Like when you fumbling about in the darkness and you light a lamp and the light come up and rescue things *

In 2012, Ross Bleckner published an artist's book entitled My Life in The New York Times. It contains text snippets he collected during his daily reading, supplemented by one or the other press picture as well as his own drawings and paintings. In a short statement, he describes his newspaper clippings as “a reminder of things to do and not to do, as well as a source of inspiration”. The book’s subtitle, “An Artist and His Work”, also emphasizes the close connection between these two. As if to reinforce this, the words “COMMEMORATION PROPHECY” appear at the end next to two short obituaries dedicated to Bleckner’s mother. The collected text excerpts revolve around key questions like suffering, illness, death, grief and memory, religion and philosophy, loneliness and love, failure and perseverance. The quotations range from philosophical reflections on the art of living to general help in life. In an interview, the artist even describes the publication as a “self-help book”. The relationship between the texts and the images is associative, sometimes seemingly random. However, motivic parallels between the newspaper photos and his own works are frequent (flowers, lights).­ The modest paperback unsettlingly confronts the reader with the artist’s subjectivity. The issues raised are weighty on the one hand and quite general on the other. Obviously, they have an existential meaning for Bleckner, especially in this form. Even if he himself only speaks indirectly here, a kind of exposure takes place. Which can be both embarrassing and disarming for the outsider. This book brings to the fore an emphatic insistence arising from harsh wounds. One suspects it is not only a personal state of mind, but represents an objective quality, a quality that cannot be suppressed when beholding the pictures.

Bleckner’s work, developed over the space of more than forty years, continues to divide opinion. Virtually every painting seems to touch a point where you either abandon yourself to its seductive powers or turn away from it. Like the striking impact of a dazzling musical chord that envelops you and whisks you away, the pictures for some develop a magnetism that they want or have to follow. The same highly emotional tone prompts others to instinctively recoil in caution to distance themselves from the persuasiveness of the painting. Even before the underlying themes are covered, reactions are divided into a quasi-culinary willingness to empathize, on the one hand, and a critical rejection of the stated pathos, on the other. Some assume that the artist is authentically affected and that the artistic reaction is appropriate. While others suspect a naïve, if not sentimental or kitsch relationship to reality. To use the buzzwords of the artistic era in which Bleckner started to work, here the constructively critical avant-garde is juxtaposed with postmodern subjectivity. However, the exclusiveness of unconditional admiration or rash rejection should make you all the more suspicious.

Loading of a Pattern

“The detail of the pattern is movement, / As in the figure of the ten stairs. / Desire itself is movement / Not in itself desirable.”

(T. S. Eliot)

At first glance, the so-called stripe paintings are among the most neutral motifs in Bleckner’s work. The abstract art of the second half of the last century provides numerous examples where the simple addition of identical or different parallel stripes yields a maximum of inner pictorial dynamics. The repetitive pattern with its ornamental qualities seems to guarantee an unyielding distance to the representational world. At first such images are unsuspicious of representative or even symbolic functions.. But it is different with Bleckner’s striped pictures. Already their visible craftsmanship, the slight vibration and blurring of the lines as well as the cloudy or blotchy discolorations within the stripes shift pure geometry toward emotionalization – without being able to say more precisely what their content is. It also seems not insignificant that the stripes run vertically with a few exceptions: The association with curtains brings into play the motifs of concealment and unveiling, thus suggesting possible but unnamed content. Relatively clear compositions – such as Sisters’ Swords (1986) with the French heraldic lilies inserted at the upper edge or Remember Them (1987) with its baroque-like frame – point to a representative dimension in the dual sense of the word. They name concrete signs and objects and thus evoke a world of power and grand style. The veiled but legible title in the middle of the second painting finally defines the function of the picture as a memento. From Unknown Qualities of Light (Part I) (1987) might withhold such explicit references but replaces them with an atmospheric charging of the motif with reddish swollen stripes and pale dots of light appearing in the background. Finally, in other pictures small, quite minutely painted birds get “caught up” in the string curtains (Untitled, 1986; Eclipse of Us, 1987-88). Even more than the aforementioned elements, these confront the basic abstract pattern with a reference to living reality, which, however, does not lack a certain irony. The emotionalization of the geometry caused by discoloration, blurring and background painting is broken up and paradoxically heightened by the image of nature brought into the foreground in the form of small animals, which signalize lively appeal as much as they suggest kitsch. In a picture title like Cage, the dialectic of veiling and enclosure on the one hand and liberation on the other is unequivocally stated.

The striped pictures of the mid-1980s are the resumption of an earlier group of works, but are now driven by Bleckner’s reaction to the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. He lends a certain ambiguity to the modernist motif of stripes, which was popular in Op Art in the 1960s and later often mocked, even on the geometric level. The interwoven references to reality increase the imponderabilities and contradictions between real emotion and intended pathos. It is almost as if Bleckner emphatically wishes to express a certain desperation, namely that abstract modernism itself is unable to do justice to existential content and that only its deliberate confrontation with symbolic or ironic particles of reality can take him to the next level.

