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Oral history interview with Ross Bleckner, 2016 July 6-7

Oral history interview with Ross Bleckner, 2016 July 6-7

Bleckner, Ross, 1949-

Painter

Collection Information

Size: 2 sound files (6 hrs., 23 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 151 pages.

Summary: An interview with Ross Bleckner conducted 2016 July 6 and 8, by Linda Yablonsky, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Bleckner's studio in New York, New York.

Biographical/Historical Note

Interviewee Ross Bleckner (1949- ) is a painter in New York, New York. Interviewer Linda Yablonsky (1948- ) is a writer in New York, New York.

Provenance

This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.

Funding

Funded by the Keith Haring Foundation.

Transcript

Preface

The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Ross Bleckner on 2016 July 6 and 8. The interview took place in at Bleckner's studio in New York. N.Y., and was conducted by Linda Yablonsky for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project.

Ross Bleckner and Linda Yablonsky have reviewed the transcript. Their corrections and emendations appear below in brackets with initials. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Archives of American Art. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Interview

LINDA YABLONSKY: This is Linda Yablonsky interviewing the artist Ross Bleckner at his studio in New York City. This is July—

ROSS BLECKNER: Sixth.

MS. YABLONSKY: —sixth, 2016, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, card number one. Hello, Ross!

MR. BLECKNER: Hi, Linda.

MS. YABLONSKY: It's a pleasure to be here. And thank you for doing this. We are looking at rooftops of New York City. You have one of the best water tower views I've ever seen.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] It's looking south from 26th street down to 23rd, adjacent to the High Line.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I would like to talk to you during the course of this conversation about all of the places you've worked and lived, starting with the first. So let's start at the beginning. You were born in New York City, is that correct?

MR. BLECKNER: I was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1949.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which makes you 67 now.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. May 12th. I guess I turned 67 in May.

MS. YABLONSKY: Is it odd to think of yourself as 67?

MR. BLECKNER: Incredibly odd. I mean, it's just amazing, actually. First of you, you don't really think of yourself. But I mean, I kept journals since I was—since 1966. And I think one of the themes in my journal was I always preparing to turn old, or to be old. Actually—

MS. YABLONSKY: That's an odd thing.

MR. BLECKNER: I was obsessed with it since I was a kid, with a lot of things.

MS. YABLONSKY: Obsessed with old age?

MR. BLECKNER: Obsessed with getting older. Obsessed with mortality. Obsessed with obituaries.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why is that? Did your family experience a lot of loss when you were a child?

MR. BLECKNER: No, not particularly. We'll get into that. I suppose it will come out a little more, you know, I mean. But I think it has really to do with [laughs]—when I look back on things, I mean, you know, you don't feel 67. You forget so much. You know, I forget decades. I remember things now a long time ago, but I don't remember my 40s. I don't remember my 50s well.

MS. YABLONSKY: I'll bet as we're talking today, it will all come rushing back.

MR. BLECKNER: Maybe when I concentrate and focus on it, I might. I mean, because you can't remember everything. You know, like when I look at my journals—I think I stopped keeping my journal when I was 50, because I realized it was so embarrassing. It was like I read it, and I was like, what was I thinking? How idiotic.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, that's awfully harsh.

[They laugh.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, there's a lot of—there's a lot of—errr—I would say that, yeah, it's harsh.

MS. YABLONSKY: We'll get into why you're so judgmental about yourself in a minute!

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's why—one of the reasons why doing of course for interview for so long, it makes me extremely nervous because I'm very well prepared to talk about my work and, you know, elaborate sound bites, really. You know, I've given—I've talked at every school practically in America. I mean, I'm a professor. I teach at NYU. I've taught at Columbia. I've taught at Yale—you know. And I kind of have, you know, you edit, and you project the facades of confidence and—among other things. But obviously if you keep going, some of those things deconstruct and a lot of—a lot of the way my mind works and the way my work works is to build things up and then to break them down again. So, I think that's a kind of manifestation of harshness, the breaking down process. And I kind of see it just as a path, really, and a way.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well it is the creative process. That's how it goes. It's not much different for writers.

MR. BLECKNER: Right, no. I know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Anyway, what you've just said sounds like a good structure for this interview, building up and breaking down and weeding out. So you grew up in Brooklyn? Which neighborhood?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I was born—my parents lived in Brooklyn before I was born. I was born in Brooklyn, but they moved immediately. They had bought a house on Long Island.

MS. YABLONSKY: What year was that?

MR. BLECKNER: That was 1949.

MS. YABLONSKY: So right after the war, the big kind of postwar migration to the suburbs from the—

MR. BLECKNER: They were part of the postwar migration to the suburbs.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you have siblings at the time?

MR. BLECKNER: At that time, I had an older sister.

MS. YABLONSKY: How much older?

MR. BLECKNER: She's four years older than I.

MS. YABLONSKY: Four?

MR. BLECKNER: Four.

MS. YABLONSKY: And what is her name?

MR. BLECKNER: Her name is Susan.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay. So you moved—so you were an infant, when your parents moved.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I was an infant. We moved—so all I know is Cedarhurst, Long Island.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's where they moved to?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, which is—

MS. YABLONSKY: What kind of community is this?

MR. BLECKNER: One of the Five Towns on the South Shore?

MS. YABLONSKY: Why are they called that? [Laughs.] I mean I didn't grow up in New York. So I know where they are, but I don't know why they are called that.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know exactly why they're called that because they are predominantly a collection of small towns on the South Shore, a kind of middle to upper middle class Jewish.

MS. YABLONSKY: All five towns were Jewish?

MR. BLECKNER: All five towns were basically Jewish.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, so this was kind of a [laughs]—kind of a repost to the 400 of WASPS who settled New York?

MR. BLECKNER: It was.

MS. YABLONSKY: The Five Towns? I didn't know that actually. They ghettoized themselves.

MR. BLECKNER: They ghettoized themselves. Of course it's very, very similar to the exact opposite on the North Shore, which would be Great Neck, Roslyn, a group of town, where, you know, people left New York after their parents came and lived on the Lower East Side. And then—

MS. YABLONSKY: Were your parents immigrants?

MR. BLECKNER: No, but my grandparents were.

MS. YABLONSKY: From?

MR. BLECKNER: From Poland and Russia. My mother from Italy and Poland.

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you know your grandparents?

MR. BLECKNER: I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did they live with you?

MR. BLECKNER: No, they lived in Brooklyn.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were any of them in any way inclined towards arts?

MR. BLECKNER: Nobody—well, my—no, not really. My mother had four sisters and a brother. She was the youngest. Her older brother, when he was just married, moved to Los Angeles. And he was an artist, and he became—

MS. YABLONSKY: Who is this? Whose brother? Wait, let me get this straight.

MR. BLECKNER: My mother's brother.

MS. YABLONSKY: Her—so your uncle.

MR. BLECKNER: My uncle.

MS. YABLONSKY: What was his name?

MR. BLECKNER: My mother's maiden name. His name was Gus Ridley.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's not a very Jewish name. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Ridley—

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: Ridley sounds so Anglo.

MR. BLECKNER: Maybe it was Anglicized.

MS. YABLONSKY: Probably.

MR. BLECKNER: Other than that, I don't know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, sorry.

MR. BLECKNER: It's funny. It's talking about family and the past, I mean. Because the value of it shifts so much in your life of what it means to you. Sometimes it makes you very nervous. I mean, it's like—it's like recovered memory. It's like I was in psychoanalysis for so many years.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you.

MR. BLECKNER: So many years.

MS. YABLONSKY: Starting at what age?

MR. BLECKNER: Starting at 19. Starting at 18. But I went to analysis when I was in elementary school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why? May I ask why? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Of course you may, because that's what we're doing here. Because I was—I got into a lot of trouble. I used to rally the students against the teacher.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you go to a public school?

MR. BLECKNER: I went to a public school.

MS. YABLONSKY: And this is still in Cedarhurst?

MR. BLECKNER: I went to the school psychologist. They recommended a—

MS. YABLONSKY: Because the teachers were complaining about you. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, because they recommended a private psychiatrist, which I did go to. And I went until I was a senior on and off in high school. And then I started—and that was psychoanalysis. And a lot of that really had to do with, I think, my parents, and the school's detecting my attraction to boys.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, my question to you was going to be: did you think you needed help psychologically? Were you in a terrible state mentally?

MR. BLECKNER: I thought I needed help in high school.

MS. YABLONSKY: High school, but this is grade school we're talking about.

MR. BLECKNER: No, grade school, I just, you know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you think you should be disciplined or needed help from a psychiatrist?

MR. BLECKNER: No, but—

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean, that's kind of radical for a kid in the '50s to be sent to any form of, unless you were deranged obviously, to be sent into analysis.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I don't know. I remember one incident that really kind of changed me in the fifth grade. It's so strange. I don't know what the teacher did to me. But, she upset me. The fifth grade teacher was named Mrs. Tohl. And somehow I talked a lot of the kids in the class to write on that book, the book, like a notebook or some kind of book, and put a piece of paper on the back of it "I hate Mrs. Tohl."

MS. YABLONSKY: Excuse me, I'm sorry. Tool is spelled like T—

MR. BLECKNER: T-O—no, it was T-O-H-L.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay. Go on please.

MR. BLECKNER: And they all held up the "I hate Mrs. Tohl" sign at the time, when I gave them a signal. I don't know how I talked them to into it. And she cried. And then I cried. And then I went to principal's office. And actually that was an incident that just kind of made me a compassionate person in a way. I felt so bad I did it.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's so interesting.

MR. BLECKNER: And I do—I remember that very well.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's such a significant moment. Excuse me. [clearing throat] Did you have any—did anything like that ever happen in your family—where someone was humiliated—not necessarily by you. Did you get along with your sister? Did she bully you?

MR. BLECKNER: I got along with my sister, but I think my father was a bit of a bully.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really?

MR. BLECKNER: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Were your parents older when they had children, or where they [inaudible] just average age?

MR. BLECKNER: Average age. We were three in a row—

MS. YABLONSKY: What was your father's name?

MR. BLECKNER: My father's name was Fred.

MS. YABLONSKY: And your mother?

MR. BLECKNER: Ruth.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh yes, I know that from the first page—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —of your life in the New York Times, which we'll talk about. So you think he was somewhat abusive to your mother or—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I do.

MS. YABLONSKY: You do?

MR. BLECKNER: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MS. YABLONSKY: That could make you a compassionate person too.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, it did. I mean, it made—I was very close with my mother. When she would cry, I would cry. When she was sad, I was sad. I think that my kind of—she was depressed, I became depressed. She was—she held on to illusions. And the most important illusion to her, for her entire life, was the illusion of marriage and having my father in the picture when he wasn't really in the picture.

MS. YABLONSKY: So they didn't have a good marriage.

MR. BLECKNER: No, not really, no. My father was very loyal to her, but he always had girlfriends.

MS. YABLONSKY: You knew that as a child?

MR. BLECKNER: I sensed it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Well, I can see how that could build up—create a resentment in you and feel protective for your mother.

MR. BLECKNER: And my father was, you know, my father was a kind of a—he bragged. He was very insecure. And he was very poor when he grew up.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]. What did he do for a living?

MR. BLECKNER: He didn't go into the army because of some—I don't know, some—he had done something wrong. He, you know, had a deferment.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.].

MR. BLECKNER: In World War II, this is of course.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know what it was. But he started working in a factory doing position machining. And then he opened up his own shop with a couple of machines. And he started doing machining for equipment that went into material for the government, which was, you know, war materiel.

MS. YABLONSKY: So he had a government contract.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, somewhere, I don't know, but he had a little government contract. Or the company he worked for had a government contract.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: And he got some of the work when he opened up his own shop.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is in—before you were born.

