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Ron Bloore and Contemporary Art Criticism

by Barry Lord

Barry Lord, former curator of art, the New Brunswick Museum, and recently appointed editor of Canadian Art magazine, relates the new "formalist" criticism of the Sixties to the paintings of Ronald Bloore, former director of the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, and now director of art for extracurricular programs and special lecturer in the Humanities Department at York University

Ronald Bloore is one of the few Canadian painters working today with a substantial achievement behind him and a persistent and growing contemporary relevance. Proof of this statement may now be seen in public collections in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Vancouver and Saint John; but an ideal opportunity to appreciate his continuing development was afforded by the spring 1965 exhibition organized by the Dorothy Cameron Gallery. Toronto, and the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John. The exhibition (seen in Toronto March 12-29, in Saint John during April-May and at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in May-June) consisted of eight paintings dated 1960-62 and 19 works of 1964-65. The 27 paintings also demonstrated that work of uncompromising integrity and undeniable quality could go a long way toward resolving present-day controversies in the interpretation of modern art.

Two distinct critical approaches may now be identified in the literature which has grown up around American abstract painting since the mid-1940s. The earlier wave. of which Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess are prime exemplars, first identified action painting as a new and anti-academic way of approaching the canvas as the product of the artist's actions, interpreted in relation to a crisis of personal identity or some similar existentialist category of painterly decision made in radical freedom and complete responsibility. This was the critical voice of what has recently been characterized as the Agee - alcohol generation datable roughly from 1945 to the late 1950s.

A second important corpus of criticism, and one obviously more in consonance with the current Burroughs LSD age, has been advanced centrally in the writings of Clement Greenberg and his many followers. In direct antithesis to the earlier criticism, this "formalist" school, as it chooses to be known, interprets the artist as the discoverer of solutions to formal problems inherent in the art of the immediate past. (It should be noted that Greenberg himself was writing very early in the Forties; but his critical position and considerable following did not crystallize as the formalist school until recently.) This "cool criticism of the Sixties claims to be crucially concerned with the formal properties of the works themselves. and to be more relevant to the new flat or "post-painterly" abstraction being produced today. For the formalists, the achievement of Hofmann, Gorky, Pollock and deKooning lies in their solution to certain painters' problems inherent in late cubism, rather than in any fundamentally different approach to the act of painting. Understandably the new criticism holds considerable appeal for the pragmatic, empirical American mind impatient with the foreign ideology of existentialist metaphysics which has come to be associated with Rosenberg and Hess.

Ronald Bloore is a painter who is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary critics, particularly Clement Greenberg. In this context his statement for the 1965 exhibition (and for the Art Gallery of Toronto Art and Engineering show 13 February to 14 March 1965) was interesting:

My only intention while executing a painting is to make a preconceived image function formally as a painting. The appearance of each work has been consciously determined before execution and the general concept is not significantly altered by the requirements of material limitations.

This is essentially the same as his statement for the 1961 Five Painters from Regina exhibition circulated by the National Gallery of Canada. At that time he added:

… the paintings fall into distinct series which are usually composed of four or five large works which were preceded by smaller ones in which some formal or technical problems have been examined.

Between series there are other works which have no apparent or immediate connection with what went before or followed, but on the whole my interest shifts from works with an all-over activated surface to others with simple, single or double, symbol-like elements.

These would appear to be the words of a painter tailored to the formalists' measure. (Since Time has dubbed Bloore "The Man in the White Suit," the metaphor is apt.) The visual evidence is very different however: his paintings are the results of decisions taken in a situation of total involvement and total risk, and their evidence of personal anxiety pushed to the limit of visual expression can almost palpably be identified as that factor which focuses our attention and concern. This confirms our suspicion that these repeated phrases have been carefully selected as presenting a public image more or less successfully for a painter who also admitted in 1961 that for him "the meaning of any work of art is determined entirely by the individual experiencing it." Yet the statements are by no means valueless, for they do in fact contain reference to the basic elements in Bloore's work. The problem is simply that the syntax of the spoken or written word cannot approximate the subtlety and ambiguity of the inter-relationship of these elements in the actual paintings.

Thus while Bloore tells us that his interest shifts from works with an all-over active surface to others with predominant symbol-like elements, the fact is that both aspects are apparent and enmeshed in all his paintings. Further, the preconceived image is continually in tension with material limitations, and in some works (as in the "flaws" of the grid of Untitled Painting No. 3, 1964, now in the New Brunswick Museum), the material and technical limitations themselves have been anticipated at least as much as the formal image. And whatever the relation between small and large paintings was in 1961, it certainly did not appear in the exhibition that the former simply explore formal and technical problems resolved in the larger works; on the contrary paintings like Sun Panel (191, Sam and Ayala Zacks collection, Toronto) and Small White Cross (1962, Art Gallery of Toronto), with their ambiguous interplay of image and ground and their expressive complexity of texture and colour subtleties, are among the high points of his achievement to date. It is nevertheless true that there are strong formal and technical links between his works, particularly in the recurrence of circle and cross motifs.

