Ross Bleckner was born in 1949 in New York and grew up on Long Island. Bleckner attended New York University, studying under artists such as Sol LeWitt and Chuck Close and graduated in 1971. He went on to study at the California Institute of the Arts, earning an MFA in 1973. Upon moving back to New York in 1974, he purchased a building in Tribeca, where he lived and worked, and also rented three floors to the artist Julian Schnabel and the ground floor to the famed Mudd Club, a gathering place for the musicians and artists of the downtown scene. In 1979, after several well-received shows of his early abstracted geometric paintings, he began being represented by Mary Boone Gallery, home to many of the New York City “art stars” of the coming decade.
Bleckner began creating the work he is most known for in the mid-1980s, partly as a response to the AIDS crisis. A departure from his earlier nonrepresentational works, these large paintings depict urns, ornamental gates, chandeliers, flowers and fruit, floating, in a radiant glow, against dark backgrounds. These works are rooted in a sense of loss, dislocation and sentiment but also employ his earlier explorations of linear geometry, rendering the hard-edged lines of Op Art decorative and expressive. Bleckner calls the light in these paintings “light from history,” citing Romantics such as William Blake and J.M.W. Turner among his inspirations. As a reaction to the cool detachment of the prevailing styles of the previous generation, Bleckner turned to emotional engagement, calling for artists to “reconcile the object with what we in fact do know and feel…take the emphasis off the continuous repetition of autonomous moments in the world of feeling and root these moments in a larger psychological, social and political reality.” From this mentality came deeply moving works that confronted the turbulence of the times with vulnerability, as well as reinvigorated formalist abstraction with a personal, penetrating approach.
In the late 1980s, the night sky began figuring predominantly in Bleckner’s work, both as place and non-place—enveloping atmospheric depictions of a physical phenomenon that we can often only observe and grasp through abstraction. Much like the floating objects of his earlier works, bathed in an otherworldly light, these sky paintings provoke a sense of a yearning melancholy.
Bleckner’s first solo exhibition was held at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1988 and a mid-career retrospective was presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1995. His paintings are widely held in collections such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others. In addition to his paintings, Bleckner has also become involved in humanitarian efforts and was appointed as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in 2012, visiting refugee camps of abducted children in Uganda, making art with them and raising awareness and funds to support them. He continues to live and work in New York City.