Though he launched his career in the New York art scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties—against the backdrop of neo-expressionism, the Pictures Generation, and the AIDS epidemic—Ross Bleckner first forged his artistic vision in and around Los Angeles in the early Seventies as an MFA student at CalArts.
“It was the hot school to go to. I went to NYU and I wanted to move around a little,” says Bleckner, who studied under John Baldessari alongside future New York art-world stars David Salle, Jack Goldstein, and Eric Fischl. When Bleckner returned to New York, he bought the loft building at 77 White Street in Tribeca and rented the ground floor space to the Mudd Club, three floors to Julian Schnabel, and another to Keith Haring. In the eighties, as AIDSbegan to devastate the art world, he began personalizing formalist and abstract tropes to respond to death, disease, loss, and rebirth in psychologically fraught paintings that rendered T-cells, flickering lights, or stripes (including those in the gay pride flag) as soft glowing memento mori and hard-edge self-portraits. “It’s sometimes hard for you to see in my paintings how I arrive at an image, but sometimes I just take a torch and burn a painting and work with the residue of what’s left. I don’t think of my work as paintings so much as resurrections of paintings. It’s painting in its reincarnated state. There’s almost an astronomical feeling I want my paintings to have, an expanse of time and movement.”
For the last few years, during the course of the pandemic, Bleckner has kept his time and movement sequestered at his studio in the Hamptons. That’s where he worked on his most recent show, Sehnshuct, which recently opened to much fanfare at the Vielmetter Los Angeles in downtown Los Angeles. It’s Bleckner’s first solo show in L.A. in more than a quarter-century and revisits some of the themes of loss and anxiety that pervaded his early work.
“It’s like we’re all living in the Middle Ages, all still hiding from viruses, ” he says. All of our lives are bracketed by pandemics,” says Bleckner, who uses his dark, ghostly palette to render landscapes collapsing over time, lungs and skeletal systems in peril, and ethereal flowers that blur and fade. A grouping of the latter serves as a new memento mori for his late partner, Eric Freeman, who passed away unexpectedly six months ago, at the age of 51, during the making of this show, which features three floral tribute paintings to the late New York painter.“It’s a bit of a departure point in my life. I hate to say it, but it’s post-Eric. A lot of my plans had to do with what Eric wanted. Oh boy.”
As a result of these recent upheavals, Bleckner has been spending more time in L.A. and may well set up a home and studio in his old stomping grounds. We caught up with Bleckner while he was taking a break in the high desert to talk about life, loss, Los Angeles, and the new work that is emerging from all of them.
It’s been 25 years since you last showed in LA. What were you showing back then?
It was 1996 at Gagosian in Beverly Hills. It was colorful, water-lily-ish kind of stuff. It was my first show after my Guggenheim show and things got more colorful after that.
Why was that?
I just felt it was time to bring in some color. I guess in looking at my work my default position is something I’d describe as melancholic, but with optimism. I’m an optimistic pessimist. I don’t expect much, but I always hope for the best.
Are you feeling more optimistic or pessimistic these days?
I think of it more as a scale of emotions. There are so many thoughts you hold in your head at one time. I feel like we’ve gone through a pretty tough couple of years and I couldn’t help but be part of that and reflect that in my paintings. For instance, with the spine of flowers, it’s called “Liver/Kidneys/Back/Lungs” and I was thinking about the opening and closing of air into your body. Since COVID everybody is thinking about breathing again and the issues around health and breathing are very much back at the forefront of public consciousness, just like they were around AIDS. There’s a depressing lack of modernity to modern life.
What do you mean by that?
It’s like we’re all living in the Middle Ages. Suddenly we’re all back hiding and terrified of viruses we don’t understand. Or we are back in the eighties when AIDS first came around. Ironically, if it wasn’t for the AIDS crisis they wouldn’t be able to produce coronavirus vaccines so fast, all that work laid the foundation for this new knowledge. There are a lot of memories about that period swirling through my head: when I was younger, now I’m older; pandemic, pandemic. All of our lives are bracketed by pandemics! So I think these current paintings reflect that, the depressing acknowledgment that some things never change and also the hopefulness, the movement, the flowers that evaporate into the atmosphere of the paintings. It’s all mixed together. When you meditate you watch thoughts come and dissolve but you don’t try to fixate on any of them in particular.