Constructions of the Intangible

„Wir sehen dich, Himmel, wir sehen dich. / Pocke um Pocke / treibst du hervor, / Pustel um Pustel.“

(Paul Celan)

The paintings entitled Architecture of the Sky or Dome are also 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. 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 that 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. It is all the more important here to view the paintings’ physical constitution. The surfaces of the canvases conceal more than they reveal. The multiple layers of paint here bear witness to the intense work or exercitum that produced them. The painter needs time to develop what he wants to show. Indeterminate grey and brown earth tones make up the topmost layer of the pictures; they are dull, languid, almost pasty. Forbidding stone, rough metal but also hardened skin spring to mind here as comparisons. 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. Dug out of the paint skin, broken out, torn out, these 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. Bleckner’s blithe references to religion and mysticism elsewhere in his images may also remind us of the dim light of votive candles in the dark expanses of old churches, lit in memory of the absent and deceased. 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.

With Architecture of the Sky, the artist breaks his bond with the modernist tradition of geometric-abstract art, which has always been associated with the possibility of rationally penetrating and constructing the world. Like in his stripe paintings, he has used and exploited this legacy both to maintain its claim and to explore and, if possible, overcome its inadequacy. The proximity to the microcosm and macrocosm and to the sublime – if not to the metaphysical – often suggested by the abstraction of modernism is simultaneously captured in these pictures and hybridized with quasi-corporeal symbols. Bleckner, for instance, associated the light points as “wounds” with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer that covers the skin with bluish-brown lumps.

Swallowed Light

“lichtinfusorien sind kassiber. / die aus und mit dem licht gemacht.”
(Thomas Kling)

When the disease was first comprehensively described and named AIDS, when more and more people died of it in the USA and elsewhere and the press began to report on it, Bleckner himself had to mourn many victims among his friends and acquaintances. At the same time, all sorts of different lights began appearing in his paintings, yes, light in ambivalent form became their actual subject. It started in 1983 with night images of diffuse reflections. In these pictures you imagine you can see faint reflections on wet asphalt or cold lights that briefly appear as atmospheric veils. These are landscapes in their most rudimentary form. The unknown lights break like waves onto a world outside you can only vaguely make out. A little later, the light phenomena mutate into a hybrid connection of interiors and cosmic expanses. They are scenically charged tableaux with stage-like perspectives, populated by various lights that seem not least to emanate from lamps and candelabra or to be reflected by shiny, precious objects. Some of these rooms are almost chaotically infused with light phenomena and things. As in a delirium, a world without hold and fixed meaning spins – somewhere between the evocation of grand gestures, brief illumination and the escalation into black infinity. Other images reduce the elements to dots, spots and rays that break out of the darkness in a bright or dazzling yet also laborious manner.

The motif of light, traditionally associated with enlightenment, appears in these pictures in deeply ambivalent forms. It would be too easy to interpret it as a sign of hope in the darkened spaces of horror, incomprehension and grief. It radiates too little for that, is not clear enough. In the form of small dots it risks being swallowed up by the huge black expanses surrounding it. Elsewhere, smudged light spots seem dirt-stained. And even if the light brightens in places, it still seems to exist behind a thin veil or is disturbed by other darting crosslights. The lights in these pictures are at most something like attempts at hope, painted reminders that there might be something like hope. What’s more, lightness and dark fall into one. The usual dialectic collapses into great confusion. The conglomerate of light and dark appears with each picture as a renewed attempt to separate these opposites and the possibility of choice. As if painting itself could break through the chaos of experiences, emotions and thoughts and let light be light again –­ just by holding on long enough and eschewing no risks.

Visible Basis of Existence

“Dasein als Zellverkehr ... in Einzelzellen? / Auch du, für diesen Zeitfilm chromosom- / Getreu kopiert, steckst tief in deiner Zelle.”
(Durs Grünbein)

While the “sky architecture” images allude to visible phenomena in the largest conceivable space, Bleckner’s cell images reach into realms at the other end of the perceptibility scale, into the microcosm visible only with the help of specialist equipment. Biological cells can only be illustrated in mediated form, be this via a high degree of technically produced magnification (for scientists) or by, also technically produced, photographic images (for everyone else). Contributing significantly to the idea we have of cells is knowledge and partial knowledge, imagination and fiction, assumptions and fears. Swayed if not influenced by scientific thought, lay people also believe that they are close to the nub of things when viewing cells and their structures. It is possible that body cells today, as the smallest living units, are something like the last visible basis of existence. And that also makes them possible objects for depiction in painting. With this motif Bleckner no longer approaches metaphorically an illness such as AIDS and the general existential themes derived from it, but deals with it in a “realistic” way. The images seem to provide a microscopic view of the physical causes of suffering. In a scientific sense they seem to objectify the personal experience. However, the actual nature of the cells, for example their “healthy” or “sick” state, cannot be read in these representations, since the viewer usually lacks the knowledge for this. Even though some of the images appear in their clinical magnification like an actual view through the microscope, their “realism” is anything but objective. This is already defied by the monumentality of many of these paintings that are three meters in size or larger. The inspiration for the individual forms, structures and colors undoubtedly comes from microbiology, but equally obvious is their free artistic transformation through concentration of form, ornamentalization and tinting. Thus, a wide array of fascinating associations is created between microorganic references and quasi-abstract structures, between pulsating energies and threatening substances. A swarm of black, one-eyed “beings” floats out of a diffuse background, elsewhere overlapping dots of the brush form a vortex only reminiscent of blood cells from a distance. The mutual interpenetration of forms, painting styles and associations comes to a head in those pictures, which in their veiled splendor create a complete ambivalence between positive and negative, between organic vitality and morbid uncertainty. In the title of one of the paintings, its effect goes full circle and its contradictory statement is aptly summed up: In Sickness and Health.

