NEW YORK — Searching for Ross Bleckner’s dark side may be an exercise in futility.
“I’ve never been an alcoholic or a drug addict. I’ve never had fights with people in bars,” the artist says on a recent afternoon, sitting in the living space of the six-floor TriBeCa building he owns.
Bleckner has never been one for histrionics. For almost three decades, he’s worked without the sturm und drang associated with painters whose tortured artist personas have arguably fueled interest in their work.
“Roy Lichtenstein,” Bleckner begins. “There wasn’t a lot of drama there. He was a nice man who went about his work in a methodical way. I always let the work speak for itself.”
While Bleckner may not have achieved quite the financial and critical success of the late Lichtenstein, his gallery shows and 1995 midcareer retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum attest to his stature in the art world.
Bleckner’s latest series, “Inheritance,” which will be exhibited at the Mary Boone Gallery from Saturday through Dec. 20, draws on themes that have run throughout his work: beauty, fragility, loss and fear.
“This is a very cohesive body of work,” he says of the seven new paintings. “It’s my vocabulary, with a bit of an extension.”
Several paintings in the series depict the flow of blood and platelets in the blood stream, while other canvases are more representational, with a few depicting flowers. But that’s just what’s on the surface.
“It’s all about genetics and DNA,” Bleckner, 54, says. “All we really are is the carriers of genetic material for other species to exist. It’s about the beauty and the fear.”
Bleckner, who says he might have liked to have been a scientist, is intrigued by the body’s inner workings and many of his paintings can be seen as metaphors for disease. For example, “8,122+ as of January 1986” (1986), referred specifically to the AIDS epidemic. Some of his paintings were done from the vantage point of cells seen through an electron microscope.“I’m interested in how things work and why they work,” he says of the human body. “This was crystallized when the world discovered AIDS. I developed this fascination and morbid curiosity of how our bodies are perfect until one little thing grows too much or a foreign substance is introduced.”
In discussing how he began his new paintings, Bleckner uses the language of cancer.
“You make a mark and another mark and another mark and then a mutation occurs,” he says. “The new work is about inheritance and the things you adapt to. It can be a kind of genetic monster. How terrible that is, and yet it’s a miracle of nature.”
In one of the new paintings, red flowers drop from the sky, falling gently like parachutes unfurling. Individual petals (blood cells) swirl over the flowers against a background that goes from gradations of white to gray to black. The flowers appear to be falling from the light into the dark, making the work both beautiful and terrifying, as the artist says he intended it to be.
Unlike many artists, Bleckner is articulate on the subject of his work. “A lot of people feel that their work is more complex than it really is,” he says. “I like to keep things straight in my head and keep focused. Ultimately, good work works on many different levels. I could say a picture is what it is under an electron microscope, but it is also hopefully beautiful and scary and has an emotional impact.”
While his work may have dark overtones — Bleckner says it is ultimately hopeful — his personal life has earned him the reputation as a party boy in the press. Bleckner, who counts David Geffen, Calvin Klein and Barry Diller among his friends, says, “I don’t know what it means to be a party boy. Does it mean I like to go out at night? I don’t have that many places to go, unfortunately.
“A lot of artists have wealthy friends,” he continues. “I feel like I’m wealthy, whether or not I am.” The statement is quintessential Bleckner.While his efforts to help young artists may not be as highly publicized as his celebrity friendships, they are well known in the art world.
“There’s a spiritual aspect to painting,” he says. “I’m tired of getting to know myself. It’s better to be generous outside yourself. To encourage someone who’s struggling with their career is really gratifying. There’s also a mercenary quality to it. There’s nothing more fun than buying a painting for $5,000 and selling it eight years later for $50,000.”
Bleckner, who says he has a good eye for “knowing who I feel is going to last,” points to an Adam Fuss painting hanging on the wall. “I bought it in 1985 at his first show for $3,000. His work sells at auction for $50,000 to $60,000.”
Bleckner’s other good works include the American Community Research Initiative on AIDS, of which he is chairman. Next Tuesday, from 7-9 p.m., he’s cohosting with Dorothy Lichtenstein a meet-and-greet event for Wesley Clark, where the Democratic candidate for president will answer questions.
“I’m very interested in what’s going on in the world,” Bleckner says. “My mind is open.”
So does Bleckner have a dark side? The artist squirms uncomfortably in his chair and peers out from behind horn-rimmed glasses. “I guess a little bit of a dark side,” he finally says.
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