Modern artists who create a new movement typically attack their predecessors, nail their declaration of principles to the wall, and claim the future for themselves. At first, they appear dramatically different from previous artists. Their work is this but not that. Here is the son, there the father. But over time, what once seemed clear grows shaded, complex, even contradictory. The sons turn into the fathers; the work of the stronger artists, especially, escapes from the pigeonhole; the critics tease out endless complications, byways, reversals. There is no better example of an artist escaping the straitjacket of a movement than Ronald Bladen (1918-88), who is typically identified as one of the cool “fathers of Minimalism” but looks more and more like an American Romantic.
“Ronald Bladen: Selected Works” – organized by Alanna Heiss for the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, Queens – includes four of Bladen’s full-size works and a large roomful of smaller studies and models. For almost twenty years, Bladen, who came late to sculpture, was mainly a painter; his images, steeped in earth tones, contained a heated Abstract Expressionist current. (Some of his paintings and drawings are on view.) In the mid-sixties, however, he began making stripped-down sculpture based on geometric forms.
To distinguish themselves from Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists emphasized the impersonal, working with clean geometric grids instead of the idiosyncratic impulse of the moment. They removed all signs of the artist’s hand. They took a functional approach to materials. But there’s a strange thing about simple shapes: They often convey, willy-nilly, that most intense if indefinable emotion called the sublime. Think of the ruler-sharp horizon line. An old-fashioned romantic word like sublime is enough to make any decent Minimalist aesthetician throw up, but Bladen’s work fits it to a T. Bladen said he was looking for “that area of excitement belonging to natural phenomena such as a gigantic wave poised before it makes its fall, or man-made phenomena such as the high bridge spanning two distant points.” Above all, he said, he wanted “presence.”
Bladen’s signature effect is to give massive black forms an air of light, speed, and weightlessness. Sharp angles cut through the air, unzipping the space. Beams spread open. Geometric shapes intertwine but do not lock. Many of his large works are not actually made of heavy metal but are painted plywood bolted onto a wooden framework; as a result, you can see an ungeometric ripple and even traces of the hand. (“They seem very human to me,” he said.) He would often raise his sculptures a bit off the ground, to give them a subtle lilt. In The Cathedral Evening, he opened a vast triangular form above the head of the viewer. The effect could hardly be more charged. You could almost be looking up from a dinghy at the prow of a great ship. “What I am after,” he also said, “is to create a drama out of a minimal experience.”
Bladen’s sculpture anticipated the future work of much-better-known artists, notably Richard Serra. Three Elements has a somewhat unstable aspect – as if the geometric forms might suddenly topple – and Curve is a predecessor of Serra’s Tilted Arc. (There are, of course, essential differences: Bladen lightens mass while Serra emphasizes weight.) Bladen’s art also anticipated an important direction in mass culture. A knockoff of his sculpture could easily serve as the corporate logo for, say, a software company in Silicon Valley; Minimalism, once considered arcane and radical, was quickly adapted to corporate life. But Bladen also looked back. He used the fresh forms of the moment to recover earlier – even ancient – patterns of feeling.