The title of the show addresses this idea of stifled yearning.
It’s this wish– the generational allure of idealism we all wished we could have seen happen in our lifetimes. Our political life and our culture as a whole seem to have taken a giant step backward, instead of living up to that promise. As an artist, I reflect all of that, I’m sensitive to it. I’m not a political activist. I was a gay activist during the AIDS crisis. I was the president of ACRIA for 18 years. But I guess everyone has become political these days.
What drew you to this concept of Sehnsucht?
I’ve named other paintings German compound words. I like the intangibility of them. It becomes very abstract. It could take four or five paragraphs to describe what one German word is. You know, it’s not translatable, but that particular word is the combination of longing and loss and the loss is giving up your ideas of perfection, but longing and yearning is like Tikkun olam in Jewish life. Trying to construct the armature for a better world. We’re yearning for that construct. As an artist it’s a little bit tricky.
Is this just about the pandemic or is it more personal?
It’s both. That big painting “Visible Becoming Invisible” is like the way history fades, things get forgotten, time moves on. All those ideas about sentience and mortality and transience and how you construct your social relations and your social being and persona and reality.
A lot of the paintings have this ephemeral, wistful quality. They also seem to have this medical quality, they’re like X-Rays almost.
Absolutely. I’ve always the world with a kind of fascination and looking into yourself with a kind of fear [LAUGHS]. In the microcosmic view, I’ve done paintings that are almost realistic in terms of the division of cells like cancer, the things destroy us as we move on in our lives and the things that we avoid and hurt us. How do you live your life as constructively and productively as possible while trying to avoid the trauma that gets thrown in our path, including COVID, which has been very traumatic for most people.
Historically, your career has bookended these types of societal traumas.
My political awareness became attuned to the reality of the life and the culture that I’m living in. We all have this fiction of industrial optimism and progress and development when we actually know so little. It’s always like a catchup game, not just scientifically, but medically and also socially. AIDS kind of laid the whole health care system out for what it was, which was living in the Middle Ages but modernizing with good equipment, good-looking equipment, anyway.
Going from your early Stripes and Weather paintings to paintings dealing with medical issues and epidemics, do you think that’s always been a characteristic cycle in your work, from the formal to the political or humanist concerns?
I’d agree with that. It’s an awareness of the conditions under which the paintings are made. The paintings are made within a social construct that’s outside of myself. Bringing that into the painting is part of the practice.
Was there a specific loss that triggered the paintings in your latest show?
There are three paintings in the show called “After 51 Years” and they had to do [PAUSES] with my partner, Eric, who I lived with for 30 years on and off, but more on, who died six months ago while I was working on this show. And I didn’t work for a while, but then I got back to work. He was just 51 when he died. The ghost painting was kind of the mechanism of a relationship, I thought of the Man Ray cyanotypes, Picabia, Duchamp. How people hold each other, lose each other, and evaporate. The flowers are kind of a memento mori in a way. If you look at them they’re there, but they float away, too. Suddenly I was acutely aware of the transience of everything, so I threw myself back into the work. Eric was a painter. His painting was a lot about light and my painting is a lot about light and darkness and the simultaneity of thinking and mood and thought and just watching it pass through your mind. That’s why there are lots of different kinds of paintings in the show. I don’t really want to make the same painting. There’s an abstract landscape, a figurative painting, some flower paintings that almost fade away into abstract marks. It represents the beginning and the end of their life, really. They fade into that darkness. But his death affected me so painfully, it was very intense. It was someone I was with for a long time and he tragically OD’d.
I’m so sorry
Thanks. Yeah. It sucks. It’s been really hard.
Did going through that make you want to come out here?
Yes. I went to art school out here. Sometimes I think I should have just stayed here [LAUGHS].
Yes! But in those days people didn’t stay here. John Baldessari said, “You’re crazy to stay in L.A.” But I started my life in L.A., really. I started my life as an artist in L.A.