MR. BLECKNER: This is in Brooklyn. This is before I was born. By the time I was born, he was doing well enough that he was able to buy a house in Cedarhurst, Long Island, where we moved. And then from that point on he was like a workaholic. And he was always out on the "road." Well, that's that he said. You know, because—getting business. And his business grew, and it became pretty large. Electronic component and precision-machining business. So everyone in my family worked for him. His brother, his brother-in-law, you know, another brother-in-law—

MS. YABLONSKY: But not your uncle, your mother's brother?

MR. BLECKNER: No, not—he was in California. But all the ones in New York ended up working in the factory. Then he bought a bigger factory near JFK [airport].

MS. YABLONSKY: So he was quite entrepreneurial.

MR. BLECKNER: He was. He was entrepreneurial. And, you know, so from kind of nothing, he started to do well. And that's the circumstances under which I grew up. When I was 13 or 12, or 13, they bought a big house on the water in the other town of the Five Towns that was much fancier on the other side of the tracks.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which town was that?

MR. BLECKNER: That was called Hewlett, Long Island.

MS. YABLONSKY: Hewlett spelled H-E-W—

MR. BLECKNER: L-E-T-T.

MS. YABLONSKY: L-E-T-T.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which water?

MR. BLECKNER: Hewlett Harbor. It's right by Long Beach. It's a bay.

MS. YABLONSKY: Off of the Atlantic?

MR. BLECKNER: Off of the Atlantic.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: On the South Shore, past JFK about 20 minutes, toward Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, out that-a-way.

MS. YABLONSKY: And how old were you when they moved into this house? You said thirteen?

MR. BLECKNER: Thirteen.

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you have any more brothers and sisters at that point or you just—

MR. BLECKNER: Two years after we moved there, my younger sister Flora was born.

MS. YABLONSKY: Flora, F-L-O-R-A?

MR. BLECKNER: F-L-O-R-A.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you—are you close to them? Are they still living?

MR. BLECKNER: Both of them are still living. I was really—it was Susan I was close to, but I was much closer to Flora. We shared a room originally, in Cedarhurst, for a long time.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: Because I wanted her in my room. She was in my other sister's room, and I used to ask for her to be in my room. And we were really, really close. And of course, when we moved to Hewlett, we all got our own rooms.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. It's almost—yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Unfortunately, Flora, who was the smartest, most beautiful, most talented musician, became schizophrenic at twenty-one.

MS. YABLONSKY: I didn't know that happens— that you could just become schizophrenic.

MR. BLECKNER: It's how it happens.

MS. YABLONSKY: Just like that?

MR. BLECKNER: It's how it happens, really fast, if you look at the history of it. Now I know a lot about it.

MS. YABLONSKY: And I don't.

MR. BLECKNER: It's a switch, and it always happens in the early twenties, between twenty and twenty-three.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: And it usually is—nobody knows really what provokes it. It could be drugs. I don't know. She was in college in Boston at the time. Thinking becomes delusionary.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And you don't know if it's an incident or, you know, until you snap out of it. I mean, but she never snapped out of it. And it got worse and worse. And she eventually became one of the homeless people that you see in New York—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh my God.

 

MR. BLECKNER: —who goes about their life with their shopping cart. And I would bump into her once in a while. To say the least, it was painful.

MS. YABLONSKY: So I would think the whole thing would be—the whole switch and the illness would be traumatic for your family, for all of you.

MR. BLECKNER: It was, I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: Especially for you, since you were so close.

MR. BLECKNER: You don't realize what it is as first. You don't know. It takes a long time to really know it, or to believe it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, I understand. But your parents didn't want to—should she not have been placed in some kind of treatment?

MR. BLECKNER: You can't place—she was twenty-one. You just can't place people—that's a whole policy issue. You just can't place people in treatment against their will anymore. Otherwise parents would not approve of their children's lifestyles and put them into—institutionalize them.

MS. YABLONSKY: No, you would not—you would have to—

MR. BLECKNER: So the point is it's a big, long legal process, that my parents spent a lot of effort, and a lot of time, and a lot of money, to find her and try to, you know, kind of instigate that process. Eventually, it did happen. And she has been living in an assisted-care facility for about fifteen years now.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, even then, were there not medications to treat—to control schizophrenia? Was she not on some kind of medication?

MR. BLECKNER: If the person is willing.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: If they don't—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: She didn't think she was sick. She thought you were.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. I understand.

MR. BLECKNER: And her brilliance was that she could disguise it well for a while, until the stories didn't add up, or they became too outlandish. And somebody would question them or confront or point out contradictory facts in the story. But somehow for the first few years, she had an apartment. She lived in Boston, then she moved to New York. She had an apartment. And she always said she was a singer, and this was happening and that was happening. I mean, nothing ever happened, and what can I say? The stories just get more over the top.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: You know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you here when that happened, or where you in California? Or you were in school?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I was back in New York. I only was in California—I went to school—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: So anyway, I went to analysis. And I—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh yeah, that's how we got into this. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I wanted to continue my analysis, because I really was getting a lot out of it, not what I think my analyst thought I was getting out of it. But I was getting a kind of education out of it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. I understand. But let's—I'm sorry that's how all of this started. I lost track. So you were—what grade were you in? Eighth grade, you said, when you started—

MR. BLECKNER: Fifth.

MS. YABLONSKY: Fifth grade.

MR. BLECKNER: After the Mrs. Tohl incident.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. So you—

MR. BLECKNER: I started seeing the school psychologist. The school psychologist sent me to a private psychologist.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you were sent there as a form of punishment for—which is odd.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it was a form of punishment, but I think that they thought I was having problems adjusting to school. You know, I was also starting to fall back in certain kinds of understandings [laughs], which has always been the case with me.

MS. YABLONSKY: What do you mean by—you mean sexual?

MR. BLECKNER: Class.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: I was put into slow classes.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh!

MR. BLECKNER: Because—and this has still been the case. I mean, I have—I'm a Luddite. What can I say? And that comes from if I were to go to school now, I would be diagnosed a number of ways but certainly it wouldn't be called dumb, but it would called be a learning disability. I could not learn math no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I got tutored. I couldn't get it into my head. What's interesting, of course, is my father was completely mathematical. And an ex-football player. So the two things I could not learn were math and sports. Those are two really important things at that point in your kind of education. But anyway I was put into slow classes because of that. So I wasn't ever left back. But I was put into, like—in sixth grade, I was put into a third-grade math class. So I felt left back.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, of course.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. So I felt dumb.

MS. YABLONSKY: You probably just weren't interested.

MR. BLECKNER: I wasn't—I couldn't. I still can't.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, it didn't—it wasn't important to you.

MR. BLECKNER: And it's a part of—but it's also—it has other ramifications that have been interesting to me actually, like I was very surprised when I learned that music had some kind of mathematical rule—some relationship to the mathematical side of your mind.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And I always wondered why I cannot literally listen to music. And I have never listened to music of any sort, of any kind, ever.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really?

MR. BLECKNER: And as matter of fact, I'm kind of music-phobic. I know that sounds strange, but—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I've seen you at parties and nightclubs in the past, you know? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I know. Of course. I mean, there's music going on but I would never listen to music. I've never had any music ever where I live or work.

MS. YABLONSKY: Fascinating.

MR. BLECKNER: Huh?

MS. YABLONSKY: That's fascinating.

MR. BLECKNER: I've never been to a concert. I don't know what it is. I know—I feel like there's a certain region of my mind—which actually is one of the reasons why—even doing this interview makes me nervous, because part of—well, this is a whole other issue. Part of feeling like a success, or feeling like a failure, and the underlying feeling of being found out or the feeling the fraudulence I think always kind of runs somewhere within you and through you throughout your entire life as an artist. You know, you're projecting this kind of leap of faith.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which is a good thing.

MR. BLECKNER: Which is a really important thing. Of course. You know, what I did, obviously, the part of my mind that did work well, I overcompensated for the parts that didn't work well. I mean, I still do that. We all do that. It's not a big deal. But when you're young—you know, I didn't have the overcompensating part of my mind, which all of this is the reason I became an artist. I became kind of—I moved away from sports. I moved away from numbers. I moved toward melancholia through my mother's sadness. And what always interested me was, I think, my mother—like once a week—she was a housewife. And once a week she would take painting class and she would paint in the basement, these little, tiny eight-by-ten-inch paintings. And it was really the only time I saw her happy. And I used to be with her when she painted these paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: And what was her subject matter?

MR. BLECKNER: Well they were all—well, now they'd be called appropriation—they were all Manets, Monets, Seurats, all Impressionist flowers—Renoirs. That that's the—the teacher would give them little assignments.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: And she'd be really, really happy painting with this little paintbrush, these dabs of paint.

MS. YABLONSKY: So she was copying reproductions?

MR. BLECKNER: She was copying. Yeah. And I used to love her little paintings. And I used to love being with her when she painted these little paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: And were you painting too, with her, while at the same time?

MR. BLECKNER: I would paint on the painting with her.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Like she would say, come here. And you know, we would kind of do it together a little.

MS. YABLONSKY: I would say your mother had an enormous influence on the person you became, at least professionally, but also personally.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I mean, yeah. But I mean you learn this in analysis.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, I went through Freudian analysis, for god's sake.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you went every day?

MR. BLECKNER: Four times a week, all through high school. And my mother used to drive me and wait for me and take me home.

MS. YABLONSKY: So when other kids were going to football, you were going to the shrink.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Interesting.

MR. BLECKNER: Well—

MS. YABLONSKY: That's wild. I've never heard of such a young person in serious analysis.

MR. BLECKNER: Well—

MS. YABLONSKY: That's quite a commitment.

MR. BLECKNER: I also had another kind of trope. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes?

MR. BLECKNER: Psychic trope was suicidal ideation. I wanted to kill myself starting when I was sixteen. And that's why I started my journal.

MS. YABLONSKY: Even though—did you have any idea—were you good at writing? Did you have an idea about being a writer or—

MR. BLECKNER: No, I had no idea of being a writer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where did the idea of keeping a journal come from? Was it suggested by your analyst?

MR. BLECKNER: It was suggested by my analyst, yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay. Got it.

MR. BLECKNER: Like, why don't you write down things each day and write down dreams. It was kind of dream-oriented. So yes, I did start. But even before that I had written letters to God, and to different people.

MS. YABLONSKY: Do you have those?

MR. BLECKNER: I do.

MS. YABLONSKY: You do?

MR. BLECKNER: Because I was about—I was always thinking about doing a books of fragments, kind of an autobiography that's fragmentary, kind of like aphoristic, in the sense that it's a collage of things that I've written, and that other people have written, that I actually ended up doing, just taking one little segment of it, of things that people have written that I like in the New York Times.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, this book that I have here, which I like. I brought it with me. It's called My Life in the New York Times. Because there are clippings from the Times. There are drawings on the pages. Notes.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it's an extension of my journal.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: I also started keeping—

MS. YABLONSKY: But they're significant things.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: And that's why—

MR. BLECKNER: They're little things that I read over the years and I put into my sketchbooks, that—they're inspirational to me—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —as an artist. They usually come from quotes from books that are being reviewed, a lot of them. Or other artists say them, or people are saying them about artists, or politics. You know those are the things I've always been interested in. Or obituaries.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I noted this one obituary. I don't want to get too far away from the chronology we're establishing here. But this one—I mean, I assume you read obituaries.

MR. BLECKNER: I read the big ones—

MS. YABLONSKY: And the small—

MR. BLECKNER: —and the small ones.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is a small one. I'm assuming this isn't someone you know, but this is a wonderful obituary for Madeline Greenleaf Janes. Do you remember this one?

