May 23, 2009

You're On Earth. There's No Cure For That.

An Interview with American Painter Ross Bleckner
Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)
click on any image to enlarge it to original size

I first read about Ross Bleckner’s appointment as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the New York Times some days ago. Just as I was to later find out about Ross, I consider myself somewhat of a news junkie – noting that this news resonated within me for a number of reasons, as you’ll see. As the NYT article indicated:
‘Earlier this year Mr. Bleckner, whose mostly abstract work came to prominence in the 1980s and who has long been involved in AIDS-related causes, went on an official mission to the Gulu district of northern Uganda. Gulu has been terrorized for many years by the rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has abducted and conscripted thousands of children, forcing boys and girls to become killers and sex slaves.’

Now this is obviously an enormous statement in itself. However, if you add to that that Ross is in his own words anything but a celebrity – despite many considering him to be one of the pre-eminent modern American painters working (and subsequently, living) today – then it becomes all the more impressive to put this side of his work into perspective. I was pleased then to get a chance to interview Ross not only about his art, which many others more versed in the vernacular of various ‘isms’ have done before me, but also about the effect that this endeavour – and others before them in terms of his philanthropic work for AIDS causes and more – is having on both the people he seeks to help, as well as he himself and his art. I would also add that I was more than pleased to hear Ross’s much happier than expected sounding voice (his thoughts at least can seem a bit intense to some [read on]), rich, easy-flowing laughter and faithful Long Island accent. The following interview is then taken from our conversation:

Ross, I have to ask this because I found such a wonderful picture of you waiting outside before your Bar Mitzvah: how did a nice Jewish boy from Long Island get into art?
Ha! That’s very funny. Well, number 1: I got into art because a lot of nice young Jewish boys become artists! In terms of being from Long Island, well, there, too, it’s just a route some people from there take. It’s like how did Donna Karan of DKNY fame – who grew up in the same town as me – become a famous fashion designer? There are people from everywhere that have an inner light for whatever reason when they were young, that kind of develops over time. And then they become what they are!

Was art always something you were interested in when you were younger?
No, art was something I did not do through my youth. I had more of an interest in being in my own room. You know, making little drawings or playing in one way or another on my own, that’s how it really developed. Maybe it’s the idea that you feel maybe even a little bit marginal, a little bit outside, a little not like the other kids. That’s where these things really start.

But you know, how does someone become interested in anything really? Again, it’s like that phase when you play around in your room, just by yourself. It’s like the playfulness becomes the thing that makes you happy. And in my case, maybe it was something as simple as my mother liked making paintings, even though my family was not artistic. But as I watched her make her little paintings, well, it looked to me like it made her very happy. So that stuck with me.

What ultimately inspired you to become an artist?
Kids have certain gravitational pulls, it’s just the way kids grow up. Some kids are pulled more towards sports, some kids more towards math, some kids more towards creativity in any artistic way. Me? Well, I definitely gravitated away from sports and I was bad in math. That was just the way I developed.

I really basically think a lot of that stuff has to do with how your mind is wired. It’s about things you understand, things you don’t understand. Things you feel like you do more comfortably. And if you’re not good at sports and not good at math, well, what’s left?

Was there a particular ‘wow’ moment for you when you realized that you were good at art and could then potentially do it for a living?
Yes, there was actually, there was a ‘wow’ moment for me as you call it in college. I think it’s because, well, there’s a phase that comes after you take art classes and you feel the encouragement of your art teacher. Or you’re the high school artist and you’re good at it in high school, and then you get accepted to college, where I went to New York University. And when you’re there you think, now is the time to get serious, one way or another.

It was then I thought, ‘I don’t have to make a living doing this like my father or like father would want me to do’, noting my father was a very successful business man. For me, it was a question then of what kind of independent life are you going to lead? So the ‘wow’ moment was really when I said ‘I want to do this!’ That happened when I was like 20 and I realized that painting was not just a hobby. This ‘thing’ that I would do on my own all the time in my room – which I never really thought would be viable as a living – well, I started to think ‘what does it matter if it’s viable or not?’

