Ronald Bladen: Sculpture 1968–1981

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Stadium, (Model), 1969 Painted wood 14 x 431/2 x 30 inches Edition 2 of 3


right: Ronald Bladen with Untitled (Riff), Whitney Museum of American Art, 200 Years of American Sculpture, 1976 front cover: Chevrons, 1974 Painted aluminum Nine units: 36 x 80 x 111/2 inches (each) Edition of 3 back cover: Host of the Ellipse, 1981 Painted aluminum 85 x 118 x 52 inches Edition 1 of 3

Installed at the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX, Stieren Center for Exhibitions Photo by Michael Jay Smith, Courtesy of the McNay Art Museum © 2011 Loretta Howard Gallery ISBN: 978-0-9842804-5-2

525 West 26th Street New York NY 10001 212.695.0164


One of Ronald Bladen’s most well known sculptures, The X, is a huge X-shaped form, first shown in 1967 in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC called “Scale as Content.1” Installed in the twostory, colonnaded atrium of the museum, the scale of this work overwhelmed the interior space delineated by classical columns and the more conventional sculpture around it. As shown in photographs of the installation, the form seems to aggressively mark the space as it simultaneously soars beyond its physical boundaries. Similarly, in a number of solo exhibitions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bladen made sculptures that stretched to the limits of the interior spaces they occupied. Large scale became a prominent feature of the work Bladen made from 1966 to 1983. Nonetheless, even during this period, the artist said he was not interested in scale; his intent was to instill his works with “presence.2” He wanted his works to have a kind of energy and drama – an exalted feeling – that could be immediately and forcefully perceived by the viewer. Before making his first freestanding sculpture at the age of forty-six, Bladen was a painter. In fact, he was something of a child prodigy as an artist, having exhibited his work at the age of thirteen in 1931 at the University of Oregon. Dropping out of high school, he studied at the Vancouver School of Art before attending the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (later called the San Francisco Art Institute). He then spent most of the next sixteen years in San Francisco making paintings and associating with a group of innovative and radical poets, writers, filmmakers and artists; he supported himself by working in the naval shipyard in Sausalito. In 1957, he moved to New York at the recommendation of his close friend, the painter Al Held, where he made heavily impastoed abstract paintings with forms loosely derived from nature. His work gradually worked off the wall and became more geometric. This transition evolved from collages of folded paper protruding from the surface that Bladen began making in 1959, to constructed wooden bas-reliefs using geometric shapes cut from plywood exhibited in 1962 at the Green Gallery in New York, to

free-standing shapes attached together made from 1964 to 1966 and then to the more familiar large scale works usually of a single, loosely geometric form that challenged gravity and one’s sense of human scale. At this point, his work became associated with Minimalism, a movement gaining recognition nationally and internationally in the 1960s. Much has been written about Bladen and his relationship to Minimalism. The inclusion of his work in many of the early defining shows of the movement and the strength and clarity of his work during this period helped to bring the sculpture associated with Minimalism to the forefront of the dialogue surrounding art in the late 1960s. His primary structures that engaged the space around them helped to advance a way of making art that escaped the perceived limitations of Cubist relational space. But as the dialogue became more refined, Bladen’s work, together with that of Tony Smith and others, was distinguished from the Minimalism of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt, for examples. Whereas the younger artists’ works were essentially anti-monumental, often industrially made, process oriented, and contextualized by the space around them, Bladen’s work was monumental in a heroic sense, usually hand-made, his forms often iconic, and he was not interested in showing how his works were made or how they supported themselves. For Bladen, “presence” didn’t just mean feeling present in the space of the art; it also meant feeling the mystery and wonder of being alive.3 The sculptures in this exhibition represent the range of forms Bladen used when he was making his large-scale sculpture. Like The X (and other forms Bladen used in earlier constructions), V (1973) derives its form from a letter (“v” for victory) or Roman numeral (the number five), in either case, an ancient symbol resonant with meaning. But the form in the sculpture is abstracted by scale and positioning; the arms of the “v” stretch wide and tall from within an embracing support.4 Chevrons (1974) uses a similar form but with the shape placed on one end to make a different reference; the chevron is an ancient symbol used on shields, as insignia,

