Ronald Bladen: Sculpture of the 1960s and 70sby Ben La Rocco
JACOBSON HOWARD GALLERY | OCTOBER 16 – NOVEMBER 26, 2008
One of art’s longstanding bugaboos is the perceived difference between “rigorous” geometric art and “intuitive, expressive” art. If, however, such dark, dull formulations allow artists like Ronald Bladen to shine more brightly, then perhaps they aren’t all bad. Jacobson Howard Gallery’s recent exhibition Ronald Bladen: Sculpture of the 1960s and 70s was a modest reminder of Bladen’s maverick confounding of what were thought to be inherently inexpressive industrial materials with geometry into a very personal and poetic subject matter.
Bladen used crisp, black geometry in unabashedly emotive sculptures. At Jacobson Howard, “Black Lightning (Model)” and “Host of the Ellipse (Garden)” (both 1981) give a sense both of Bladen’s fascination with natural phenomena and his working process. Model, garden and monumental are Bladen’s three sizes, working his way up from one to the next as he produced each sculpture. Model-size sculptures are small enough to carry, with handcrafted wood panel surfaces over which black paint is applied with a brush. Garden sizes are spray painted aluminum and stand around human height. Monumental sizes don’t fit in a gallery. “Coltrane (Structural Model),” a real treat, is a small wood-and-nail model revealing the extreme intricacy of Bladen’s construction technique. Wonderfully complex and totally superfluous structurally, it gives a sense of how he sorted out the forms of his sculpture as he worked rather than planning a sculpture out ahead, as did many of his Minimalist peers, then having it fabricated.
Minimalism, as it has come to be understood, does not accurately describe Bladen’s work. It rather describes one pole of the above-mentioned bugaboo: rigorous geometry. Minimalist avatars Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin (among others) used their art history degrees and general verbosity to set the tone for how we think about hard-edge geometry in art: industrial, cerebral, and devoid of expressive gesture. This one-sided conception doesn’t even hold for the artists who advanced it, but not as the art historians tell it. Then there’s Bladen. The reason Bladen cuts less of a figure in art history’s mirror is that, though he worked with minimal, geometric form, he actively advocated values contrary to those of his peers: Bladen considered himself a romantic.
In this and in his sculpture, he is most closely allied with Tony Smith, who carried Finnegan’s Wake around in his back pocket and was known to give extended, impromptu readings from its pages. Neither sculptor shied away from grand gestures or distinctly imagistic sculptures. Both made paintings. They were inspiring contrarians who took pleasure in training and guiding younger artists. As such, it is hard to underestimate their importance as we cast about today for subject matter that moves beyond our contemporary doctrine of the ironic, abject and just plain superficial.
Bladen’s sculpture is proof that intense, emotive expression can exist in hard-edged geometric form. Both “Host of the Ellipse” and “Black Lightning” strain upward and outward, defying gravity, literally and figuratively representing an ideal of human union with nature. Bladen’s sculpture plays upon this dualist drama with the restraint inherent in his choice of form and color. The essential point, insofar as Minimalism and its impact on our thought is concerned, is that the industrial materials Bladen used are divested of whatever inherent meaning their origins may have held and transformed into vehicles for the sculptor’s imagination.
ContributorBen La Rocco