MR. BLECKNER: I remember it from the book. It's not somebody I know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. The radical Quaker librarian friend of whoever wrote this. Missed so much. A war of aggression. The death of the news. The legitimization of torture. The shredding of the Constitution. And the loss of rights guaranteed since Magna Carta. How outraged you'd be. We miss you, Mad. If you're reading this, call me.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, it's unbelievable the things you read, that people put in it.

MS. YABLONSKY: It's fabulous. It's not the usual—and I'm so glad you noticed it and put it in here. But I—this also spoke to me, just a personal note, because when—my mother died in 1973 and during—she was ill for about a year and a half.

MR. BLECKNER: How old was she? She must have—

MS. YABLONSKY: Not old. 53.

MR. BLECKNER: She must have been young.

MS. YABLONSKY: And at the time—it was the year of Watergate. But the person who outraged her the most was Martha Mitchell. Remember Martha Mitchell?

MR. BLECKNER: Of course, I remember John Mitchell's wife, the attorney general.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, yes. So every time Martha Mitchell opened her mouth, my mother would go crazy. [Laughs.] Just hopping mad. After she died, it all got worse. And I remember thinking, "You would really have hated this." Maybe it's better this way, you know. Because my mother was—she was Roosevelt Democrat. She was not born in this country. She came from Germany as a child—as a persecuted child, and was also—grew up in terrible circumstances in New York. And terrible psychological circumstances. And she was always a very committed New Deal Democrat, and you know put a—really had a lot of respect for freedom of choice, and the separation of church and state and lots of things that went with it. Anyway, that's—

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: That was my thought when she died. That was one of my first thoughts.

MR. BLECKNER: Maybe it's better that you're not seeing this.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Of course it wasn't better. [Laughs.] She would have been fine. Probably—my mother was a bit of an activist—in certain ways, and she would have done something about it. But, anyway. That really jumped out at me, that particular—

MR. BLECKNER: I can understand, based on what you just said. It may not—

MS. YABLONSKY: This may be your autobiography in a way. You are—

MR. BLECKNER: It's part of it, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: But it's quite meaningful. It's the same way your paintings are, you know, touch people on more than one level, not just superficially—visually or aesthetically, but emotionally.

MR. BLECKNER: Well one hopes so.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, that's a whole other conversation.

MS. YABLONSKY: So why don't you—you said you would like to read from these journals?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, yeah what I'll—

MS. YABLONSKY: So I would like to hear you read from one of these journals that you have in little plastic folders here?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I was looking for this letter actually. Very interesting, because—I'm going to have to look a little, okay? Where? Of course, I have to look a little.

MS. YABLONSKY: But while you're looking, I just wanted to ask. So from this young age—so you were feeling suicidal as a teenager, which is not—you know, a lot of teenagers feel things that intensely.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: And there is a high rate of teenage suicide. So that's kind of understandable. But that you recognized—you seem to have had some perspective on it. Like you weren't going to act on that feeling.

MR. BLECKNER: I would like to read the—damn, now I can't. If I could—

MS. YABLONSKY: What is that letter?

MR. BLECKNER: What we were just—what you just said. This was 5/16/1970—Kent State. Same time as what you were just saying. Watergate, okay?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I remember well.

MR. BLECKNER: That's not what I was planning to read. I wanted to read—well, I can't—I guess I can't find it. But I could read another one that I actually think is pretty interesting. It's a little—it doesn't—I wrote it to a girlfriend.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you did have—you made an attempt to—

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, I had plenty of girlfriends—

MS. YABLONSKY: You did?

MR. BLECKNER: —by the way, I mean, you know now it would be much easier for me I was on the spectrum somewhere. I was fluid sexually.

MS. YABLONSKY: When did you recognize that you were attracted to other males?

MR. BLECKNER: I never wasn't. I never came out.

MS. YABLONSKY: But at puberty you must have had feelings for—

MR. BLECKNER: Pre-puberty. I loved my friends. I used to hold to their hands. I was attracted to them. I had—I think one of the reasons why I had a lot of throwback in school is because I organized—in junior high school, I don't know exactly how old you are?

MS. YABLONSKY: Me?

MR. BLECKNER: One is in junior high school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Eighth grade? I organized a blow job club.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] I'm sorry for laughing.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean—so this is.

MS. YABLONSKY: How many people were in this club. Everyone?

MR. BLECKNER: No, like six guys.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's what you did with each other?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I would talk them into it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, they did it. So you didn't have to try that hard.

MR. BLECKNER: I was very good at talking young boys into not thinking anything that we do together was a big deal. I ever remember the discussion I used to go through. I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: If you remember it, what did you say?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it started with the fact that we had a special friendship, close friendship. We would do anything for each other. And sometimes, and then somehow, I would get them to lick my finger.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: And then, from the finger, I would somehow get them to think or to believe or to accept the fact that licking a protrusion like the finger is really no different than—

MS. YABLONSKY: You're quite a salesman.

MR. BLECKNER: —to lick your dick, or to put your mouth there.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well—and these were the non-footballers, party types?

MR. BLECKNER: And even some of them! I mean, Jesus, I was friends—when I was in Cedarhurst—and he would say this to me later in life. He became a very famous football player named Lyle Alzado, very famous in the NFL.

MS. YABLONSKY: What, Lyle? How do you—

MR. BLECKNER: A-L-Z-A-D-O.

MS. YABLONSKY: And how do you—Lyle is L—

MR. BLECKNER: L-Y-L-E.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really? So you stayed in touch with some of these guys?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, because yeah, he—then I saw him after—he was very famous. He died of cancer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: I could read you my shrink's note to the draft board.

MS. YABLONSKY: Please.

MR. BLECKNER: That's where it helped me a lot not going to Vietnam. But let me read you something—

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay—

MR. BLECKNER: —to a girlfriend, who I did love. Jane Winkleman. She was girlfriend in grammar school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Winkleman is K-L-E or E-L?

MR. BLECKNER: K-L-E-M-A-N.

MS. YABLONSKY: What year is this?

MR. BLECKNER: This is 1963.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: "Don't mind my handwriting. I'm not in a good writing mood. I don't know why I'm writing you. It's A) like writing a stranger. And B) you never write. But I still love you better than anyone, and like you so much, to confine in you. I know we're not as close as I'd like to be, but I try not to pester you, because I realize your position and status." (She must have been a very popular girl.) " It's been about a month now that I've been in a fight with Gary, and I miss our friendship so much. I was so much more friendly with him than with the rest of the boys. I used to have so much fun with him. Now it's just a race to see who has more pride, and he does. I would make up, but all my friends would laugh, because they think I hate him. I fake it well. I know he hates me. And anyway, he likes Ricky so much—and he likes Ricky so much. He did, when were best friends. Jane, you wouldn't believe what a depression I fell into this month. I wish I were dead. Everyone hates me. I'm such a shit. People think I'm a little play toy. When they think it is convenient, they talk to me. And no one would go with me. I feel so much like this. But everyday everyone—but everyone seems to think that I think I'm great. It's the way I act. I hate it. I heard some things about myself: 1) that I'm a fairy 2) that I follow Freddy, which is false 3) I felt up and laid Meryl Gelber 4) I don't give a cute girl who's a carpenter's dream a second look. You know something that really irks me to death is when I look at myself, I'm as ugly as shit. I think out—I think out of so many boys God had to make me the one who everyone thinks is a fairy, and I forget I could kill myself. And also, about Glen. I felt when anyone, two people, look and talk about me, they're talking about it. Chris and all those kids think I do it to anyone. I gave my friend Glen a blow job, and he told everybody."

MS. YABLONSKY:. Ah.

MR. BLECKNER: "I'd do to anyone. On Friday nights, I'm going to sleep so I can hope to die. I love you, Ross." I mean, in 1963, 49, 59, I don't know how old I was.

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm going to imagine, of course I don't know her, how she might have felt reading that very private, open and honest—

MR. BLECKNER: And maybe, obviously, I don't think I sent it, because I still have it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: But I want—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I understand. But you wrote it down, and you wrote it to her, which—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah I might have not even—

MS. YABLONSKY: —made it even possible for you to write it probably, but even if you didn't share it. That's quite—it's very—it's a very poignant letter.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I know, because it deals with wanting to die and being gay.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: It's like the conflation of that and how that was then a struggle, even though I actually, in reality, never had a problem coming out. So what's so interesting to me is when you translated it later in life into activism, and you get angry about political things. You have to understand, and you try to understand, why someone even like Donald Trump could become popular. You realize that all of us have a primitive mind.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: A really core—a solid nut that doesn't crack. And it's primitive. And it's internalized at these unbelievably young ages that you hate. How did I already hate myself for feeling these feelings? That I don't know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: But, you know, I kid around and I say, "You know what? It won't be so bad if Donald Trump becomes president. Finally, we can all be the homophobes." Like, I could just go around and say to someone, "You know what? I'm not going to talk to you. You're only a number three. I only talk to seven and above."

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: You know, that would be like the new normal—where you are on the beauty scale according to the new president. Now that's of course a joke I make, but there's—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, but it's actually a good analogy.

MR. BLECKNER: But there's a weird thing of okay, even people who say they love diversity maybe, you know, I've been embarrassed a number of times, when I've been in a big store and I've asked a black person where the shirts are.

MS. YABLONSKY: And they don't work there.

MR. BLECKNER: And they say, "I don't work here, honey."

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I've had that too.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean so, you know, just to be aware—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —of how these things, where do they come from so early? And do they ever really go away? They go away because we evolve, and we have consciousness, and we educate ourselves deeply, but there's a primitive mind in everybody, you know, and you see demagogues who have the ability to touch people, who did not have the wherewithal to become better educated, and it resonates with them, obviously, much more—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —poignantly and intensely. But anyway, to go back, I wanted to find this other letter, if I could.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well it's interesting when you mentioned Kent State a minute ago and the Vietnam war. We were all so intensely focused, our generation and more, on the politics of the moment. And I—in a way I can't imagine it happening now because we're all more involved in politics perhaps in this country than we have been in years, but it's all emotional. It's not about principles.

MR. BLECKNER: What is not?

MS. YABLONSKY: This political wave of involvement. People seem more engaged in this presidential campaign than even when Obama first ran, and the first time in a long time I would guess. I mean, even I just—I mean, I always vote, but even I just kind of dropped out. I was just when—after Nixon [laughs] really, certainly Regan. But now I'm—but it's all emotions. It's not like people who are engaged in a particular issue.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's what—that's why, you know, even after something like Orlando—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, exactly.

 

MR. BLECKNER: You know, you really—you really say after a while, it's like, you know what? Enough of the prayers.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Enough with the—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —you know, the logos and the prayers and the, you know, the gay flag with the We Are Orlando. We're not Orlando.

MS. YABLONSKY: Orlando, just for the record.

MR. BLECKNER: Where's the policy? You know, when—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —does it translate?

MS. YABLONSKY: Well also what—Orlando was a massacre in a gay nightclub in Florida recently for—just for the record.

MR. BLECKNER: Forty-nine people.

MS. YABLONSKY: How many people?

MR. BLECKNER: 49.

MS. YABLONSKY: It—what I was thinking was we can be very principled people, totally color blind, very accepting of gay marriage in principle, but if your son or daughter turns out to be gay, the parents or the family or other friends feel threatened by that no matter how intellectually advanced or evolved—you used that word, it's better—they are, so I think it is in there, in certain attitudes internalized.

MR. BLECKNER: Well of course it's in there because nobody wants to be part of a group of people who, you know, seem to be marginalized.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: A parent would want—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —their child to be as centered in the, you know, the kind of general culture, or the kind of cultural discourse ,as possible, not to have to fight upstream or against all the time.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: It's like you could support your transgender child, but you know from the get go that they are going to have a really difficult life.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, so that's—I feel just a kind of a maternal and paternal instinct to try to hope that your children will somehow be accepted just for who they are. Now, sure if they're heterosexual and white and upper middle class, the—and mentally stable, their chances are the—and well-educated—the chances of them being accepted for who they are, are great.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: But then it kind of goes down from there.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, by increments. So anyway let me—could I just have that over there? There's one—yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: This one on top?