or in language as punctuation or as a mathematical sign. Here Bladen abstracted the image by placing it in precarious balance and by repeating the form. Repetition is compositional strategy only used a few times. The artist stated that while a “single image gives you the opportunity of packing all the power into a single statement,” he was also interested (on “rare occasions”) in “the multiple image… dealing with a complexity of rhythms which leads one to a kind of infinity.”5 In Chevrons, as installed in this exhibition, there are nine independent, identical black chevronshaped forms placed in a grid, at an angle to the surrounding walls. The chevrons, placed close together, do not invite the viewer to walk amongst them. The density caused by the repetition of forms and reference to gravity perceived in the exaggerated balance sets up a dynamic presence within the center of the room. The iconic reference of the shape is paired with the immediacy of the objects fusing the past and present; this continuity in time parallels the reference to infinite space that Bladen found in multiple forms. In Kama Sutra (1977) — the title refers to an ancient Indian text on human sexuality — Bladen made a single form from three joined parts; a large white form is sandwiched between two identical black shapes. Speaking of his use of these colors, Bladen said: “…The white and black are philosophically opposed. The white…it’s acceptance, it’s love, it’s gentle, it’s very moving; and the black becomes slightly forbidding — totally different in experience…”6 In Kama Sutra, the black is the supporting shape; it appears solid and sturdy. The white shape fits within the black forms while simultaneously ascending upward. As initially installed in monumental scale on the Doris Freedman Plaza in Central Park, New York in 1977, the work addressed the surrounding architecture. Installed with the gallery in garden scale, it is more intimate; approaching from the front (most of Bladen’s work have obvious fronts and backs), the projecting form, confronts the viewer. And though symmetrical, the unfamiliarity of the constructed shapes

This exhibition also included a work each by Barnett Newman and Tony Smith. An existing version of The X is located on the campus of Miami-Dade College in Florida. 2 See Ronald Bladen, quoted in Ronald Bladen/Robert Murray, exh. cat., (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1970), n.p.: “No, actually my pieces aren’t all that large…I’m much more involved in presence than I am in scale…I do not know about scale, but I feel presence very much.” 3 Bladen’s work probably had greater importance to the PostMinimalists. Thanks to Richard Serra who, in conversation, explained Bladen’s relationship to Minimalism and the impact of his work on younger artists in mid-1960s. Serra said that Bladen was the preeminent sculptor in New York when Serra moved to the city in 1966 and he was one of the more approachable artists. Serra respected that Bladen was a “hands on builder” was interested in the way Bladen “made singular forms” and used “gravity as a force.” 4 The shape and presentation here recalls what has been described as a moment of epiphany Bladen had while standing on the edge of a ridge along the Pacific coast with his arms stretched wide and seeing his shadow cast on the clouds below. He later spoke of wanting to place a sculpture on a mountaintop so that it might have the same effect. See Bill Berkson, Ronald Bladen: Early and Late, exh. cat., (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1991): 6 5 Corinne Robins, “The Artist Speaks: Ronald Bladen,” Art in America 57, no. 5 (SeptemberOctober 1969): 81. 6 Bladen, Ronald Bladen/Robert Murray, n.p.. Bladen is speaking of another work here called Untitled (Curve) from 1969 but his ideas about black and white seem to apply generally to his work. 1

Ronald Bladen with Untitled (Riff), Fischbach Gallery, New York, 1967

A second monumental scale version of this work exists in Saudi Arabia at King Saud University. 8 Thanks to Bill Jensen and Margrit Lewczuk who pointed out in conversation that Bladen loved to dance and privately (and humorously) referred to Host of the Ellipse as he and his wife dancing. 9 Corinne Robins, “The Artist Speaks: Ronald Bladen,” p. 78 and p. 79. 10 For a discussion of Bladen’s working process, see Douglas Drieshspoon, “Making the Inside the Outside,” in Ronald Bladen: Drawings and Sculptural Models, exh. cat. (Greensboro, North Carolina: Weatherspoon Art Gallery): 35. 11 Dean Fleming, “Interview: Ronald Bladen,” Ocular 4, No. 4 (Winter 1981): 12. Speaking of the question of scale, Bladen stated: “Economics enter into the picture someplace, too. Economically, right now, we are getting into a position where it’s going to be difficult to finance large-scale works, and it may be so for quite some time. The flowering of public art in the last 15 years has been fantastic, and that public thrust has been because of government supported it.” 12 Berkson, p. 10-11. 7

