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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ronald Bladen

The X, painted aluminum, 1967, edition of 3, Ronald Bladen.
When most artists think of Minimalist art, they picture huge canvases with nothing but highly simplified existential content (that is to say the work itself exists purely as content). Very few non-artists even think of such art if, indeed, they would actually consider it art in the first place. And nearly always, artists' contemplation of Minimalism extends not much beyond painting. Actually Minimalism was full-blown movement dating from the late 1960s through much of the 1970s, and it encompassed not just painting but architecture, music, poetry, graphic design and drama. It also included sculpture, and quite prominently that of the New York artist, Ronald Bladen.
Gallery-scale sculpture by Ronald Bladen.
Kama Sutra, 1977,
Ronald Bladen
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. Bladen attempted to create drama out of a minimal visual experience as demonstrated by his Kama Sutra (left) dating from 1977. Ronald Bladen has often been identified as one of the “fathers of Minimalism,” yet he came late to sculpture. During the 1950’s, prior to his turning to sculpture, Bladen created a number of paintings that in manner and form were directly related to the work of the Abstract Expres-sionists, much on the order of his Upside Down (below) dating from the late 1950s. His paint-ings involved gritty concretions protruding, sometimes as much as four inches, amid stucco or froth-like expanses. His paintings were strikingly different from his cool, reduc-tionist sculpture which followed, yet there continued to exist a soulful continuity through-out Bladen’s artistic production.
Upside Down, 1956-59, Ronald Bladen
Charles Ronald Wells Bladen was born in 1918, the son of British immigrants to the Canadian city of Vancouver. His father, Kenneth Bladen, was an expert in landscape gardening. His mother, Muriel Beatrice Tylecote, had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and, as an active socialist, had taken part in the suffragette movement. Both parents wholeheartedly supported their son’s artistic interests. During the 1920s, Bladen's family moved several times to various cities in the U.S. before returning to Canada in 1936 to live in Victoria British Columbia.

A budding young artist by the age of ten.
By the age of ten, Bladen was drawing intensively, making copies of works by Botticelli, Titian, Picasso, and Matisse, as well as creating imaginative freehand illustrations of Greek mythology. His talent was furthered in junior high and high school art courses, in addition to private art classes under the painter, Max Maynard. A sample of his childhood work can be seen in his watercolor self-portrait (above). It was the first and only self-portrait he ever completed. Bladen was also enthusiastic about sports, a passionate dancer, and baseball and tennis player.

Bladen worked on two scales, creating larger pieces for outdoor
installation and the same item on a smaller scale for gallery display.
Starting in 1937, Bladen began his studies at the Vancouver School of Art. Upon graduating in 1939, he moved to San Francisco to continue his studies until 1943 at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), by attending evening classes until 1945. His art studies through the war years were the result of his being declared unfit for military service in 1941, whereupon he was obliged to work as a ship’s welder at the naval dockyards in Sausalito, California. For many years, this activity enabled him to earn his living as a toolmaker. These skills and aesthetic experience were to become important later in constructing his sculptures. Bladen remained in the United States after the war. He lived in San Francisco until 1956 and then moved to New York.

An early Bladen work in progress.
Ronald Bladen had his first solo exhibition in 1946 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. About the same time he was awarded a scholarship by the San Francisco art Association whish enabled him to undertake an eight week journey to Mexico and New Orleans as well as a stay several months in New York. In 1955, Bladen separated from his wife of four years, Barbara Gross. Later he got to know the poet, Michael McClure, whereupon he moved back to San Francisco into McClure’s communal household with Joanna McClure, James and Beverly Harmon, Price Dunn, and Larry Jordan. At the same time a friendship arose with the writers, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller, along with the painter, Al Held, who advised him to move to New York.

Black Tower, Ronald Bladen
In New York, Bladen continued to work mainly as a painter in the style of Abstract Expressionism with intensively colored patches of organic formations integrated into landscape-like surface forms, that were similar in color. During the 1960s, Bladen progressively restricted his painting activities, occupying himself with collages made of folded paper and his first painted plywood reliefs. As in previous years, to earn his living, as a toolmaker. In 1962, Bladen exhibited his painted plywood reliefs for the first time at the Brata Gallery and the Green Gallery in New York. The following year he made his first free-standing, colored sculptures from plywood boards with metal struts. From this time on the Bladen dedicated himself exclusively to sculpture.

Raiko, Ronald Bladen
The artist showed his first sculpture, White Z, at a 1964 exhibition at Park Place Gallery in New York. There he got to know the sculptures of Connie Reyes, who later became his companion. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts by the National Endowment of the Arts. From 1956 on, Bladen enjoyed the growing attention of the New York art scene. He was subsequently best known for his austere sculptures, developed from geometric forms, at many prominent exhibitions. He was influenced by European Constructivism, American Hard-Edge Painting, and sculptors such as Isamu Noguchi and David Smith. In turn, Bladen had a stimulating effect on a circle of younger artists including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, who repeatedly referred to him as the ‘father figure’ of Minimal Art.

The Light Year, 1979, Ronald Bladen
Despite his international success as a sculptor, numerous prestigious awards, and his years as a highly esteemed teacher, Ronald Bladen was a heavy smoker and drinker for most of his adult life. He died of cancer in February of 1988 at the age of seventy.


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