MR. BLECKNER: And the other one. I'm just looking for something and—

MS. YABLONSKY: All right.

MR. BLECKNER: —I can't seem to locate it.

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm going to—

MR. BLECKNER: —do this thing, like, I don't like a lot of clutter and stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: So I always do the death edit. I always—

MS. YABLONSKY: The death edit?

MR. BLECKNER: The death edit, because I remember—

MS. YABLONSKY: The one I called the rape and pillage edit? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Is that what you're doing? Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: When I really just stand back and—

MR. BLECKNER: Just merciless because—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yep. Ruthless.

MR. BLECKNER: —after you're gone, someone's going to come in. Someone you're—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —friends with or you're close to and that's—a lot of stuff is just not going to be very useful and—

MS. YABLONSKY: You've seen that happen a lot.

MR. BLECKNER: I've seen it happen, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, it's true. Most people don't think about it because it's hard to think about your mortality in anything but the abstract, not the pragmatic day-to-day details of what actually goes on when you're gone.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I always think about in the pragmatic day to day details like, you know, I should get this done. I should get rid of this. This is ridiculous.

MS. YABLONSKY: What is it that you're looking for? I mean, what in particular?

MR. BLECKNER: There's one particular letter that I saw just before.

MS. YABLONSKY: Letter to whom?

MR. BLECKNER: It's annoying me. To God.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, letter to God, oh yes!, Let's definitely find that [laughs] if we can.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I can't.

MS. YABLONSKY: That you wrote as a child or later?

MR. BLECKNER: I wrote it very young.

MS. YABLONSKY: You kept these journals until what age, you said?

MR. BLECKNER: 45, 50.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh really. 50.

MR. BLECKNER: And then I stopped. I kind of regret stopping.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why do you think you stopped?

MR. BLECKNER: I guess because I didn't have as much to complain about.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: And the gist of it was sadness, insecurity, fear, and feelings of rejection.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you never wrote when you were feeling happy or joyful?

MR. BLECKNER: There's nothing to write about. That's boring.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, it's not your subject matter I guess. I guess it's not your subject matter, but there is—as much melancholy as there may be in your paintings, there is also a sense of joy and life.

MR. BLECKNER: Well I know because that's—we'll that's the other side. That's the other thing that, you know, that I do have this—I'm actually a very [laughs] it's like a happy drunk. What can I say? I'm like a happy melancholy. I'm actually very optimistic [laughs] and I'm not a moody person. I'm just—is that on again?

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I guess I feel, you know, like when I was a kid. I was always happier.

MS. YABLONSKY: Except you're not wearing the microphone so we should probably—

MR. BLECKNER: I was always happier when I was sad.

MS. YABLONSKY: You were happier—[Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I felt more—

MS. YABLONSKY: That is the contradiction of your life.

MR. BLECKNER: I felt more at home with myself.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, it's familiar.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah so, you know, I feel like through a series of progressions, you kind of physicalize that into the way that you see the world and the work that you do. So hopefully I mean that's, you know, I always—well, anyway. Let's go back to—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, so—

MR. BLECKNER: Forget the letter to God, because I can't find it.

MS. YABLONSKY: If you come across it in the next day, fine. We can always go back to it. I'd love to hear it.

MR. BLECKNER: I think this might be it!

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, I've just found it!

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay. Dated?

MR. BLECKNER: Dated October, '63.

MS. YABLONSKY: Same year as the other letter you just—

MR. BLECKNER: No that was '64.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. "Oh, Dear God. Oh, I'm not what you think I am. Please, I need someone's help so badly. I need a person who I can cry with, a person who I could rely on. Oh, please, you know what I am. I need help. I really do. I wish I were dead. I really do. So many people hate me. I cry every night. I am such a fairy. People rank me out day and night. I can't take this world. Why can't people leave me alone? They think I'm made of iron and can take whatever they give. People are terrible. Please kill me. I'd love for you to take my life. You would be doing me a favor. God, people step all over me. That's my purpose in this world, for people to use me as a stepping stone. Tell me what you put me here for. I don't know. Do you? You think I am taking the chicken way out? Well, I must resolve to this way. I do have fun, but God, it's never real. I make it all up. I have to, God.

All my friends could drop me in two seconds. I don't have friends in my school. They think I think that I—something—them. They should know: I'm obnoxious. I don't know how to handle myself with people. When I begin acting obnoxious, I have to finish. I don't know how to stop. I know how and when I act silly, disgusting. People think I am dense and thick. I know what they say to me, and about me. I'm such a spastic. I can't do an athletic thing to save my life. I wish I were like—somebody—really just in that respect. I would really love to be friends with Robert. They are all really great kids, but do you think they like me? I don't. They talk about me behind my back, that I'm a fairy. I know they do. I care. I care too much when even Gary said this to me. Oh God, I'm so lonely. You can't imagine. I have no one to go with. No one wants to go with me. I hate this world. Please let me out of it."

I mean, it's really intense. I don't know. This is '63, '49, '59, '60, '61, '62. Fourteen.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well—

MR. BLECKNER: Very intense.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, I think but at that age, people feel things very intensely.

MR. BLECKNER: That's what you feel, very intensely. What's so interesting—

MS. YABLONSKY: But it's like the other letter. You're convinced that people don't like you, or are talking behind your back derisively.

MR. BLECKNER: Because of—because I'm a "fairy."

MS. YABLONSKY: Because you were self-conscious about it? What—and yet you don't seem—you founded the blow job club, so—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that was the contradiction. I mean, I would do it and then I would—obviously people talked about me because of it or I would let out The Secret. So it was that dichotomy and then in this letter what's so interesting, it says, "I wish I was friends with Robert." Robert was somebody—he was a boy that I met when I was 13.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Before I had moved to Hewlett, when I lived in Cedarhurst—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —I went to a girl's bat mitzvah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And we went in a bus to the reception, and Robert was a boy who was in Hewlett, lived in Hewlett and went to Hewlett High School. I went to Lawrence High School, Junior High School, but the next year I was moving to Hewlett, when my parents moved. I saw Robert on the bus and I fell in love with him, and I wanted to be friends with him. And when I moved to Hewlett High School, I made it my—he was very popular, very good athlete, and I didn't think he'd want to be friends with me because, you know, although I was kind of—I was popular, I wasn't a good athlete and people used to make fun of me. They thought I was a fairy and all this bullshit, but I made it my raison d'être to become friends with Robert. Robert became actually the love of my life.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and we started having a sexual relationship.

MS. YABLONSKY: At what age?

MR. BLECKNER: Sixteen.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: And he was a twin. His parents were very working class. They lived on the Cedarhurst side of the tracks.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: I had by then lived on the—

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: —Hewlett side of the tracks, and I didn't have a brother, and my parents thought he was my brother—my brother. The point being that he started sleeping over at my house every night, like almost every night, and we had a love affair that lasted secretly from when I was in tenth grade to my first year in college. He did better in school than me. He was very smart. He got me through math. He took all my tests for me.

MS. YABLONSKY: How'd you get away with that? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, how we got away with that was—he had it first period and I had it last period, and he would write down everything and all the answers. Not only that, he would write it because she used to give four different tests so you—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —couldn't copy or cheat to, you know, if you're at the desk, people are around. He used to do it so fast that he would write down—looking—write down all the answers and I used to take out the piece of paper in eighth period, so I did well in math and I graduated. Then he got into NYU, and I wanted to go to the same college as him, so I couldn't really get into NYU, but through my brother-in-law, my sister's—my older sister's husband, they had some connections to people at NYU. Anyway, I got in through some kind of connection, but I—

MS. YABLONSKY: Why couldn't you get in on the strength of your—

MR. BLECKNER: Because of my math boards and scores and everything.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: But I had to go to remedial math before I went to NYU. [Laughs.] Which I did, and then I went to NYU with Robert. In our first year, we lived in the dorm.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which dorm? I went to NYU, too.

MR. BLECKNER: When I moved to New York, we lived at the Brittany.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: That was the first place I lived. The 10th Street—

MS. YABLONSKY: That's a former hotel on Fifth Avenue.

MR. BLECKNER: No, that's 10th Street and Broadway.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: The Brittany was a boy's dorm then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: The Rubin is on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right, the Rubin, that's right.

MR. BLECKNER: The first semester we lived in the dorm. The second semester, we got an apartment in the East Village on Second Avenue, between 11th and 12th Street, over a Chinese store. At that point— he said to me at some point, "You know, when we were in high school, it wasn't an issue. We didn't really use the world gay." But suddenly when we moved to New York—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —guys would be after him and after me too. I had long hair. I was 18, 19 and he realized that there was, like, this culture. And he said, "You know what? This thing we're doing is gay, Ross, and I'm not gay." And I started to get really, really nervous. And I said, "Okay, we'll just do it for a little while longer." You know, like we were roommates by then. And then he met the neighbor, this girl named Trenny Robb.

MS. YABLONSKY: Tranny?

MR. BLECKNER: Trenny.

MS. YABLONSKY: Trenny?

MR. BLECKNER: Trenny Robb.

MS. YABLONSKY: Trenny or T-R-E-N-N—

MR. BLECKNER: T-R-E-N-N-Y, Trenny.

MS. YABLONSKY: —Y, Robb, R-O-B-B.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, R-O-B-B. What was very interesting at that point— her brother was named Charles Robb.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh my god, not that Charles Robb?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah and he had just married Lyndon Johnson's daughter.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: So Robert—and Trenny was a model. Robert was really beautiful. Remember, I fell in love with him on the bus when I was 13. So now we're 18 and they—he started not staying home in the apartment.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: So I had a really difficult time. Then he told me at the end of school that he was in love with Trenny, that we had stop this, what we were doing. And it was on my birthday, on May 12th, 1969 that we slept together for the last time and he told me that will be the last time ever, and that was also the end of school, obviously. He left and he quit NYU with Trenny. They got married. They moved to Vermont. They became hippies, you know, but, like, they were cool hippies. They went to the White House, stuff like that.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Eventually they got divorced, you know, he went to jail for drugs.

MS. YABLONSKY: What? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's his life.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you knew—you stayed in touch with him?

MR. BLECKNER: After many years, I couldn't for a long time. I had a nervous breakdown that summer, and I tried to kill myself.

MS. YABLONSKY: How? If that's—

MR. BLECKNER: I OD'd on sleeping pills.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. Wow.

MR. BLECKNER: But I had a really serious nervous breakdown when he left with Trenny.

MS. YABLONSKY: Despite all of your years of analysis?

MR. BLECKNER: Despite everything. Well, that's what I was trying to avoid. I mean I realized. I mean I kind of was an—always kind of a hyper-emotional, borderline personality type. So that's when I truly, truly became an artist, after my first year in college. Because I remember saying to him, "You are going to regret this. You're going to wish one day that you knew me, because I'm gonna make something of myself." And all those paintings that you have of mine, because I used to give him like drawings and paintings and stuff, all the time as gifts—

MS. YABLONSKY: So you were already making art.

MR. BLECKNER: But I was doing it—I was at NYU in the first year, but I was at the Washington Square College.

MS. YABLONSKY: Liberal arts.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I didn't know. My father wanted me to go into his business, maybe. I'm the only son. I took some business classes. I hated them.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I was really unhappy. He left and then I really became an artist, that summer.

MS. YABLONSKY: You made a commitment to art.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, to being an artist.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you—I'm sorry to interrupt. Did you have any art training other than being with your mother when you were in high school?