The formalist position has been satirized by Saul Steinberg as making artists into art historians painting art history for other art historians. In a long introduction to the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, exhibition Three American Painters (1965) formalist Michael Fried admits that his viewpoint assumes the painter to be totally alienated from his environment, in the sense that his problems of expression derive entirely from formal problems within art and art history, rather than from any social or personal source. It is this assumption which underlies the fundamental inadequacy of the formalist position: Greenberg, Fried and company take the painter in alienation as a fact, and proceed to analyze his formal development in the context of recent and contemporary art history; the "action" school takes this alienation as a problem, and so stresses the painter's choice in acting the way he does in the studio. The question "Why paint?" translated into "Why be an alienated individual seeking expression within certain visual forms?" has a relevance for Rosenberg which it does not have for Greenberg.

The painter in alienation must ask himself why he is painting, what a work of art is and what it can be. In an integrated community like mediaeval Chartres or such as the Soviet countries someday hope to be, he may be able to find answers outside his studio, in terms of his natural relationship with others and with the products of his hand. In a society of individual alienation like ours, both in the Marxist sense of alienation from our products as commodities and in the existential sense of alienation as the prevailing atmosphere of social intercourse, the painter has only his own formal problems of expression to go by. This fact leads Greenberg and company to concentrate exclusively on his problem-solving. They may then add that these formal solutions are futile unless they contribute to something like "freshness" (Greenberg) or"feeling" (Fried). That "feeling" is however itself the anxiety about the alienation from social or personal issues and the concentration on formal problems. The formalists' error is therefore their failure to articulate the precise relation between form and feeling; such articulation is of course the major problem for any critic.

Although Bloore's art shows a continuous and logical development related to contemporary trends toward denying any illusory three dimensionality in abstract painting, the real source of excitement in his work remains what it was for Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline - the fact that the artist's decisions are evident, implicit in and necessary to the final appearance of the work itself. As with the earlier masters, this binding of product to process makes possible an immediate transmission of the artist's anxiety about the nature and validity of the process of painting; seeing the product of his work, we recognize not only his alienation from us, from it and from himself, but in the tenuous and self-critical nature of both act and result we can also appreciate his anxiety about this alienation. Most pertinent is the quotation from Picasso employed as a leit-motif in Rosenberg's latest collection of essays, The Anxious Object:

What forces our interest is Cézanne's anxiety - that's Cézanne's lesson; the torments of Van Gogh - that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is sham.

The difference between Bloore's Recent Paintings and the great U.S. paintings of fifteen to twenty years ago is the quantitative increase in control (the "preconceived image" of his statement) and the qualitative growth in constricted intensity of expression. Whether we prefer to account for the fact by reference to personal inhibitions, Canadian sobriety or the heightened tensions of the Sixties, there is no doubt that Bloore's ambiguities are more pronounced and his power more "cabin'd and confined" than were the abstract paintings of the immediate post-war decade.

Since impressionism at least, the questions "Why paint?" or "What does it mean to be a painter?" have voiced those anxieties which the formalists choose to ignore. I have suggested before in Canadian Art (The New Figure, July/August 1964) that this question in the Sixties becomes "Why be a maker of public/private images?" or "What is it to make an image which is also a work of art?" It is the continuing discovery of a role for the painter as a maker of valid images in a world largely composed of false image-makers that produces works of art as arresting and enduring as the paintings of Ronald Bloore.

Bloore on Canadian Art -1951
Bloore on Folk Art -1960
Bloore at the Wyers Retro -1989
Bloore at the Morton Retro -1994

Bloore at Eighty - by Illi Tamplin -2005
Canadian Encyclopedia - and the Oxford -1998
Five Interviews - by Robert Enright -1993
Tamplin Collection Donation - by Kay Kritzwiser -1988
R.L. Bloore Drawings 1960-1988 - by Illi Tamplin -1988
Regina Five In Creemore - with Olive Price-Adams -1981
Bloore - and contemporary art criticism - by Barry Lord -1966
Bloore - at the Here And Now - by Robert Fulford -1962
Win Hedore in Time Magazine - I Remember Dada -1960

Not Without Design - by Terrence Heath -1991

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