That path is only do-able with the clarity of understanding at any age who you want to be – and yes, it’s great if that happens at a young age. And the only way you can do that is by making a decision and then saying to yourself ‘... and I will accept the consequences.’ So I asked myself what would be the consequences of being an artist? Well, I thought if the consequences of being an artist was that I couldn’t make a living, the worst that could happen to me would be I’d be homeless and broke. Yet I knew I’d never let myself get to that point, I’d always figure out something to do. But I wanted to be happy.

You see, success at that point in your life has to be measured individually, it can’t be measured in terms of being in business or making money. It’s measured by personal fulfilment. And my personal fulfilment, I realized, was to be an artist ... no matter what happened! That’s how you choose a path, you have to think that no matter what happens, something will happen! I knew I wasn’t going to be on the street, I mean, I wasn’t a moron! At the same time, I wasn’t looking to be rich either, I was just looking to do what I needed to do. You know, inside.

Overall, I really think that the ‘wow’ moment occurs between that time when you’re becoming an artist and being an artist. It’s when you suddenly find yourself saying ‘well, now I am an artist! And whatever happens, happens!’

Were you ever drawn to other avenues of the arts or even other ways of expressing your artistic tendencies besides painting?
Actually, no. For some reason – again maybe it’s just the way your mind works – I just really felt like when I made a decision to be a painter, I just wanted to concentrate on what it meant to be a painter. Maybe it was just out of insecurity. But I just felt like painting was the best way to get out what I wanted to say emotionally, to express myself in terms of what was going on inside of me.
In terms of your career to-date, do you see your work fitting into different ‘periods’ or phases?
When I decided to try and become an artist, I was looking around and searching. You see, the whole idea of being an artist is that it’s a process. It’s like creating a new language, or writing a book. And just like in a book, every chapter is part of something, but yet they’re different, too.

Looking back, unlike many people at the time when I was in school, I did not share the general sentiment that art was moving very much away from painting. I wouldn’t say that many found painting irrelevant – but you have to put it into perspective with what was going on at the time. I started painting seriously in the 70’s, when conceptual art and other new forms of art like video art were really coming into vogue. I think these were all then considered to be what kind of art to do if you wanted to be a more avant garde artist. Painting was considered a little bit of a dying enterprise so to speak.

But I didn’t care. You just can’t choose like that. I wanted to expand my own emotional language and I felt like painting was a good way to talk. The fact that painting could express a lot of different interests of mine meant that, yes, that there have been a lot of different ‘phases’ with my work. On one hand, clearly, I didn’t think I had to come up with one style and just make paintings that looked alike forever. On the other hand, I made all kinds of paintings. I made abstract paintings, I made representational paintings, I made paintings that had objects in them, paintings that were more like still-life paintings. And all that in my mind kind of ‘blew up’ and exploded the idea that if there was anything possible going on in a painting, it didn’t have to mean that it was completely abstract.

And as you know, there have been times when I’ve done very scientific paintings – at least what I consider to be very scientific paintings – because I was interested in how things work. And how things don’t work. So I did cell paintings and paintings of molecules and paintings of DNA where I was just curious about looking under an electron microscope and looking at cells divide and how sometimes there are mutations of those cells, too. That was during the 80’s when the health issues of the day – during the AIDS crisis – became more in the forefront of people’s minds, especially younger people. And it was then that I felt like suddenly 20 to 30-year olds were fearing and considering ideas about mortality that people that age never really thought about before. So I wanted to somehow reflect that and commemorate that and think about that.

To me, painting is always about thinking. About thinking thoughts that are cohesive and clear and then thinking thoughts that are more effuse and elliptical. We don’t always know how our consciousness works. And that’s part of what interests me about painting in that it allows me you to draw almost a map that you can lay on consciousness and that can help you follow your thoughts around. I want to have my paintings reflect both the intellectual and emotional range of what people can feel and think.