MR. BLECKNER: I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: You went to—

MR. BLECKNER: I took art classes all the time because of my lack of athletics and—

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: —my fear of being called a fairy. I used to get from my shrink a note that excused me from gym, because I didn't want to be around locker rooms and—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —you know; people would make fun of me. So I used to—I had a very sympathetic art teacher in high school, in the art class, who was also gay— I realized later was gay and kind of like was into me.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: So he used to take me on little trips on the weekend.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Really?

MR. BLECKNER: I mean these—if it happened now, he'd be arrested.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And he used to take pictures of me like with my clothes off—

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: —with a bathing suit on. He never got me naked.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And never tried anything.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: But he used to get me almost naked, you know, and like on Saturday we would take drives in his car and he—I'd always be in the art room, like, for study hall, for gym, for lunch.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did—were your other friends also art kids? Yeah?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and they were art kids. What's so interesting is one of the art kids who was a—used to be in the adjacent room was [laughs] another misanthrope, was Donna Karan.

MS. YABLONSKY: You went to the same high school?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, we were friends.

MS. YABLONSKY: I didn't realize you'd known each other that long.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. My older sister was going out with the younger brother of her boyfriend. So Donna was going out with Steve Weiss. My sister was going out with Eric Weiss. Steve Weiss and Donna ended up getting married.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: My sister ended up getting married—my older sister ended up getting married to a really handsome, beautiful guy who—they were married for a year and he committed suicide. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh my god.

MR. BLECKNER: Then she got married to her lawyer, who helped her through the divorce and they're still married and they've been married for like 40 years.

MS. YABLONSKY: They were divorced before he committed suicide?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, they—she got divorced with him.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Because I—because he was gay, is what it was.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow. Wow. Was Donna Karan into fashion already in high school?

MR. BLECKNER: She was.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Very interesting, these relationships.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, because she was in the art class and they used to let her do things with textiles and stuff and he would let me do things, whatever I wanted. It's funny because, I mean, I got through school, you know, what's so interesting is that I actually kept my first—my—[laughs] I actually kept, or found when my mother died, my first—the things I did in high school, which were these kind of photographic collages.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you took the photographs?

MR. BLECKNER: That's—yeah. That's Robert. But I used to do drawings too. I mean, I kept those. Or I found them actually, when I was cleaning out my mother's house.

MS. YABLONSKY: Your mother died in 2000-something?

MR. BLECKNER: Well I don't—look in that book. I forget. Look in that book.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, 2008.

MR. BLECKNER: So anyway, yeah. So then Robert—I lost contact with Robert after he left with Trenny, for maybe 20 years, and I went to Washington Square College for the second year. And at the end of the second year, I started doing paintings and I had a little—I had moved then from Second Avenue to another apartment in the East Village, to a studio on 12th Street and Broadway.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] So easy to do then.

MR. BLECKNER: It was so easy.

MS. YABLONSKY: What did you pay for rent? Do you remember?

MR. BLECKNER: It was—yeah, I do, $400, and my father paid the rent, you know, because he was paying for me through college. That was—we kind of had a—my father was generous in a way, because I think he always felt bad that he was so absent. So, you know, he paid for stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: He bought stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: But I'm guessing that neither of your parents had had a higher education, that you were the—

MR. BLECKNER: Right, neither of them graduated high school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: So the studio apartment was about this big, let's say, and in the end I started—I moved out all the furniture and I just had a little single bed and I was painting—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —paintings on the wall and on the floor, all the time, and I never saw anybody. That was my second year of college because I had had this nervous breakdown and—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —I withdrew from people completely.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really.

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't—I couldn't talk. I cried a lot. I missed him so much.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well—

MR. BLECKNER: I dreamt about him every night for 15 years.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, that was intense.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, very. It was just intense.

MS. YABLONSKY: But let's—just for context here, this is 1967-8?

MR. BLECKNER: This is 1968, nine now.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Second year of college is '69.

MS. YABLONSKY: But so you were at NYU in these—you were in New York City. There was a lot going on here culturally.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, let me—let me—let me tell you something, what's so interesting. My second year, I was still at Washington Square College, but I started taking art—some art classes as electives.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And I showed some of these teachers, like, my art that I'd been making at home. One of them was Sol Lewitt.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really?

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't know who he was. The other one was Chuck Close. Up until that point, I didn't know that there was art, really. I lived in—and it was actually Chuck Close that said to me, and I'll never forget it because it was like a—somewhat of an epiphany, "You know Ross, there are artists alive and working—now." Because I was really consumed with looking at old art, Barnett Newman. By my second year, I was looking at books frantically, and going to the Museum of Modern Art.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: I wasn't really seeing people, you know, I was wanting to revenge Robert. So I had—I felt like I had a lot of lost time that I had to catch up for, like I wanted to show him that I can be a good artist. I don't know why, but somehow that was going to justify everything. Well maybe, I think, what my real fantasy is, is I'd get him back. He'd come back.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: He'd want me again.

MS. YABLONSKY: But did you go to other museums or just the Modern?

MR. BLECKNER: I went—basically the Modern and the Met.

MS. YABLONSKY: But not galleries?

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't know yet. Chuck told me there were galleries where artists who lived and worked now showed their work and he said they're only five or six blocks from here. I'll never forget that. He told me where they were. I went.

MS. YABLONSKY: Like to 10th Street, around there?

MR. BLECKNER: No, it was—SoHo was just starting.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, yes that's true, yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: The first gallery I went to was Paula Cooper!

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: —up the steps!

MS. YABLONSKY: Right, the first gallery in SoHo, really.

MR. BLECKNER: Up the steps, two or three flights up, I forget. It was—I'm pretty—I was—my mind was blown.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] What was she showing? Do you remember what you saw?

MR. BLECKNER: I do. She was showing an artist—I don't—and I actually sometimes Google him and I always wonder what happened to him. I liked his work a lot. His name was Doug Sanderson.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And then I went to OK Harris.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] On West Broadway.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And there was a show of Jake Berthot, which I thought was fabulous, kind of like Rothko, which I had seen at MoMA. And then I went to this gallery, Reese-Paley.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Wow.

MR. BLECKNER: And there were these spray paintings by this woman, Jane Kaufman. I ended up being friendly with all these artists, but that's later. But Chuck actually, also, he liked me. He always still says that I was the best student he ever had in his whole teaching career, and he actually said—I told him I loved that work when I came back, and he said, "I'll take you to Jake's studio." And he did, you know?

MS. YABLONSKY: Fantastic. That's fantastic. Did you go to Chuck's—what was Jake's the first art—working artist's studio that—

MR. BLECKNER: Chuck. I went to Chuck's studio. He said, "Come to my studio." I think it was on the Bowery.

MS. YABLONSKY: So then you knew immediately that it was possible to make a living and a life as an artist?

MR. BLECKNER: That's—that was the epiphany.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you never went to the Factory or met Andy?

MR. BLECKNER: Later, later, later.

MS. YABLONSKY: Later, but not at that time. I mean it was you, you know.

MR. BLECKNER: I'll tell you what happened. So that was my second year. I took—at the end of the second year—no, actually in the middle of the second year or toward the end, I took acid. Oh, and all this was going on, the Art Workers' Coalition, a lot of demonstrations, antiwar, Vietnam, right around Washington Square.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: So I was there. I marched. I was—it was intense. I took photographs. I have them.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really? Wow that's valuable documentation.

MR. BLECKNER: Because I was taking a photography class.

MS. YABLONSKY: Ahh. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: And it was, you know, about current affairs.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: So even though I was in my apartment all the time making art and I wasn't making friends, because I kind of was recovering, I was still participating in the beginning of my life at NYU as an artist and meeting these people. And then—

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you switch school out of the Washington Square?

MR. BLECKNER: So anyway, I took this acid trip—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah?

MR. BLECKNER: —on a Saturday night.

MS. YABLONSKY: Who gave you the acid?

MR. BLECKNER: I forgot.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I had—it was great. I was in Washington Square.

MS. YABLONSKY: But were you by yourself?

MR. BLECKNER: I was by myself.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh my God.

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't have any friends. I was by myself in Washington Square and I realized I had this—I'm an artist. I am not just gonna be an artist. I'm not going to think about it. I'm not going to worry about what my father says about it. I'm going to do it. And then I went on Monday morning to the art department. I spoke to the chairman, Howard Conant, who was—

MS. YABLONSKY: Conan?

MR. BLECKNER: C-O-N-A-N-T, Howard Conant, and I also spoke to Irving Sandler who was teaching art history there at NYU, and I begged them to let me transfer, and they did! So from—I went from Washington Square College to the art school which was then part of the School of Education, which by the way it still is. It's now called Steinhardt—

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: —where I teach. So then by the—

MS. YABLONSKY: So that was where?

MR. BLECKNER: That was at—it was—it still was on Washington Square.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, okay.

MR. BLECKNER: It was on the top floor of one of those buildings—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —across from Stern, top floor. They had nice studios. So by the—when I got into my third year of college, I was an art major.

MS. YABLONSKY: And still living on Broadway and 12th Street?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and I lived for the rest of the time there.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you go to openings and galleries in those—?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I didn't.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't really know anybody. I was kind of still, you know, I met—I was more student life.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you—how did you know which galleries to go to? Were you reading the Village Voice?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, that was—then I knew that there were listings and I would go.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And what's so actually interesting is—not interesting, interesting, who knows? But I would—I was riding my bike around.

MS. YABLONSKY: You had a bicycle?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean not many people did at that time. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I had a bicycle, yeah. And I would ride my bike around. Because by my third year, I was, you know, I didn't have a girlfriend. I didn't have a boyfriend. But my second year I didn't have any sex or wasn't interested because of the thing, because of Robert.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And I didn't want to—I couldn't go near anyone. My third year I started going and riding on my bicycle like to the piers and stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: On the West Side of Manhattan—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —where there was a lot of anonymous gay sex going on?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. So I would kind of partake in that. I did meet there someone who picked me up then, was Christopher Makos.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Yes. He hung out at the piers? I guess everybody did.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: What about the bars that were over there?

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't go to bars. I was—I was too insecure. I never—I never liked bars. I actually never liked alcohol.

MS. YABLONSKY: Lucky. Were you—but—and you didn't—

MR. BLECKNER: Eighteen was drinking age.

MS. YABLONSKY: You didn't take drugs? I mean this was—

MR. BLECKNER: I took drugs occasionally.

MS. YABLONSKY: But, yeah, socially.

MR. BLECKNER: Like I've tried everything, but I never—

MS. YABLONSKY: You did?

MR. BLECKNER: I never got into taking acid. I hate—I hated pot.

MS. YABLONSKY: Speed—a lot of people were taking diet pills in those days.

MR. BLECKNER: I liked speed only because I could work and be up. I mean I still like speed. I mean, I don't—

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I never became an addict. I never did—I only did crystal a few times, and I stayed up all night and painted.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: I mean I'm—I still go to a psycho-pharmacologist. I actually think truthfully, to skip to the present, I'll go back to that—Adderall actually saved my life.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I was—when you first said earlier that, you know, you'd been sent to the high school, junior high guidance counselor and that these days you simply would have been given Adderall or something like that, a pill to take.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, Adderall, I find to this day very helpful.

MS. YABLONSKY: How is Adderall spelled? With two Ls?

MR. BLECKNER: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Should I look on the bottle? It's not here. It's at home.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: So anyway, yeah, I got into that. I met a lot of—I did meet older artists then at these marches where they were right around—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —Washington Square. I couldn't help then—and that is when Nixon was president and Kent State happened.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And there were strikes at NYU.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, that was 1970, because I was there, yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: So yeah that's already my third year of college, okay?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And then in that summer, I actually went on my own to San Francisco. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Really? What took you there?