invites one to walk around to see and understand the complete form. Black Lightning (1981) which may be familiar to some viewers as a smaller version of a work installed in the Seattle Center Sculpture Garden in Seattle, Washington, is a singular, black form that projects a linear image of something like a bolt of lightning.7 Though Bladen often took inspiration from natural phenomenon, the reference to nature here is more direct than in most of his sculptures. But even here, the image is abstracted into an iconic shape that is more about a dynamic force expressed by jagged forms, a forceful diagonal thrust, and a sense of speed suggested by the linearity and tapering shape. These traits are reinforced in the gallery installation by the confined interior space of the room against which the work seems to resist. In Host of the Ellipse (1981), Bladen has separated two black forms in space; shapes that echo each other but are not the same. Again, angular, tapered forms are used here but it is the interaction of the forms with the space between then that creates the sense of energy almost like dancers caught in time.8 The surfaces, painted with a semi-gloss paint, are slightly reflective adding a play of light and dark to the contrasts of form and space. Host of the Ellipse also exists in monumental form. Considered by Bladen, “a once-in-alifetime commission” because of the site and

financial support offered for this work, the sculpture sits by a government building in Baltimore. In this location, the monumental forms set a relationship between themselves that is echoed in that of the surrounding architecture and rolling hills. Though Bladen was clearly oriented towards large scale, outdoor commissions during this phase of his work, he made his sculptures in three scales referred to as maquettes, garden size models and monumental works. Originally, in the late 1960s, he fabricated full-scale models of his works in wood. These wood structures were the sculptures exhibited in the galleries. Despite their large size, Bladen built them himself; he constructed them in parts in his studio, or if his studio was too small, in borrowed locations or on the exhibition site, if time permitted. Though not visible, these structures have intricate interior, wooden frameworks within them to support the painted plywood surfaces. And though Bladen might work out details in drawings along the way, he did not begin by making preliminary drawings. In 1969, he described his process as starting in bed where he worked out a piece — the structure, the engineering, safety issues, etc. — in his head. Then he would enter the studio and start making what he referred to as “jigs” — the wooden skeletons — that became like drawings to visualize and work out any kinks

in his design. The process also allowed him to respond to specific situations — a crooked floor, low ceiling, or whatever — that came up along the way. In this way too, Bladen was able to maintain “the kind of mastery or authority” over the work that he preferred.9 When Bladen began getting more public commissions in the early 1970s, his process changed a bit.10 He began making models in two scales — maquette size and garden size (expanding the maquette from 1” to 1’) — that could be presented to or photographed for proposals for large-scale sculptures. The monumental works were made three times the size of the garden scale works. He also began exploring new forms that may or may not have become monumental works in the maquettes and models. Drawing too took on a more formative role in construction of his works. The artist kept all the models that he built himself; when a work was sold, a fabrication was made. And when three buyers stepped up to buy Three Elements (1966), Bladen’s work that was included in the famous Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966, Bladen began fabricating his works in editions of three. After Bladen’s death, many of the wooden prototypes that the artist had made were acquired by the well-known collector Egidio Marzona and are currently on permanent loan to the Staatliche Museem in Berlin. The works available from the editions of three in each size stayed in Bladen’s estate. By the mid 80’s, perhaps partially in response to the difficulties and pressures inherent working on government supported public sculpture was sculpture, Bladen’s work began to change.11 Again, drawing inspiration from nature, in this case the reflections of sunlight on water, he began mounting “jig-like” structures on the wall that supported sheets of aluminum flashing that reflected and refracted beams of light.12 He continued to make these works until his death in 1988. And while quite elegant and beautiful in there own right, they are quite different from the grand gestures of Bladen’s work made between 1966 and 1983. The Sculptural work made from this period has had the greatest historical impact and left the greatest legacy. n

Chevrons, 1974 Painted aluminum Nine units: 36 x 80 x 111/2 inches (each) Edition of 3

V, 1973 Painted aluminum 601/2 x 106 x 8 inches Edition 1 of 3

Black Lightning, 1981 Painted aluminum 8 x 20 x 2 feet Edition of 3

Kama Sutra, (Monumental), 1977 Wood Prototype, 30 x 20 x 30 feet Temporary installation at Doris C Freedman Plaza Central Park, New York, 1977, courtesy of the Public Art Fund

Kama Sutra, 1977 Painted aluminum 61/2 x 41/2 x 61/2 feet Edition 1 of 3