True High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.
- Christopher Isherwood, The World in the Evening, 1954
Ross Bleckner's art has been variously interpreted, much celebrated, yet not entirely understood - in short, it has struck a nerve. Situated at the center of the various crosscurrents that have informed New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of painting in the past decade and a half, Bleckner's oeuvre affords a particularly revealing vantage on the curious recent history of that art. For this reason, the opportunity to consider his achievement when his midcareer retrospective opens next month at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: see Guggenheim Museum. , New York, will be an especially welcome one.
The story begins, for all practical purposes, with Bleckner's slow digestion and eventual transformation of the first art exhibition he recalls seeing, "The Responsive Eye," at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. (He was 16.) That show's vision of the history of Modernism from Impressionism impressionism, in painting
impressionism, in painting, late-19th-century French school that was generally characterized by the attempt to depict transitory visual impressions, often painted directly from nature, and by the use of pure, broken color to to the present failed to take lasting hold with the public; Bridget Riley, who played a key role in it, soon ceased to attract attention. Looking back, as Peter Halley had already noted in 1982, what seems dated about Op art is its uncritical positivistic world view.(1) Blithely optimistic, an art of perception that sought to eliminate (or repress re·press
1. To hold back by an act of volition.
2. To exclude something from the conscious mind. ) the role of the beholder's body, Op art was all too easily associated with the idealism, or hubris Hubris
An arrogance due to excessive pride and an insolence toward others. A classic character flaw of a trader or investor. , of the '60s. Bleckner's early achievement was to turn Riley's aggressive Op art inside out, taming its strident futurism futurism, Italian school of painting, sculpture, and literature that flourished from 1909, when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's first manifesto of futurism appeared, until the end of World War I. and uncoupling its positivist associations. In a remarkable act of impersonation Impersonation
wore the armor of Achilles against the Trojans to encourage the disheartened Greeks. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad]
Prisoner of Zenda, The he made this apparently impersonal style both a vehicle of self-expression and a response to his own, later moment.
Susan Sontag's "Notes on 'Camp'" of 1964 suggests the spirit in which Bleckner appropriated Op: for Sontag, camp involves seeing the world in terms of its "degree of artifice, of stylization styl·ize
tr.v. styl·ized, styl·iz·ing, styl·iz·es
1. To restrict or make conform to a particular style.
2. To represent conventionally; conventionalize. ." With its love of exaggeration, of "a seriousness that fails," it often seeks out things that are "old-fashioned, out-of-date, demode dé·mo·dé
No longer in fashion; outmoded.
[French, past participle of démoder, to outmode : dé-, out (from Old French de-; see de-) + mode, ."(2) Op art dated fast, so was soon ready to be camped. Like Clement Greenberg's essay on kitsch, Sontag's commentary is one of those exemplary texts whose history of reception inadvertently reflected successive sea changes of sensibility. Generously enthusiastic, hopelessly optimistic, her view of camp as "depoliticized - or at least apolitical a·po·lit·i·cal
1. Having no interest in or association with politics.
2. Having no political relevance or importance: claimed that the President's upcoming trip was purely apolitical. " soon seemed very much of its moment. Dedicating her notes to Oscar Wilde, she praises him without really discussing his political significance; she is respectful toward camp, but her celebration of its ecstatic marginality downplays its implicit subversiveness. For her, camp offers "a supplementary . . . set of standards." It is to be defined only in opposition to serious art.
As early as 1979, Bleckner had come to believe that abstract painting had to be politicized if it was to have any staying power;(3) camp, contra Sontag, offered a means of doing this. Once Sontag's contrast between camp and serious art was deconstructed, it was possible for high camp to move to center stage, replacing "serious" high Modernism. As has been understood for some time - the best account is Gerard Froidevaux's Baudelaire: representation et modernite(4) - Modernist conceptions of beauty were bound up with fetishism fetishism, in psychiatry, a paraphilia (see perversion, sexual) in which erotic interest and satisfaction are centered on an inanimate object or a specific, nongenital part of the anatomy. Generally occurring in males, fetishism frequently centers on a garment (e.g. , in ways that by the '70s made them widely unacceptable. Bleckner discovered that one way to reanimate painting - to rescue it from its late formal predicament and make it speak to his own moment - was to camp Op art as an already travestied Modernist distillate dis·til·late
A liquid condensed from vapor in distillation.
a product of distillation. . Inverting Riley's resolute optimism, making the ubiquitous "death of painting" as it reflected the more generalized bankruptcy of Modernist orthodoxies figure the literal specter of death precipitated by the AIDS crisis, Bleckner effected a transfiguration Transfiguration, in the New Testament, manifestation wherein Jesus appeared "shining" before Peter, James, and John. The traditional explanation is that in it Jesus' divine glory shone in his earthly body. Mt. of Riley's style to mirror the anxieties and fears of the '80s (and '90s) American art world. In this sense his art acquired an extraordinary political urgency.