MR. BLECKNER: Because I had read about this. It's Summer of Love and all that and—

MS. YABLONSKY: But you—it's not that you were going to visit somebody you knew there?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I didn't know—

MS. YABLONSKY: You just went blind, yeah?

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't know anybody.

MS. YABLONSKY: Interesting.

MR. BLECKNER: I just went and I—

MS. YABLONSKY: Where'd you stay?

MR. BLECKNER: I checked into some place that I thought was a hotel, but it was actually a bath house. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Just coincidentally?

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, I really didn't know these things. I was very, you know, you're innocent. You really are.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean I remember somebody coming into my room in the middle of the night and like trying to like do something with me, and I left because I got so nervous seeing all the people walking back and forth in the halls.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't know what—it looked like a bunch of zombies to me, so I left and I walked around and I stayed in Golden Gate Park that night for the rest of the night.

MS. YABLONSKY: You stayed there all night?

MR. BLECKNER: I did. After—now this is the middle of the night when I left the bath house.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: And the next day, I bumped into the girl who I wrote that letter to when I was 14, Jane Winkleman.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh my god, what are the odds of that? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: And we—she was staying in an apartment in Berkeley and so I went over to Berkeley and stayed with her. And I stayed that whole summer and then I ended up taking class—two classes, art classes, at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

MS. YABLONSKY: I have to ask you: when things like that happen, like your bumping into Jane at that moment, do you feel that, you know, you're being looked after? There's someone taking care of you?

[They laugh.]

MR. BLECKNER: No, I didn't. [Laughs.] I mean that is—

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean you wrote a letter to God when you were young. Did you have a religious education? Was your family religious?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: You—

MR. BLECKNER: My family, my grandfather was Conservative.

MS. YABLONSKY: A Conservative Jew.

MR. BLECKNER: My parents were—started out Conservative. They became Reformed.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I was bar mitzvahed, but I had no religious inclinations or interest.

MS. YABLONSKY: But to be bar mitzvahed, you have to have a religious education.

MR. BLECKNER: I went through—I went through it. I went through the Hebrew stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I hated it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: It was misery.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I—they—my parents became reform because I could not get through the stuff for Conservative bar mitzvahs.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: So they changed temples to go to—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —Reform temple, where I only had to memorize like five lines, and then I had a bar mitzvah, which was miserable.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] What do you mean, the party or the actual ceremony?

MR. BLECKNER: The whole thing. I have my bar mitzvah book here, but we can't translate that into—

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: —verbally, but my whole bar mitzvah album is here.

MS. YABLONSKY: All right, so you didn't have this sense of the universe, the benevolence of the universe in a way when—

MR. BLECKNER: When I bumped into Jane and the scene we ended up—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah and then you had a place to—

MR. BLECKNER: Because we did. I moved. She went to Lawrence High School. I went to Hewlett High School.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: We did lose touch. Then I bumped into her and we had a very—really, really nice relationship that summer.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you—

MR. BLECKNER: And then I thought I wasn't gay after all.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you were—this was in the summer when you went to the college?

MR. BLECKNER: To San Francisco, when I took classes and I was—

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you think you would stay there? I mean, and not come back to New York?

MR. BLECKNER: Well no, I wanted to finish NYU.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, okay.

MR. BLECKNER: So I was just there for the summer, and it was interesting. There were riots in Berkley.

MS. YABLONSKY: The Black Panthers were very active then.

MR. BLECKNER: Everything was going on, and that's actually when I really got interested in the news.

MS. YABLONSKY: Uh-huh. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Because, you know, you saw—I didn't understand like, you know, I'd be walking home from Oakland to Berkeley. I didn't understand like why the cops were blocking off the roads, and why windows were suddenly broken. So I started reading the newspapers a lot.

MS. YABLONSKY: Up until then, you hadn't been?

MR. BLECKNER: A little bit.

MS. YABLONSKY: Uh-huh. [Affirmative.] Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: But I became very—I actually became—I always liked looking at papers, but I became a news junkie.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you know Mary Heilmann then?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I didn't know Mary until I moved back from Cal Arts in the later '70s, and I met her.

MS. YABLONSKY: Because I think she was in Oakland or Berkeley then. She was at Berkley for a while. Just thought maybe another coincidence. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: No, we became friendly later. I revived her career, she'll tell you.

MS. YABLONSKY: She has told me. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Did she ever tell you the story? It was very funny, when I called Pat Hearn.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, she did when I did an interview with her last spring.

MR. BLECKNER: And I said to Pat Hearn, "I have a great idea for you. You show all these young, hip artists. Why don't you show an older artist?" And Pat Hearn said to me, "What's his name?"

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I said, "Pat. It's a woman." [Laughs.] She said, "Oh."

MS. YABLONSKY: How did you know Pat?

MR. BLECKNER: Well because that was the early '80s. This is—we're skipping ahead a little.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, all right, we'll cover that.

MR. BLECKNER: But I, you know, I was kind of—I had a show at Nature Morte. I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, right, a very important show. We will talk about that. I mean that was a show of one painting, as I recall.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. What was that painting?

MR. BLECKNER: One big stripe painting.

MS. YABLONSKY: Alright. So you come back to—well we definitely will talk about that. You come back to NYU.

MR. BLECKNER: To finish school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Was it hard—was it hard to leave San Francisco—

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: —now that you had this relationship?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't remember that or why, but it wasn't. I wanted to get home to New York. I liked New York.

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you come back to the same apartment?

MR. BLECKNER: I sublet it, and I came back.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and then I applied to a bunch of—I realized that I did—I still—I wanted to take my art and my being an artist seriously and go to a—I felt that I actually felt like I kind of missed out on the "art school experience," because I was going to kind of—at that time, NYU was an urban commuter school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: Really a commuter school.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And by the way, it wasn't as good a school as it is today.

MS. YABLONSKY: No, I know.

MR. BLECKNER: I would never have been able to get in based on my boards and my grades and my, you know, math stuff now.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I would never have been able to get in.

MS. YABLONSKY: Was Chuck your teacher throughout this year?

MR. BLECKNER: No just one—

MS. YABLONSKY: Just that one semester, or one year?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, one semester. He happened to be teaching there, like a visiting thing I think, and we became friends and our friendship continued. You know, he kind of advised me a lot. He advised me to apply to Cal Arts.

MS. YABLONSKY: Ah.

MR. BLECKNER: In my senior year, he said, "You know, there's this really cool place that's just started. Why don't you try it?" And I'd been in California so I thought, well, maybe it'd be nice to get out of New York for a few years. Which I did, but I also applied to these other schools, like right here.

MS. YABLONSKY: To Yale?

MR. BLECKNER: Like Yale, and I forget what other schools were popular then, but I'm sure—

MS. YABLONSKY: I don't think it was all that usual for people to go to get an MFA at that time. I mean now everybody does it.

MR. BLECKNER: No it was, it was standard.

MS. YABLONSKY: It was?

MR. BLECKNER: But it wasn't because of the networking. It was because an MFA is— was what you thought you needed to teach.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, but did you intend to teach?

MR. BLECKNER: I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, how are you going to make a living?

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Well you work for other artists, or you get a waiter job [laughs] you know that sort of thing.

MR. BLECKNER: Well I didn't think about working for other artists. I was kind of a little, I don't know. It was not something I wanted to do.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, okay. So you went to Cal Arts this is when it was still very new. Were you in the first class?

MR. BLECKNER: First class, I had just started the year before. I was in the first graduating graduate class. So yeah it just started; it just opened; it had been in downtown L.A. first and moved to that building in Valencia. And I was the first class in that building.

MS. YABLONSKY: And it was a really different school? This was founded by Disney, Walt Disney.

MR. BLECKNER: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] It was founded by Walt Disney.

MS. YABLONSKY: And it was sort of cross-disciplinary, am I right in that?

MR. BLECKNER: It did disciplinary; I don't think they were expecting it to become what it became. Basically, they had a very large animation department. They thought it would be kind of a training ground for their own purposes. But, you know, they threw in the other schools too. And I got myself a van—and I was a hippie by then, by the way; I had very long hair. And I drove across country that summer; the summer of '69 with a friend of mine.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, this is the summer of?

MR. BLECKNER: '70, '71, two; '68 to'72.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: I drove across country. It took a long time, like two months.

MS. YABLONSKY: Two months?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, I camped and went everywhere.

MS. YABLONSKY: You were again alone? You made this drive alone?

MR. BLECKNER: No, two different friends, two different women.

MS. YABLONSKY: From school?

MR. BLECKNER: From NYU, who I knew from NYU. And I remember driving up the freeway from  L.A.. I was in  L.A.—I forget where I stayed. Then I drove up the freeway to school. I rented an apartment as soon as I got to  L.A.; that's what I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Near the school?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or somewhere else?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I didn't want, not near the school. I wanted to be in  L.A.. I didn't realize how far the school was.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, it is far.

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't realize. You know I wasn't really— I guess I was, like, New York scale. It's so funny because I rented an apartment, like I stayed in a motel; and I rented an apartment. And I didn't know how to make friends.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where was the apartment?

MR. BLECKNER: In Venice.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, you were a long way.

MR. BLECKNER: So long. It didn't last long. So I went down Sunset Strip and I went into a clothing store and I made friends with the salesman; the first salesman, Joey Arias.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, no! How amazing.

MR. BLECKNER: He was 17 or 18.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did he grow up in  L.A.?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know but he lived there. And then we became friends, and the other guy who worked in the store, and the owner of the store, and I became friends with the three of them. I hung out with them in L.A. all the time.

MS. YABLONSKY: And they were all demonstratively gay?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, definitely.

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean there's no mistake with Joey.

MR. BLECKNER: Not her, her name, she owned the store, was Janet Charleton, she became a big columnist for like The Hollywood Reporter. But she started out owning a clothing store on Sunset Boulevard, right on the Strip.

MS. YABLONSKY: Amazing.

MR. BLECKNER: Then I would drive up to Cal Arts every day and I would be in my studio, and it was too far, so I moved up, and knd of lost touch with them. And, you know, I got more into Cal Arts—into being up there.

MS. YABLONSKY: You moved to the school?

MR. BLECKNER: To right near school, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Who were your teachers there— the first teachers?

MR. BLECKNER: John Allan Hacklin, Paul Brock was the Dean. You had a mentor, so he was assigned to me. Or I was assigned to him.

MS. YABLONSKY: And John Baldessari?

MR. BLECKNER: And John Baldessari was there. But I didn't take—

MS. YABLONSKY: And Allan who?

MR. BLECKNER: Hacklin.

MS. YABLONSKY: Hacklin?

MR. BLECKNER: H-A-C-K-L-I-N.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Allan spelled?

MR. BLECKNER: A-L-L-A-N.

MS. YABLONSKY: A-L-L-A-N. Okay, I'm sorry.

MR. BLECKNER: He had a kind of he must have been about 30; your sense of age I think when your 20 is distorted. I thought he was older, an older artist. He seemed to have a kind of big career.

MS. YABLONSKY: As a painter?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Very boisterous, very self-confident, very encouraging. But there were a lot of visiting artists too, who came through the studio too. Robert Irwin, I remember, in particular.

MS. YABLONSKY: And so you met David Salle there?

MR. BLECKNER: Of course, that's when I met David, Eric.

MS. YABLONSKY: Eric Fischl?

MR. BLECKNER: Jim Welling, Barbara Bloom, Matt Mullican, Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I guess it speaks very well for that school that all of you had an impact.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, yeah, you know how it is. I guess, you know, the kind of— it had a lot of momentum, being new, and by the way it was Disney-funded, so everybody—when you got in you also had a scholarship, and a fellowship.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, you were a teaching assistant right away. So I think that gave it a lot of—that pushed it right away into a, you know, a desirability level. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: What kind of—well, I mean, you're all very different kinds of artists.