Do you have other interests in terms of the sciences?
I do. But it’s more [pauses] ... Listen, I have interests in politics and I have interests in science. Just because I’m an artist doesn’t mean that I don’t have other interests! I even consider myself on the side a little bit of a political junkie. It’s just that I’m really interested in how things work and don’t work. Whether it’s visual, intellectual, political, scientific – I like putting things together. It’s like a painter is really a tinkerer in a laboratory, that’s how I like to think of it. There’s always something to do, some problem to solve, some issue to resolve.

That’s how I think about my days. I come to my studio because there’s something I didn’t finish up yesterday. Not so much physically but there are things that want to be put together or I need to figure something out. It’s always about looking and investigating and exploring things close up. I think that as you’re working and as you’re thinking, your thoughts mutate and expand and contract. That’s what the imagery becomes, it’s really that expansion and contraction. And when my thinking contracts, my art becomes very representational. When my thoughts expand, my painting becomes more emotional in a way, much broader, more abstract. That’s how I think of it in my mind.

From previous interviews, one quote says that you think about ‘irony, tragedy, contradiction and discrepancy’ when working in your studio. Despite these seemingly morose topics, you even said in the same interview that you consider yourself an optimist. Is there some discrepancy or even cosmic sense of dichotomy going on in your way of looking at things?
Optimistic is kind of a good word for it. There’s a quote from Samuel Beckett that I think about that’s interesting and funny to me: ‘ must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.’ (ZN: the title of this article also being a Beckett quote!) To me, it’s almost like a kind of melancholic optimism, that’s what life is like. Every day. And every day you see what’s around you. The point being is that with all of this stuff – with this world we live in – well, how do you make sense of it? How can you still be an optimist but have a sense of reality? That in itself is a contradiction.

I’m not sure. I don’t want to say that I want to challenge you on that ...
But you can, please do!

... it’s just that I would say that, yes, I see these things that you’re focusing on are ‘tragic’ in one sense – but to me it seems to be actually the other side of the coin you’re thinking about or looking at, namely, how people survive.
Absolutely. That’s what you’re looking for in your heart, that’s what you’re looking for in your life. I mean, I read the paper every day. Other people tell me they don’t read the paper – they CAN’T read the paper – because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed! And I say, ‘no, that’s actually quite the contrary. You have to read the paper because there’s no way that you can’t live in the world. And you have to have a sense of what the world is, even if there’s a lot of contradiction in that world.’

Every day you live, you see tragedy. You see irony. You see poverty. They all co-exist. A lot of artists – I should say a lot of creative people, whether you’re an artist or a scientist or a writer – what you’re really looking for – and I know it’s a cliché and it sounds silly – but they’re searching to find the light at the end of the tunnel. How do I find the path out of here, you know, how do I make my way through this? Both in your mind psychologically as well as in terms of trying to put something in the world that even in a little, little way adds something positive and productive.

It could be a product, or it could be something entrepreneurial, it could be a discovery of some kind, a philanthropic action, something creative, anything. I mean, you’re only one person and you’re battling against tremendous odds. But what are you going to do, give up? Again, essentially you want to put something in the world that tries to make a positive statement. Isn’t that why people try to become leaders or try to work on things or discover cures or why doctors try to help people? I mean, despite what you read in the news these days, not everyone who runs funds – and I know a lot of people like this – are just greedy thieves and bastards; a lot of these people raise money for really good things, productive things and things that can be and are a tremendous benefit to so many others.

That’s what I mean with optimism: there’s optimism, there’s melancholy and I think all of this is in all of us. That’s reality, even if it is a little mixed up. And that’s what I think a good artist reflects, is the reality of all these contradictions. To me the ultimate definition of an artist and what makes their art good is that their work is somehow relevant in describing what it means to be alive today.

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