Why would John say that?
He said, “You can’t have an international career here unless you’re Ed Ruscha.” He was the L.A. artist then. Now, there are many.
Did you always want to come back to L.A.?
No, I was happy back East for the most part. I’m a New Yorker. I love working there. I have a studio out in the Hamptons and I’ve been there mostly for the last few years. Oddly enough being in L.A. reminds me of being in the Hamptons. You have your place, you drive around. A lot of people in L.A. come to the Hamptons for the summer. I could never figure that out. I always wanted to come back out here in the winters.
What prompted this sojourn now?
Well, Eric’s death was certainly a part of it. He was doing well, he bought a little house right up the block from me. Basically, we spent our winters together. We were together a lot in the winter. It’s quiet in the Hamptons. I was there last winter because of COVID. I was working there all summer and working well and I had a show in New York in April and I thought, “I’m just going to stay here.” It’s disruptive for me to move around too much. I have to be in the studio. Inspiration comes out of the work, not out of thinking things over so much. I look around for images, for ideas, I read, and then I get to work. Anytime I moved around or back out to the city it would take a month to get myself going again.
Has living in L.A. slowed you down?
I thought I’d come out here and find a place right away. But I stayed with Calvin [Klein] for a month and I wasn’t planning to stay there till the end of April, so I’m looking for a studio, I’m looking for a place to live. It’s not so easy to find a place these days in L.A.
So what was it like when you were at CalArts. Why did you want to go there from New York?
Well, CalArts was the hot school to go to. It was a fun school. I went to NYU and I wanted to move around a little. I didn’t know it was going to be as good as it was. When I first got there I almost had a nervous breakdown because I thought I might have arrived at the Pentagon. It’s this big cement building on the hill up there and, it was like an imposing fortress with nothing around it. There was no Valencia. It was the beginning of the desert. There was nothing. Now it’s got subdivisions.
You could live there.
My friend has a house above Outpost. If he cleans up his garage I could paint there. I certainly don’t want to live in Venice. Mid-City is interesting, though.
What did you like best about CalArts?
It was new, it was multidisciplinary. I could try new things and I liked the way they structured the program. It wasn’t class-based, it was mentor-based.
Who were your mentors there?
John, Allan Kaprow and Robert Irwin.
Now that’s a lineup.
It was a very interesting faculty. I was one of the only painters there. I met Eric Fischl there and David Salle, Jim Welling, Jack Goldstein, Matt Mullican.
That’s funny because it was sort of an anti-painting school.
That’s what made it fun. You could refine your discipline. You were really forced to defend your position.
So in a way you could say you’re really a California painter?
[LAUGHS] Ha, I like that. I’m a very dark California painter. The darkest! Look, I love the passing of light through materials. It’s always fascinated me, and the use of materials. It’s hard for you to see it sometimes in my paintings, but how I arrive at the image, sometimes I just take a torch and burn a painting and work with the residue of what’s left. I don’t think of my work as paintings so much as resurrections of paintings. It’s a painting in its reincarnated state. I’m bringing it back to a new life with light but if you look at the surface you can see it goes all the way back to the beginning, which is something that’s always been interesting to take a surface and build it up, almost portals back to where everything begins. There’s almost an astronomical feeling I want my paintings to have, an expanse of time and movement.
So what do you think is going to happen to your work now that you’re back in L.A.?
You never know. I like to be open and see where my thinking lands. I’d like to go through this [Vielmetter] show and take my favorite parts and rebuild them somehow, but I’d like to make some smaller works, different mediums, do some works on paper here. I don’t know where it will go, but that’s one of the reasons why it is interesting. I just usually have this predetermined set of variables that are in my studio. But now I’m looking beyond that.
So you think you might stay here for a while?
I love my studio in the Hamptons, but if the right situation happened I’m definitely open to that.
Hopefully, the process of being here has been regenerative in some way.
I think it is. It always has been. I love L.A.
Are your friends telling you to stay?
Yes. I know I’d like to live here, but I like wherever my studio is and where I get my work done. I could live anywhere really so long as it’s not too isolated. And as long as it’s not Venice. (laughs)
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