MR. BLECKNER: And we were then as well.

MS. YABLONSKY: But there is a very definite conceptualist bent to—well certainly around John.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, out of that group that I just mentioned me and Eric Fischl were for sure—we were the only ones actually making paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: What about Troy?

MR. BLECKNER: Troy was making drawings.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Jack Goldstein? He made films and records.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I don't remember David, what David was doing. He was making videos, David Salle. I remember him painting when we got out of school and he invited me to his studio in New York. I remember seeing his paintings for the first time but I don't remember seeing them there. What's interesting is the show at the Parrish.

MS. YABLONSKY: The one that's coming up.

MR. BLECKNER: It's coming up. It's me, David, and Eric, based on our work from Cal Arts.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really!

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, Terrie Sultan, or the curator—oh, what's his name? The critic for the L.A. Times. I'm blanking out on his name.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, me too.

MR. BLECKNER: Pagel, David Pagel. She thought it was interesting that we moved to New York at the same time from Cal Arts, and that—just coincidently around the same time.

MS. YABLONSKY: But David was also a New Yorker to start with?

MR. BLECKNER: A midwesterner.

MS. YABLONSKY: And he came, and Eric I don't know where's he from.

MR. BLECKNER: He's from Long Island.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. So you and Eric were kind of tight at Cal Arts?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah,

MS. YABLONSKY: You came from the same place.

MR. BLECKNER: But I was the most tight with a painter—somebody who was painting— his name was Gary Brown. He was a wonderful painter. And he was in undergraduate school; I was in graduate school. He was a senior and he went to Yale. He was the best painter of anybody there. He ended up killing himself.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, that's why we haven't heard of him

MR. BLECKNER: That's why you haven't heard of him.

MS. YABLONSKY: A lot of suicides in your world. There are a lot of suicides.

MR. BLECKNER: And I fell in love with Gary. And we had a very intense relationship. He was really, really intense; obsessed with Bob Dylan. Obsessed with Bob Dylan.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you couldn't listen to music.

MR. BLECKNER: Bob Dylan was the only one I could listen too. But now I can't listen to him because it makes me cry, it's so intense for me—that time, the words, Gary. You know, that's the problem with music, I can't deal with it. It's the hyper emotional part of any old music. You know, my mind is a trap for a lot of things. Like about eight years ago I had a music-related incident that was so horrible. Every morning exactly at 3:00 a.m., I'd wake up, sitting up, singing Jingle Bells.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] I'm sorry for laughing.

MR. BLECKNER: It's funny. It was horrifying.

MS. YABLONSKY: It's so random.

MR. BLECKNER: It was so random. That's the problem for me with music—the random tunes. The randomness of words and the trapping of it— getting it trapped in my mind, and then it doesn't go away, and the emotions. I can't have random music on, and I never know what to choose. Anyway—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I don't mean to skip ahead but you just opened a door here that I want to pursue. In the course of your very good, successful career, you have had your share of criticism, like everybody, and one of the things you've been faulted for—although I don't particularly think it's a fault, personally— is for over-sentimentality.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: I think it's a good thing if art has an emotional component, you know, that doesn't all have to be dry, minimal, strictly conceptual to have an impact.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, if you're a dry, minimal, conceptual artist then that's what it is then great, then you're good.

MS. YABLONSKY: How do you respond to something like that? I mean I don't—

MR. BLECKNER: I respond to it very simply by saying—and by the way we could come with a criticism even having to do with activism, but I'll hold that thought and say that I feel that I've been so afraid between the kind of destructive love that made me feel like I wanted to kill myself, that segued into my own feelings or ideations of suicide to begin with, starting when I was 14, when I was talking to God—I feel that I've had a very tentative— and well, the history of mental illness in my family conflated with that, I feel that the only thing I could do as an artist is follow how your mind works.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And sometimes you know you are very sentimental and you know it's like the polarities. You know I've tried to represent— if I'm representing anything it's, like, the hopefulness or the emotionality of things and the way the mind works, and also the rationality. A lot of my work, just the whole idea and the way I feel like distance myself from sentimentality is the kind of the conceptual component in my work. You know, in the end I actually do feel that I'm a conceptual painter, because I'm not a representational painter. I don't really know how to paint. And I only can paint based on the ideas about things that I have. And those ideas of things that I have, I try to keep the flow as large as possible. So that, you know, it goes from current events, which are something that I'm interested in, to states of mind, which is consciousness.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And I think that my first paintings that actually [dealt –RB] with consciousness are those stripe paintings. I wanted to deal with the loosening of states of consciousness, when you see things and they appear and they disappear. And you can't tell quite where they are, so that the real energy isn't in you and isn't in the painting, but is in this kind of space based on a kind of opticality.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: So the opticality was really a romance that creates this relationship to the viewer where things kind of converge and disperse continually, always. You know, I painted those paintings because I wanted to conceptually say, "Finally, these aren't subjective. These paintings do what I day they do. They fuck with your eyes."

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Like, if you look at them they'll move, and they'll keep—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes—

MR. BLECKNER: —what's in them will appear and disappear, and go into the background, and go into the for—and after a while, it just all becomes like, this blur, and that blur, metaphor, that blur of consciousness, which for me has to do with, you know, the idea of holding on to your reality, and how tentative that holding on is, essentially, when you boil it right down, just like health, just like mortality. You know, that's the blur.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's your subject.

MR. BLECKNER: That's my subject. That blur, and where we are in relationship to it, how you hold on to it, how you let it go, how close you are to it, how far you are from it. And I've kind of come back to that again and again, you know, in different ways. And, you know, I try to do different bodies of work that are emotionally different. That are conceptually different.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: That are sometimes harder, sometimes softer, sometimes I feel, just like in life, you know, you are at your work is so much just like you are in life. Sometimes you don't want to get as close to something as you are and you need to move away, whether it's a subject, an idea, or a feeling, or a person.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And you know sometimes I feel my work is getting too decorative. You know, it's like part of my mind is always fighting another part.

MS. YABLONSKY: Too decorative for what?

MR. BLECKNER: For me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, okay. What were you painting at Cal Arts?

MR. BLECKNER: I was painting dark corners of rooms and beams of light.

MS. YABLONSKY: Is that what we're going to see at the Parrish Museum?

MR. BLECKNER: One of those. It covers the period from leaving Cal Arts and moving to the Hamptons, which was from '75 to '85.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah—

MR. BLECKNER: Cal Arts.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, but '75—I'm sorry.

MR. BLECKNER: Because we all came to New York, like '74, '75. '76.

MS. YABLONSKY: So New York was in terrible shape in 1975, '6 and '7. I mean, it was dangerous, it was bankrupt.

MR. BLECKNER: But you know we weren't living in a globalized art world yet. Nobody, nobody thought of staying in  L.A.. John Baldessari said, "You do not stay in L.A. if you want to be an artist." Okay? That was his advice. That was everyone's advice.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, everyone—

MR. BLECKNER: There are only two artists in  L.A., Ed Ruscha and I forget the other one, That was it. Maybe you'd come to L.A. for a few months, if you can. Nobody would think of going anywhere else but New York then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, so you all left and came to New York.

MR. BLECKNER: And that's all you did the whole time you were there.

MS. YABLONSKY: So did you start teaching right away?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Now you have this MFA. What did you do when you landed?

MR. BLECKNER: One of the years that I was at NYU, the year before I went to San Francisco, or the year after, I forget—I have to look— I went to Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, in the summer?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. I met a girl named Lizzie Borden.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I know Lizzie, yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: We became best, best friends. She moved to New York; she went to Wellesley, graduated Wellsley, and became an art critic right away. She was brilliant, brilliant. She started writing for magazines in like two minutes. She was 20. But she also wanted to be an artist. She didn't know what she wanted to do, but she wrote criticism. She got a loft. She said, "I want to split it with you." She got a loft on Broadway. We each paid like $300 for a big loft.

MS. YABLONSKY: In SoHo?

MR. BLECKNER: Broadway below, between Walker and White, where the Whitney program is now the building.. And we lived there together. And that was my first year back from Cal Arts, back in New York. I moved in with her. We built a wall. She had half and I had half.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, the only people living down there at that time, just about, were artists.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So did you start to meet—

MR. BLECKNER: I did, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —members of this community?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, through her, particularly. She went out, or she became friends, with Vito Acconci. She went out with him. I helped him and her do his Seedbed installation at Sonnabend.

MS. YABLONSKY: You built the ramp? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, helped, you know we helped put everything together. I remember it was a big rush. And also, [laughs], oh God, I hate to say this, but I always felt like I was doing these really minimal corner of a room paintings and drawings with a paint stick.

MS. YABLONSKY: With a paint stick?

MR. BLECKNER: A paint stick.

MS. YABLONSKY: A paint stick, like an oil stick?

MR. BLECKNER: Like an oil stick. So she started doing these big, single-panel things with paint stick that was kind of creating some tension between us. She wasn't really into the physicality of making art. She just wanted to be an artist, so she kind of did whatever I did. It kind of irritated me. She started going out with Richard Serra. The next thing I know he's doing these big things with oil stick. She stopped doing them, and she became a lesbian.

I moved out of that loft, because I see on the corner of White Street and Broadway, right in a building, it says, "For Sale" on it. So I walked in, a guy is sitting there. The building's empty. Empty. The guy's sitting in his office, you know, he just had, like, bolts of material on each floor. It was, you know, storage for textiles. That's what people did down there then. Every building was a textile manufacturing building, or a storage. I said, "Is the building for sale?" He said yeah, he said, "There's four buildings. I'm selling all four on the block." He owns them all.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, my God. Yeah?

MR. BLECKNER: It just so happens, coincidently, he came from Hewlett, where I grew up.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you don't think you have a charmed life?

[They laugh.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well my father and he knew each other, so I called my father and I said, "You have to buy this building." My uncle was a real estate broker, and my uncle told my father, "You can't buy a building in New York. New York is a piece of shit. It's falling apart. It's terrible." I said, "Please, I'll run it. It's a great investment."

MS. YABLONSKY: You understood that already, without having any—

MR. BLECKNER: Yes! I understood that. I mean, after all, I did come from a business background. My father, where I grew up, Jewish, Five Towns, the values are just horrifying. That's a whole other story. So my uncle said no, so my father finally negotiated for the guy who owned the building to split it, just to sell the one building and then sell the three other buildings separately. So my father—the building was a six story building. It cost $125,000.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] This is 77 White Street?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. So my father lent me the $25,000 that I had to pay down. I didn't have to go to a bank to get the mortgage. The guy who owned it, I paid off the mortgage to him. That was the way it was done then. So yeah, I bought the building. And I moved into the building. And I rented the floors.

MS. YABLONSKY: To other artists?

MR. BLECKNER: To other artists, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Who were they? I mean, where they people you already knew?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Who was living there? I mean, were you—

MR. BLECKNER: Over the years, a lot of people.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you living there?

MR. BLECKNER: I started living on the top floor. I took the top floor. And I rented the other floors.

MS. YABLONSKY: But did you rent them as studios or work spaces? I mean live and work spaces?

MR. BLECKNER: Live and work.

MS. YABLONSKY: Live and work?

MR. BLECKNER: There was no legal— not legal. No one gave a shit then and I never even knew—

MS. YABLONSKY: But did it have hot water?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, you had to do it yourself. Each person moved in and it was an empty thing. You put in one of those big heaters that blew.

MS. YABLONSKY: And it was a walk-up or did it have an elevator?

MR. BLECKNER: It had a freight elevator.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. So now you've learned how to make friends.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] So this was 1974.

MS. YABLONSKY: So '74? I thought you said you came back in '75?

MR. BLECKNER: I came back in '74, sorry. So this is '76, okay?

