darkness. Perhaps, in view of Bleckner’s blithe references to religion and mysticism elsewhere in his images, there would be no harm in making a comparison that one might otherwise avoid. The spots of light breaking through the paint substance seem to recall the little lights of votive candles in the dark expanses of old churches, lit in memory of absent loved ones, of the deceased, and connected with spiritual longings. One’s thoughts also turn to the eternal flame or the ner tamid as a symbol of the constant presence of the Lord, of hope, of unimaginable eternity.

But to come back to the facts, to the actual circumstances of the making of these paintings. It was in the 1980s and the place was New York City. Suddenly a seemingly impossible, lethal threat to free, self-determined living emerged: AIDS. Baffling at first and regarded as an individual misfortune, it soon became clear that this was an epidemic—claiming victims in one’s own circles and in great numbers, friends and acquaintances. At first it changed certain practices, then it changed life, and ultimately a whole culture, politics. And, besides one’s own anxiety, there was always mourning and one’s efforts to mark the deaths of certain individuals. Coming back to the paintings, Bleckner himself has cited an illness that often develops in connection with AIDS as the trigger for his images of erupting spots. The illness in question is Kaposi sarcoma, a form of cancer that shows on the skin as rounded reddish or bluish-brown marks. The link between these paintings—seemingly so abstract and sublime—and the actual, socio-historic reality of that time—could hardly be more explicit. The paintings have to fulfill this aim, yet they cannot and should not do so in the form of illustrations or commentaries, and certainly not as explanations. Knowing this background and the actual circumstances helps the viewer to understand the necessary distance not only between reality and the paintings but also between the artist’s intentions and the paintings. In Architecture of the Sky the artist endeavors to pin something down that he, as an individual, cannot fully grasp either intellectually or emotionally. In paintings of this kind both mourning and resilience take on visual form, without being materially present.

The word has already been used, although it has even greater significance in the context of these paintings. We are talking here of the sublime as an aesthetic category in connection with and in contrast to the beautiful. We are talking here of an aesthetic experience that goes beyond the boundaries of the “fine arts” and their rules, that brushes up against terror and seeks, by means of a leap of sorts, to make contact with the metaphysical. This is not the time for an aesthetic-philosophical digression into history. Suffice it to say that in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s the notion of “the sublime” was taken up by certain artists of the New York School, not least Barnett Newman (1905–1970), who also wrote on the subject. However, the focus here is not so much on the concept of the sublime but on a quality that pertains to such works. To name just one example: light installations by Dan Flavin (1933–1996), which specifically instigate the abrupt alternation—the almost-simultaneity—of two contradictory experiences. These installations consist of ordinary fluorescent tubes, of the kind commonly found in work places and public spaces: scarcely any object or material could be more banal. And yet, in a split second, suddenly these lights, almost casually arranged by the artist, can transmit an impulse that envelops and transports the viewer to another realm—catapulting him or her from ordinary, even trivial reality into a higher sphere, into the highest sphere: non-stop from the physical world to the realms of metaphysics, to put it at its broadest. But also back again, at any moment: from a moment of elevation in ordinary life, from a vaguely sensed There to the physical Here. Gazing at any of these installations the viewer may find him or herself constantly switching between these two realms, so rapidly and so intensely that they almost become one and mutate into a new experience. This is a version of the sublime that Bleckner’s works also seem to share. It amounts to an attempt, in a rationalist, post-metaphysical age, to sustain a sense of the metaphysical, without limiting contact with sober reality—prompted and driven by another stimulus for thinking and feeling, as common as it is radical: the experience of death.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott