Ross Bleckner, Poverty Bouquet, 1986, oil on linen, 48 × 40 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery and Michael Werner Gallery.
Ross Bleckner’s paintings provoke passage into haunted chambers emptied of all but light and dark in which float, perhaps, a hummingbird, a chandelier, a trophy … While others stand like sentries, shades whose shadows obscure our vision and revoke passage into this nether world we cannot yet imagine.
Ross Bleckner, on the other hand, loves to laugh and can almost never conceal the humor beneath his gaze. He and Aimee Rankin sat down over a Chinese take-out in his studio in Lower Manhattan to discuss his work.
Aimee Rankin We’re constituting fragments of lost speech around Ross Bleckner’s paintings. We were having this long discussion about …
Ross Bleckner Repression and adventure.
AR We’re going to pick up in the middle and see if it doesn’t get lost in the baffles of the machine this time. What we were talking about were the issues that artists seem to have inside them that come out through a body of work, the one or two things the artist has to say that are consistent. We spoke of ambivalence. We spoke of desire.
RB Imprisonment. Repression. You don’t always know that your intention is polymorphous.
AR You’ve done two very different types of work. You’ve done very atmospheric, dark, moody, illusionistic, almost funereal paintings on the one hand. And then you’ve done very abstract stripe paintings on the other.
RB Essentially, I want a world to exist that I can get into. A world that has to do with certain kinds of illusion and that is also confrontational. The paintings hold you outside of their making. I work very much like a rubber band. I start with an idea or an image and then I stretch it out and let it collapse back into itself. That’s how the stripes in my abstract paintings have always functioned. They are confrontational in that they collide with what is represented in my other paintings.
The imagery is more phenomenological in the stripes. It had to be constructed within the relationship of the spectator to the painting because it wasn’t in the painting and it wasn’t in the spectator.
AR There is a relation between the two. You use theatrical conventions of illusion in the atmospheric paintings, which we compared to “scrims.” You set up an illusionistic structure of depth and make apparent its artifice by having globs of paint on the surface that make everyone aware of the canvas. I think you do that in a reverse way in the stripe paintings. In other words, the stripe paintings start with a surface and then bring up the illusion of depth, so the two paintings are working on the same issues; depth and surface, illusion and abstraction, but from opposite standpoints. You brought up the issue of the stripe paintings being about a kind of repression?
RB I think that we don’t really know what we do, in fact, who we are until we’ve done enough things to look back on them and let those things construct a reality. The intersection in which we locate ourselves psychically and socially is always shifting. Contradictory shifts that are concurrent and simultaneous, taking place and competing within our consciousness. All of us then have the possibility or the capability of being any number of things at once.
AR That’s the other issue that’s extremely important in your work—ambivalence. The works are all about a sliding of meaning.
RB That contradicts what you said about a consistence …
AR No, no. It can be consistently ambivalent. That’s not a contradiction. By ambivalence I mean the fact that you refuse to do one type of painting. You slide from a wish to be abstract to a wish to be illusionistic, a wish to concentrate on the surface of a painting and a wish to create depth. But that kind of slipping that exists in both types of work does come together to point out certain consistencies even if that consistency is an interest in contradiction.
RB I like that idea of slippage. When you set up hierarchy, an iconographic hegemony, you are stating a position and essentially, what you stop doing at that point is you stop opening up a place where that position might be vulnerable. The way that we arrive at meaning, the way our consciousness is constructed has more to do with what’s repressed in it than with what we express by using language. As a condition of our daily lives, all that goes repressed has to be accounted for, somehow. Ambivalence is more true to the way things really are than an iconographic identity.
AR The meanings in your work are often very emotional, very powerful. Especially the darker paintings. They seem very much about death. They’re beautiful and yet very sad. That kind of powerful emotional force, to me, is repressed in the stripe paintings. The stripe paintings are almost symptomatic of that kind of denial except that they’re so obsessional. They’re so focused on the purely abstract.
RB There is no such thing. I’ve tried to find a methodology in which light and its relationship to the atmosphere of the painting is like a psychotic hallucination. All of the possibilities of a space or of a world inside a painting vibrate optically so that it creates a profusion of both meaning and sensation. In a way, the paintings run parallel … I don’t really see them as being ambivalent.
AR I was using ambivalence to describe the whole body of your work. In other words, in relation to certain issues.
RB Which issues? The issue of death.
AR It seems to me that what you’ve described in both aspects of your work is a kind of hallucinatory brilliance. In the atmospheric paintings, you speak of the hallucinatory aspect of them as being these little worlds that you can enter, these phantasmatic spaces, whereas in the stripe paintings, it’s purely perceptual. One of the things that you seem to be talking about is the way the unconscious works. If you mention the words like psychotic and hallucinogenic, you must want to bring the viewer to some kind of altered emotional or physical state in your work.
RB That’s why I wanted the stripe paintings to be more confrontational. The disallowance to construct a palpable image or a recognizable place alters expectation about a painting. It’s almost like death and belief. We all make our work so that we can look at what interests us. It’s very difficult to say “I believe in this or I think that,” but you can make work that’s deceptive in how you actually express what desires you have. So there’s always a subtext running. You’re saying one thing and your work is doing another. Now, I like that kind of tension. “We lament and never explain why.” I think Kafka said that.
AR That’s the contradictory aspect. That’s what I mean by ambivalence.
RB A lot of my work deals metaphorically and literally with the idea of death. I’ve read the obituaries since I was a child. I used to want to be the obituary writer for the New York Times. Only because I thought that’s the ultimate criticism. That’s it. You live your life and somebody sums it up and that person has tremendous amounts of power. When somebody takes my picture, for instance, in my head I always think, “If I get killed after this, this is the last image. This is it. This is how I will be remembered.” So I’m always really aware of my life every time a camera is set up. A camera, in a way, makes me reflect instantly. A camera does for me what film does in a projector—kind of rolls around inside itself. The idea of death isn’t only a literal death but also the death of ideas. How we’ve come to believe. My own personal as well as all our cultural disappointment … We all have these childhoods and we all have these educations, but we’ve all come to believe certain things about social reality. A lot of them have to do with technology. A lot of our beliefs have to do with hope, an infantile idealism that things get better and life gets more equitable. I had an aunt who was dying of pancreatic cancer, the worst kind of cancer, very painful, very slow. I remember her always saying as she was withering away, “Well, if I could last a few more weeks there’ll be a cure.” Well, here we are 20 years later and God knows how many billions of dollars and I know now she could have dragged on for all these years and there’d still not be a cure. There’s not a cure. These diseases are cultural problems. It’s not about technology or progress. I think that’s the kind of death that the 20th century is going to be seeing now in its reposing years. We’re ending it with a plague that’s totally, totally unstoppable, totally out of control and completely environmental.
Ross Bleckner, Brothers’ Swords, 1986, oil on canvas, 108 x 84 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery and Michael Werner Gallery.
AR You brought up the one issue about representation of death. Whenever someone takes a picture of you, you are reminded of your own death because his photograph will outlast you. To me, all representation is about death basically. The issue of making art is about a very limited transcendence of death. People make art knowing that it will outlast them. The necrophilic aspect of your work is very powerful and I really wanted to mention the striped painting with “remember me” written under it. As someone who’s fantasized about being a Times obituary writer, have you thought of an epitaph for yourself?
RB Yes, I have—“I’d rather be eating ice cream.”
AR That’s it?
RB Yes. I think that I am going to die eating one of these raw crabs that we’ve got here.
AR We’re talking general issues—death and representation. Now we’re talking about a specific issue. We’re seeing a preoccupation with death that’s cultural. We’re reading everywhere in theory about the death of history, the death of the subject, that Endgame argument. At the same time, we’re moving toward the end of a century which has traditionally been a time of fear and decadence. There’s also this real situation of plague so everyone’s fear of death is brought home in a very literal way. Your work makes a very important statement about this particular point in culture I think people should really begin to pay attention to this idea in art.
RB Which idea?
AR That art is about a confrontation with mortality; the mortality of the individual and of the human race.
RB I think that art should be something that you inspect and you pull apart and you open up. It’s like a discard but it’s also a temporary reprieve, a momentary reprieve. I believe in some corny way that there’s life after death, but if I would have to explore what the possibilities of that life are … I can’t pursue the spiritual tangents to what I just said because I don’t believe in them. But that doesn’t mean I want to make work that might close the door to all those things that intellectually. I’m just not ready to deal with.
AR Your work has similarities—your dark atmospheric paintings—to a lot of the turn of the century symbolist and decadent painters. The iconography is similar. They were inspired by religious ideas. The Rosicrucians used the Grail images. They used many symbols that I see elements of in your work.
RB I think there is something self-effacing about my work and I think that might be it. I want my work to do what I say it doesn’t do. I want my work to do things that I would have to be dragged screaming and kicking to even admit that I thought of. It’s like you could pull teeth and you can’t get the true meaning of somebody’s work out of them. Because, number one, it should be open to different readings and, number two, only a failed work ends up being about what you say it’s about. That’s what I meant by “in that little world there.” There are senses that hover. To pursue them intellectually, I think, you could get into some kind of murky …
AR Murky’s a key word.
RB I like murky if he’s one of the seven dwarfs.
AR Any time we grapple with the issue of death some kind of mystical confusions are going to come up.
RB That’s good because everybody would like to believe that they’re going to have done something worthwhile after they’re dead. That’s life after death for every artist.
AR It’s the terror of the abyss, the terror of not knowing.
RB That word “abyss” is just too much of a silly Abstract Expressionistic term.
AR It’s not silly.
RB It’s like a cartoon.
AR It’s been used in that way but it doesn’t mean that it’s not something very real that individuals have to confront when they think of dying. And just because it’s been sullied by a few opportunists … the whole history of art is about the abyss.
RB A lot of words come in and out of fashion. The truth is you have to take someone kicking and screaming. Out of every formalist you’ll have this closet transcendentalist.
AR Ross, where are these dark paintings situated except in the abyss. Look at them. There’s no ground. There’s no sky. There’s just this kind of darkness that envelopes everything; this formalist void.
RB But you know what I’m saying.
Ross Bleckner, Her Escutcheon, 1987, oil on linen, 48 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery and Michael Werner Gallery.
AR The thing I like about it is that you have a very critical relation to your paintings. That’s where the issue of theatricality and the scrims come in. The fact that you paint these void-like, very disorienting spaces and then you paint on the surface so that you’re criticizing your illusionistic production even as you’re doing it.
RB I think it’s important to be transparent.
AR I’m not saying that you’re wallowing in that tainted expressionist subjectivity.
RB Hopefully not, I despise my subjectivity: but I despise others’ more (just kidding). It’s almost like the production contained within it has to have all the elements for its recapitulation psychically and socially. Otherwise, it becomes a trophy which is a disembodied—
AR These are trophies.
AR Let’s talk about trophies.
RB They’re images of trophies but a trophy signifies a disembodied counterphobic triumph. A painting is a trophy and something more. I think that “something more” aspect is very important. A trophy is incidental to the development of a relationship. A painting is a relation to relationships. You have a trophy and after a while the activity is forgotten. The traces of what you remember about it are all undifferentiated.
AR A trophy is cut off from that kind of subjective relationship. It commemorates it.
RB It commemorates it, but it’s interchangeable with any other one. I think a painting always has within it the possibility through this subjectivity of reconstructing its own making. A trophy expresses adventure. A painting understands the adventure of expression. Painting is what comes instead of truth after the object has been lost. A trophy articulates and valorizes hysteria. A painting is an inarticulate hysteria.
AR It’s about the difficulty of inserting oneself in the proper place in the symbolic.
AR One of the interesting things about hysteria was that it was a way of signifying with the body things that were repressed from the patient’s discourse. Perhaps that’s what you’re doing in your work as well.
RB I like that psychoanalytic tone.
AR That’s my theoretical background. The stuff you were talking about in the painting that you would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to actually say. It’s nice that when you paint, you’re letting yourself go in a way that the unconscious is able to speak. That’s one of the powerful things to me about these paintings. They have an unconscious resonance, force.
RB It’s my confusion about gender differentiation.
AR That’s the clinical definition of hysteria. There are two definitions in psychoanalysis that are relevant here: hysteria is when you don’t know if you’re a man or a woman and obsessionality is when you don’t know if you’re alive or dead.
RB Oh my God. So I’m hysterical and obsessional. I would say that painting has to do with being able to embody all these social and personal possibilities and we just make decisions about what we bring up and what we put down. I think that there are forces that we repress and those that we decide to be conscious of … I’m not romanticizing the idea of schizophrenia, but I’d say that all painting is also schizophrenic.
AR A lot of critics such as Jameson have characterized post-modern culture by its schizophrenic tendencies. Jameson gives an example of a schizophrenic patient who talks about things having a hallucinatory brilliance. There’s a wash of intensity of the world which isn’t coded and permeates the mind in a very disorienting manner. Your work has elements of that hallucinatory effect.
RB Clinical schizophrenia is not like the French ideas about schizophrenia as some kind of “romantic otherness.” We must recognize that actual clinical schizophrenia is a very depressing and hollow, horrifying existence. The idea that we exist in a sort of social schizophrenia is probably what we’re really talking about. It has to do with those kind of breaks in how representation is coded. I think things shine with their maximum brilliance just at that point that they’re about to die.
AR Exactly. That’s the beautiful decadence.
RB The relationship between my paintings with images and those without images is really about trying to eke out of a formal code a maximum amount of light. It is a small space with a lot of light.
Ross Bleckner, Cage, 1986, oil on canvas, 108 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery and Michael Werner Gallery.
AR There was that article in Art in America by Peter Scheldjal in which he was describing your work and he used this phrase, “Making disappointment dance.” The disappointment you’re making dance is just the disappointment of someone who knows they have to die. That we all have to die and what do you do? It’s that disappointment with the ephemeral qualities of life—which the artist has always made dance.
RB I completely agree. You can make work that has to do with light and light can be blinding because at some point you could set up a series of hallucinations that would fragment how you might regard your own interests to be continuous. So you’re always dislocated within your own desire. The other point is the liberating element, that’s the sexual thing, and I think in a way that a lot of artists see their work as being liberating. It liberates them to create the maximum amount of possibilities at any one time. That’s what I have to get out of my work—the sense of liberation and the sense of hallucination. It frees me and dislocates me. It also gives me pleasure.
AR That’s funny that you use terms like liberation because you said the stripe paintings were like bars. They weren’t about liberation at all, but they were about you being trapped within this representation.
RB Yes, but what I think they do is repress everything I want to come out through them. That’s why this painting has the words “Remember me.” What’s repressed in there is everybody’s secret desire. Like the last scene in Carrie where that arm comes flying up from the bog. It scares you to death. It’s like this little desperate plea that we all make with the world as we live our lives to “Remember me.”
AR No, what Carrie was doing was grabbing that girl and pulling her down.
RB That’s what we also want to do. As much as we find a way to, in a sense, glorify our own existence, we also would like to have the fantasy that we’re going to bring everyone down with us, (or that the world ends when we do).
AR “The flame that burns half as long burns twice as bright,” that’s a line from Bladerunner. Actually, one of the best things anyone said to me about my work applies to your work as well. In Bladerunner the replicant comes back to find the man who created him, Tyrell. And Tyrell says, “What seems to be the problem?” And the replicant replies, “Death seems to be the problem. I want more life, fucker.” That’s an intense moment, an intense sentiment. I think that sentiment is in your work too.