Bleckner’s various approaches to expressing the initial pain of his worldview were thus far determined by free-flowing poetic and metaphorical signs. With the cell pictures he starts from representations of objective conditions in connection with physical life and its innermost threats, but also inevitably arrives at poetic-metaphoric images. The medium of painting, at least how he handles it, is fundamentally ambivalent towards “reality”. It breaks through every attempt at objectification already at the outset through its proximity to emotion. At the center of this essential dimension of painting are the colors and the countless ways of handling them. Bleckner surrenders to them without scruple and yet at the same time controls them deliberately.


“O Rose, thou art sick! / The invisible worm, / That flies in the night, / In the howling storm, / Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy.”

(William Blake)

Flowers in an arranged form are a conventional means of communicating oneself and other emotional signs in everyday life. Since the Baroque period, still life flower paintings have sent out various messages that extend beyond the wealth and splendor of the actual depiction. They mostly deal with the evanescence of things in life’s here and now. Bleckner’s preoccupation with this motif began in the mid-1990s, and it is striking that from the beginning he concentrated on flowers and neglected the other parts of the plants. In a picture like Hothouse (1995) a still varied range of flowers quiver against the backdrop of sultry patches of color. A little later, he reduces the forms to mostly round, frontally presented flowers in quasi-geometric arrangements. It is no coincidence that there are transitions between the flower and cell images. The both seductive and morbid power of the flowers involuntarily invokes the words of Flowers of Evil by poet Charles Baudelaire. In the 2010s, the very swiftly and blurred painted flowers seem to float on or above a slightly modulated (water?) surface. Some of them attain such a degree of figurative dissolution that they are read as flowers only in the context of the other images. Here, too, the border to microbiology or more generally to enigmatic phenomena blurs, prompting a disturbing blend of attraction and repulsion. We are in a zone of unpleasant but tempting assumptions. In Untitled (2018), the flower motif has almost completely evaporated in favor of two foggy, expanding bodies of color. A black “hole” then also penetrates a hidden interior.­

Like the lights, like the birds, like the starlit vaults, the flowers in Bleckner’s paintings exude an unalienable contradiction. They are signs of life and hope, blurred and shaded at the same time, constantly threatened by the darker background of the paintings. It is precisely the conventionality of the floral still life motif, which over the course of history has degenerated into kitsch, that brings forth a paradox in these images, which brings grief together with a touch of frivolity. The blossoms featured in these pictures are ambivalent plants that both comfort and wither, never breaking out of this vicious circle.

“Lascivious” Painting

Bleckner’s art has something lascivious about it – if you don't interpret this term solely in its erotic sense. The Latin root means wanton, exuberant, unrestrained, impudent. In 1980/1981 it was wanton and exuberant how he began to hybridize and charge cool, modernist spatial constructions with objects and living creatures. Not with any old motifs, but with motifs that are both meaningful and decorative, ones you would certainly assume to extend to realms far beyond modern art to be taken seriously. His renewed evocation of cosmic dimensions, associated with fields of classical abstraction, was also exuberant. Painting itself, the use of colors and the application of color, ultimately became wanton. The sfumato as a technique of nuanced, tinted, shaded and blurred transitions creates an intermediate zone, a painterly “mood” that transcends the meaning of the objects depicted. Ambiguity becomes the aggregate state of all signs in Bleckner’s pictures. At the same time, however, something unmistakable is apparent in this intermediate world – something that could be described as melancholy. If there were not also an element of “impudence” in the sense of bold and challenging. This is found in Bleckner’s blatant handling of sheer, if ambivalent, beauty. It is important to understand this type of lasciviousness as an appropriate expression, beyond all the well-worn reactions to the central themes of suffering, death and memory. The way he approaches the trigger here, the AIDS crisis, and the sheer finiteness of life is primarily a psychological, not analytical and only partially political one. Inherent in this kind of painting is the concession that its content is ultimately beyond the painter’s comprehension – but also the hope that painting itself will still open up access, in-roads, into that content.

* Sebastian Barry: Days Without End, Faber & Faber, London 2016

Translated from the German by Claire Cahm

(Published in: Ross Bleckner. Bilder 1985-2018 Paintings, Neues Museum, Staatliches Museum für Kunst und Design, Nürnberg, Appletree Collection, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg 2019, pp. 9-13 (German), 15-19 (English))