The Unknown Blakelock at the National Academy Museum
October 2, 2008 to January 4, 2009
1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street
New York City, 212 369 4880
Everyone knows Albert Pinkham Ryder, but mention of Ralph Albert Blakelock, also born in 1847, is rare and seldom passes beyond a fleeting reference to his Romantic moonlight landscapes. Underrated and misunderstood in his lifetime, Blakelock remains hobbled by his near inclusion in the 1913 Armory show, an exhibition which eventually sealed Ryder’s modernist credentials. In 1867 Blakelock exhibited his first landscape at the National Academy of Design; fortunately the same National Academy is now offering a reexamination of Blakelock’s achievements in The Unknown Blakelock.
Unlike the young American Impressionists, who embarked on grand tours to Europe, Blakelock remained in New York City. He painted the ramshackle Shanties (1864) within a stones throw from where the Draft Riots had occurred a year earlier. In these intimate yet forceful paintings, inspired by Adriaen and Isaac van Ostade’s Dutch genre scenes, Blakelock approaches his subjects with the urgency of a documentarian.
During the introspective post-Civil War period, from 1869 until 1873, Blakelock traveled the American west alone. In Western Landscape (1871), Blakelock features a sharply focused foreground and deep atmospheric perspective that are emblematic of the crystalline naturalism of Hudson River School painters such as Cole and Bierstadt.
While Blakelock stoically experienced an authentic, primeval American landscape and studied life at various Indian encampments, he was aware of recent developments in European painting as well. Blakelock’s European influence was indirect but significant. Like the Hudson River School painters, he emulated Ruysdale, Lorraine and Turner. Additionally, the shockwaves of Constable’s 1824 exhibition at the Salon de Paris, which helped galvanize the Barbizon School, would eventually impact Blakelock’s own burgeoning subjective expression. For Blakelock, Constable’s declaration that “painting is but another word for feeling” rang true.
Blakelock’s rejection of tonalism is evident in Maiden of the Midst (undated). Here, he transmutes a typically cropped view of Niagara Falls into a Symbolist themed, kaleidoscopic swirl of rainbow color and impasto. In Seal Rock (undated) he seems to have hot-wired the Impressionist palette. Fusing Turner’s V-shaped light with Odilon Redon’s colorful Pegasus-themed pastels and Gutave Moreau’s Europaand the Bull psychedelics of 1869, Seal Rock is bizarrely incongruent, gaudy, and forward-looking. (Blakelock’s own late version of Pegasus is included in the exhibition.)
In the 1870’s, in order to heighten color effects, Blakelock lightly abraded the wooden cigar box surfaces upon which he occasionally painted. By the 1880’s he was loading his canvas with pigment, infusing it with light color, allowing it to harden, and polishing some ridges down with a meat cleaver and pumice stone. He would repeat the cycle multiple times, reacting to the surface without regard for the final image. Because of the long drying time, Blakelock processed several paintings concurrently and often varied his method, which to some degree explains the variety of effects from painting to painting. The moonlight landscapes of the 1880’s are striking examples. In Moonlight Silver and Old Lace, the flickering light is achieved by exploiting the uneven relief of the surface. At first glance, the telescoped view seems like a detail of sky cut from a much larger canvas. But the suggestion of a stream at the bottom edge of the painting suddenly recalibrates the scale and affirms the wholeness of the composition. And so it is throughout this exhibition, as each painting reveals its own individuated resonance and singularity.
The strange surface of Moonlight Sonata, a landscape of 1889, emits a deep glowing blue from a glassy, backlit source. The effect of color immersion is similar to that of wearing big wraparound sunglasses. The process is inscrutable, as the surface appears to be leather infused with colored glass. The dramatic flat silhouettes of the trees are informed by the haunting, romantic symbolism of Caper David Friedrich. The placement of trees as a framing device also evidences the continuing model of Claude Lorraine.
In At Nature’s Mirror (1880), Blakelock unpacks the pastorals of Giorgione, Titian and Poussin with a new attention to the autonomy of paint on the surface. Certain areas look as if they are imprinted or stamped in paint. Viewed up close, the low hanging white sky floats assertively in the foreground; from two steps away, it recedes, glowing and distant in the background. It is a startling manipulation. Hard contours yield to soft ones, and stippling turns into dry brush drags and scrapes. Skirmishes for spatial dominance abound throughout the treeline, as foliage and sky tussle in tit-for-tat reiteration. A proto-Richteresque smear in ochre appears in the lower middle ground on the left. It is a move Blakelock used with greater abandon in his later period, as the material process dissociated from the image and increasingly became what the painting is about. Later, in Woodland Brook (undated), this tendency increases in scale and effect, producing a painterly activity and spatial ambiguity throughout the surface that, via Venetian painting and Romanticism, is prescient of Abstract Expressionism.
Blakelock was known as an exemplary colorist by his contemporaries. And as Blakelock reexamines theme, material and process, so does he color. In Twilight (1898), he applies new processes as he revisits the glowing golden light of his western Indian encampment sunset scenes from twenty years earlier. As in Church’s landscape of the same title, the amber sky grabs the viewer’s attention from across the room. The recapitulated theme and strangely waxy, raised, encaustic-like surface are compelling testaments to Blakelock’s unquenchable curiosity, experimentation and non-linear progression.
Blakelock seems to have leap-frogged Impressionism, Divisionism and Cubism, arriving at an early form of Abstract Expressionism. Later, during his institutionalization for a mental breakdown, Blakelock returned to the small wooden panel format of his early years. Again he abraded and merged the raw surface within the image, which now bore resemblance to those of Augustus Tack, Clifford Still and Franz Kline. Also late and undated is Early Autumn, the most extraordinary painting in the show. It hosts a dizzying array of expressive painterly techniques that liquefy the landscape. In addition to his spontaneous brushstrokes, Blakelock explores a decalcomania-like technique of load, press, smear, and lift. This emphatically material-based process creates a raised, textural web of paint activity with a few scattered red, orange and yellows flecking a surface that is eerily similar to Jackson Pollock’s and as interesting to ponder. Unknown Blakelock indeed.