In melancholia MELANCHOLIA, med. jur. A name given by the ancients to a species of partial intellectual mania, now more generally known by the name of monomania. (q.v.) It bore this name because it was supposed to be always attended by dejection of mind and gloomy ideas. Vide Mania., , according to Freud, libido is withdrawn from some object, but not displaced to another. Rather, "The shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken for·sake
tr.v. for·sook , for·sak·en , for·sak·ing, for·sakes
1. To give up (something formerly held dear); renounce: forsook liquor.
2. object."(5) It is as if such a shadow, falling on art history, created the darkness prevailing in Bleckner's paintings. For Freud, melancholia is a pathological condition, healthy mourning gone wrong. Melancholia is a deep failure of self-understanding. For all his pessimism, Freud could not envisage a culture in which melancholia would become the ruling condition. In his relatively optimistic era, the melancholic mel·an·chol·ic
1. Affected with or being subject to melancholy.
2. Of or relating to melancholia. painting of someone like Gustave Moreau was marginal. Only when memory is weakened and historical consciousness disrupted, when an ongoing tradition no longer seems possible, can there be a major melancholic artist.
There is built into Bleckner's melancholic appropriation of Op a promising blankness that makes it possible for commentators to describe his art in very diverse ways, some finding him a society painter, others a political thinker. This is why, as has often been noted, he influences artists whose work looks different from his. Of course, all challengingly original art inspires multiple interpretations: Baudelaire's Manet differs a lot from Zola's or Mallarme's. But what distinguishes Bleckner from a Modernist like Manet is both a resistance to developing a signature style and a denial of the life-force of art's history. The young Manet sought to link himself to the strongest living painter in the old master tradition, Delacroix; Bleckner appropriated the weakest Modernist style, Riley's dead-on-arrival Op art. That is the difference between a Modernist attempt to extend tradition and the melancholic insistence that the past is truly dead. A '70s abstract artist interested in engaging with the strongest recent tradition would have looked to Abstract Expressionism. Bleckner's backward-looking art, so obsessed ob·sess
v. ob·sessed, ob·sess·ing, ob·sess·es
To preoccupy the mind of excessively.
v.intr. with death, was deeply ambivalent about bringing tradition back to life. The calming stillness of death seemed preferable.
I find Bleckner's sensibility too distant for me to respond to his paintings with absolute admiration. Yet it amazes me how much he achieves from his seemingly unpromising starting point. Insofar in·so·far
To such an extent.
Adv. 1. insofar - to the degree or extent that; "insofar as it can be ascertained, the horse lung is comparable to that of man"; "so far as it is reasonably practical he should practice as melancholia involves a refusal of change, and a denial of the possibility of development, it is an emotional state that makes artmaking difficult. Without David Salle's rebarbative re·bar·ba·tive
Tending to irritate; repellent: "He became rebarbative, prickly, spiteful" Robert Craft. imagery or Barbara Kruger's verbal provocations, Bleckner creates a screen on which can readily be projected many broader cultural concerns. That is a remarkable achievement. The hostile reviewer who described his painting as "not a generous art, although it is extremely open to suggestion" was onto something, though I would dispute his evaluation.(6) Unless abstract painting can insert itself into the world of public discourse, it remains caught in the cul-de-sac of late formalism. No pure melancholic could be so sensitive to history, or socially aware, as Bleckner. And in any event, even melancholic artists at some level must be hopeful.
Notwithstanding all of Bleckner's obvious reservations about contemporary America, his art seems the perfect mirror for our art world, and perhaps even for our society. Myself, still an unrepentant child of the '60s, I think that the greatest art, from Poussin to the present, tends to resist, in some way, its dominant culture. Painting has to be critical if it is to have any staying power. I see Bleckner as the ideal artist for a culture self-condemned to melancholia. Certainly his art was perfectly adapted to the curious synthesis of Marxism and French-style psychoanalysis that dominated '80s American writing, a hybrid discourse he appropriated in his own writing. It's a little scary that as a young artist he was already so preoccupied with death. How, I wonder, will he now develop? How, I wonder, does a melancholic handle success?
Melancholia and its less passive cousin, camp, can too easily become sentimental. That danger Bleckner mostly avoids. His struggle to transcend the narcissism narcissism (närsĭs`ĭzəm), Freudian term, drawn from the Greek myth of Narcissus, indicating an exclusive self-absorption. In psychoanalysis, narcissism is considered a normal stage in the development of children. and potential self-deception inherent in melancholia is a moving one - indeed for me it is the basis of his achievement.
1. Peter Halley, "Ross Bleckner: Painting at the End of History," Arts 56 no. 9, May 1982, pp. 132-33.
2. Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp,'" Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York: Delta Books, 1966, pp. 277, 283, 285.
3. See Ross Bleckner, "Transcendent Anti-Fetishism," Artforum XVII no. 7, March 1979, pp. 50-55.
4. Gerard Froidevaux, Baudelaire: representation et modernite, Paris: Jose Corti, 1989.
5. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey, London: The Hogarth Press, 1957, XIV:249.
6. Brooks Adams, "Ross Bleckner at Mary Boone-Michael Werner," Art in America Art in America, published since 1913, is an illustrated monthly art magazine covering the visual art world both in the US and abroad, but concentrating on New York City. 72 no. 5, March 1984, p. 160.