RB I think a lot of these paintings here narrate that (It’s the beginning of something and then it goes to the end of something). They go from the beginning to the end of something. It really has to do with getting out of one thing and into another and being trapped along the way. One wish, one day fever, this painting is infatuation. The moment of infatuation is that moment before the bud falls off the bloom and everything is idealized. And then you blow that moment up.
Making art, obviously always becomes an interface. So it’s always like a theoretical tool, a place where we can all focus and have something to talk about. Making art creates the conceit that the critic is actually the center of the theoretical discourse. When in fact, the objects are being planted in the world as decoys. All of the stuff that we make is decoy-objects. What we’re actually doing is we’re creating meaning, we’re not ending meaning. So I think that a lot of artists throw out decoys so they can, in a sense, go on their way. I think the most important thing is that we do create new meanings.
AR Yes, there is such a thing as new meanings.
RB We don’t know if there is.
AR Of course there is. We’re at this moment of culture that’s really about an ending so it’s hard to see. New meanings are being produced around us all the time, everyday.
RB Every point in a culture is an intersection. That’s all you’re saying.
AR Not that meaning comes out of a void, but that meanings that already exist are put together and new tensions and conditions arise from that meeting. It’s almost like a cultural alchemy. And that’s happening constantly.
RB Every intersection is about desire.
AR It’s the ultimate conceit now that people think they can make the last painting.
RB They think that we think that we’re living in that moment in history that’s the last moment. That’s so grandiose it’s a joke.
AR The whole 20th century is …
RB Dotted with the history of the end. Now we can make a comment about how people see things at a particular moment. People see things in the most narrow, immediate, and obvious ways. Art history works in tandem with the speculative creation of the marketplace. The creation of the marketplace doesn’t have to do with how things investigate desire, death and history. It has to do with how things look different than the things that came right before them. What kind of novelty appeal they have.
What Joseph (Kosuth) said is very interesting in that regard, that the making art is not the relationship of a human subject to an object, it’s the relationship of a subject to a subject. It’s a relationship of a subject to relationships. My paintings memorialize a lot of different things simultaneously: the culture, immediate ends, relationships and the people who have just passed. The people who’ve died from, in this case, AIDS. They memorialize the death of our own idea about that so that as an artist you can continue to grow and go on. In a way they memorialize the tragedy of being subsumed in the marketplace, too. Because in order to keep your art going, you also have to keep upping the stakes formally.
You keep opening up all your artistic options and as soon as a direct thing happens in the marketplace it’s almost like things close because they expect you to maintain a style. Then you have to fight harder to keep things open, to keep your confusions. You keep experimenting with your sense of self and the world until this sense of yourself and the world gets confirmed by the world. And it might initially seem like a fantastic thing and all artists want it, but there’s that other part that’s a drag.
AR It’s very frightening to feel the machine of hype breathing down your neck. Especially if your work comes from an introspective emotional place.
RB Especially when you know that the weight of things outside you always wants to pin you down. It wants to eat you not even as a full meal but only as a little side dish. The point is that each artist has to keep growing and mutating and being after all that leaves. And that’s also what that painting—“Remember me”—is about, “I know how things were.” I think that all the things that people don’t talk about or can’t talk about are the things that are most interesting in the art that they make. Because they have to do with these words that even I object to like “abyss.”
AR Why do you object to it?
RB You’re younger than I am so you’re coming with a fresher look at that than I am. To me it’s just an old tainted word that got dragged down.
AR I like tainted things as a rule. They’re more interesting.
RB A lot of artists do. It’s like appropriated things. But it’s also a question of exhaustion. Everybody’s so exhausted that nobody can really imagine making art that has even a glint of originality left in it. I don’t think that’s why one should retreat into past art. As we were saying before, that eking out the most amount of light also has to do with eking out a little bit of difference also.