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, so prescient of you.

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: Prescient, you know—visionary.

MR. BLECKNER: My father regretted not buying all four buildings. Oh, did he, because I sold the building in 2006.

MS. YABLONSKY: I know the guy who owns it.

MR. BLECKNER: Owns what?

MS. YABLONSKY: The building now.

MR. BLECKNER: He turned it into a co-op condo.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I know.

MR. BLECKNER: Anyway he owns parking lots or something. But, you know, over the years, Meyer Vaisman, advisement Julian, McDermott and McGough, Troy, Ray Smith.

MS. YABLONSKY: Julian Schnabel, you mean. He lived there?

MR. BLECKNER: He didn't live there. He had a studio there for a while. Who else lived there?

MS. YABLONSKY: Because that's when I met Julian, in '77 I think or yes, '77, because we were working together. And I remember you from then, even though I barely had met you.

MR. BLECKNER: Where was he working? Ocean Club?

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, we both worked at the Ocean Club, but not at the same time. But at the Locale. After the Ocean Club we worked together.

MR. BLECKNER: I remember the Locale—down the steps.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, that's where I first saw you.

MR. BLECKNER: And he traded art. Julian talked the guy into trading art for food.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, Mickey [Ruskin] had already established that. But long before—

MR. BLECKNER: Right, but before Mickey owned it someone else owned it. Or, after. I think after.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well it wasn't, when I went to NYU, that was a hangout.

MR. BLECKNER: Me too. Met too!

MS. YABLONSKY: In the basement. Well,, we were there at the same time. But then Mickey bought it and it became the local.

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: But I remember Julian saying that you were neighbors. He introduced me to you one night when we were there and I knew who you were. I went to your first show, actually.

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, my God.

MS. YABLONSKY: Even thought I wasn't in the art world then. I was on the periphery but I went to all the galleries, because I liked art and I liked artists, but I wasn't part of it. But that's how I met everyone—by feeding them. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: That's a good way.

MS. YABLONSKY: Anyway, but I remember him talking about you and thinking, you know, that you were so smart to own your space. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Julian and I became best friends then. Really, really close.

MS. YABLONSKY: Was it before?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: He rented the studio?

MR. BLECKNER: Before, he was living down on Beeckman Place.

MS. YABLONSKY: So how did you meet him?

MR. BLECKNER: Because Julian was so aggressive with everybody—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: He just came up to me and introduced himself at a restaurant. Because somehow we met at an opening, and he said, "Let's go to each other's studios." And "You have to see my work. I'm such a great painter." And I thought, oh, God. This guy is crazy.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's what I remember him saying too. I just—I hated working with him, and he wouldn't stop talking about what great a painter he was. And it turned out he was! But, you know, it was annoying.

MR. BLECKNER: It was so annoying that I stopped being friends with him.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Eventually, yeah. You can only hear the same story so many times, I'm sorry. But that's a whole other story.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you meet Jeff Koons at that time?

 

MR. BLECKNER: A little later.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you already know him? Because he came to New York about that same time.

MR. BLECKNER: A little later.

MS. YABLONSKY: And was in that crowd downtown, not with these people.

MR. BLECKNER: So where are we?

MS. YABLONSKY: The Mudd Club. You rented the first floor.

MR. BLECKNER: So anyway, '76, I moved in. Oh, that's what happened—I rented to people that I didn't know for a while, just random people. But the rent was very low, and I paid off the mortgage. It was very easy. And then Diego Cortez, who I let stay when I went to Europe, he stayed in my loft for the summer.

MS. YABLONSKY: You went to Europe when?

MR. BLECKNER: One summer, I forget. '78? He stayed at my loft with this guy Duncan Smith, I remember.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, the two of them.

MR. BLECKNER: The two of them. I think they were, like, together.

MS. YABLONSKY: Duncan, I guess he died of AIDS.

 

MR. BLECKNER: He died.

MS. YABLONSKY: So Diego was a curator then, more or less?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, yeah kind of, I don't know. Diego was always kind of,—even then he seemed very slippery to me.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: You know?

MS. YABLONSKY: What were you painting then had you met any dealers? Mary [Boone]? Or did you know Peter Nagy already?

MR. BLECKNER: Not yet. No, I didn't know anybody younger yet, because I was still younger. They were just, like, hatching by then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: What I did know, when I came back and I moved into the loft with Lizzie. In the building lived John Walker, this English painter. And he was nice. He showed at a gallery called Betty Cuningham that was over Fanelli's on Prince Street.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] The bar, restaurant. Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I went around with my slides.

MS. YABLONSKY: To Betty.

MR. BLECKNER: To Betty, Paula, and Bykert.

MS. YABLONSKY: Bykert was Klaus Kertess's gallery.

MR. BLECKNER: Klaus, where Chuck was showing, Chuck and Brice.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Brice Marden.

MR. BLECKNER: And Dorothea Rockbourne, and a few other good people. And Mary was the secretary at the desk.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's right.

MR. BLECKNER: She took the slides from me.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see! [Laughing] Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: So she came over, Mary, Klaus came over. Oh my God, I gave the slides to the secretary at Paula Cooper, and it was Roberta Smith.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs]

MR. BLECKNER: She came over, Betty came over. Through Roberta, Paula came over, and through Mary, Klaus came over. My first group show—the first time I ever showed was in a group show at Paula Cooper.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: And when was that?

MR. BLECKNER: I have to look.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is the first show? Betty Cuningham. That's your solo show.

MR. BLECKNER: But before that I had a show at Paula Cooper, which I'm sure I have—

MS. YABLONSKY: What year was this? It just says March 9th— or February 12th. That's my birthday. It doesn't say what year it is.

MR. BLECKNER: It was '78.

MS. YABLONSKY: Who was in this picture?

MR. BLECKNER: It was just a group of kind of masculine women that I liked. I just used the picture.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Oh, it's an old picture, it's not one you—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, no, it wasn't one of my paintings.

MR. BLECKNER: Here it is. Anyway, Paula Cooper It was Joel Shapiro—

MS. YABLONSKY: They're all wearing riding clothes [in the picture –LY].

MR. BLECKNER: I know. That's why I loved it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Joel Shapiro and you in the same show?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And Jennifer Bartlett. It was in June and all the gallery artists and a few young artists.

MS. YABLONSKY: Joel Shapiro and Jennifer Bartlett—is that the first time you met Elizabeth?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. Elizabeth Murray, Joel—Joel came over, Elizabeth came over, Roberta Smith came over, and she didn't like me from the minute she saw me.

MS. YABLONSKY: She hasn't been that kind to you, I must say. I don't understand— I never understood her attitude toward you.

MR. BLECKNER: From that.

MS. YABLONSKY: But she had some role in your showing with Paula's artists?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, she just handed the slides. No, she didn't have a role. They both came over. She had to give the slides to Paula. And Paula sent her, but Paula was going to come over anyway. Because Paula was making studio visits then. So were they all. It wasn't like—

MS. YABLONSKY: It was a smaller world then.

MR. BLECKNER: It wasn't that hard—

MS. YABLONSKY: That was part of the deal.

MR. BLECKNER: —to get the people over. I mean, they would cancel a few times.

MS. YABLONSKY: There weren't any art fairs to distract them. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Right. Roberta came to my loft—

MS. YABLONSKY: —yeah?

MR. BLECKNER: —and I did say something about my work being melancholic.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, she was into Donald Judd, so—

MR. BLECKNER: Well yeah, but as I said, I dealt with corners of rooms, you know, a kind of shyness, or fear. I told her that. I remember her saying to me all she could focus on was the fact that I owned the building. And that I have nothing to be sad about.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, that is the most presumptuous thing I've ever heard.

MR. BLECKNER: I remember her saying that to me. She said, "Why would you be melancholic? You own this building, don't you?'

MS. YABLONSKY: I think you actually revealed the core of what I think is wrong with her criticism, and I think she's a wonderful writer and critic.

MR. BLECKNER: I do too. I do.

MS. YABLONSKY: But she's a moralist.

MR. BLECKNER: Totally!

MS. YABLONSKY: And she does, like Jerry [Saltz], jump to conclusions before— I mean, it's not that she doesn't' consider things—

MR. BLECKNER: That's what I said, I said, "You don't even know me!"

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, that is really a harsh thing to say.

MR. BLECKNER: I remember this discussion so well, because I remember her first review of a show of mine in Art in America, in 1981, which was my first show at Mary Boone, she mentioned something about me being a rich boy. And it was so upsetting to me.

MS. YABLONSKY: What's that got to do with anything? Wow, I never saw that. You know, life is about dealing with other people's pathologies. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I know. I mean, let me go the bathroom just a little break.

[Audio break.]

MS. YABLONSKY: So your first show—your first appearance in a New York gallery is this group show with Betty Cuningham?

MR. BLECKNER: Paula Cooper.

MS. YABLONSKY: Sorry, excuse me. Paula Cooper.

MR. BLECKNER: Then Betty had come to the studio, and she offered me a show kind of like the year after, which I think is '78, so the first show, I guess it's in there— I could look— it would probably be '77?

MS. YABLONSKY: Where's the bio part here? The Guggenheim—this show—when was the Guggenheim show?

MR. BLECKNER: '95.

MS. YABLONSKY: '75.

MR. BLECKNER: '75?

MS. YABLONSKY: That's what it says. Cuningham-Ward, in those days. Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay. So that was quick.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, so were you the first among your particular generation of—among the other artists your age,, to have a solo show?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Well, I don't know when they had theirs, but it was all around then, at different little places. Some maybe not even here, some maybe in other cities, or—I remember Julian had a little show in Houston, because I went down with him for it like oh, kind of a projects room in the arts museum in Houston, I remember.

MS. YABLONSKY: At the MFA?

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: At the MFA in Houston? That's where it was?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really? Wow.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, he was living in Houston before New York, so he knew people there.

MS. YABLONSKY: He did know people, yeah. Did they all come to your opening?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I don't remember that. I don't remember what happened. I wasn't really friendly with them again yet. We didn't reconnect.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you had just come back to New York.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Really the year before.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. but some of them weren't even here. For instance, Eric went to Nova Scotia to teach. That's when I was really good friends with Julian. I met him right away.

MS. YABLONSKY: What about David? You already knew him.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know if he was even here yet. It might have been another year after me.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Barbara Kruger?

MR. BLECKNER: Barbara, I met right after that and we became really close. I actually think I met Barbara, because somehow I met Jane Kaufman. Because when I was at NYU I saw her show, and I liked it and then I must have talked to her somewhere along the line. And she was very friendly with Barbara.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Richard Prince? Did you know him?

MR. BLECKNER: Not yet.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or Cindy [Sherman]?

MR. BLECKNER: No, they were all in Buffalo.

MS. YABLONSKY: Still in Buffalo. Oh yeah, they came later. Okay, so you got reviewed, I saw that in there, at least in Art News.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't remember the review. I don't remember anything. I'd have to look at my journal.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did anything come—any relationships, professional or personal, come of that appearance in the group show at Paula Cooper?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Because that was quite a good company you were in there with.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, it was nice. You know I was friends a little with Joel. I remember Elizabeth coming over, '72?

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you have any—were you in any group shows that—?

MR. BLECKNER: When was that show?

MS. YABLONSKY: That Betty—that Cuningham had?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: It was '75.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay, I have—

MS. YABLONSKY: [Reading] October to November, 1975. It looks like you had two shows with her, and then Mary Boone in 1979.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay, I did write something. I wrote, in 11/ 25/75.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right after the show closed.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. "Your show has hurt you deeply, left you with nothing. You got nothing."

MS. YABLONSKY: This is you addressing you?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, in my journal. "And although within my heart there is a supportive spirit, there is no nourishment now. The people you have been conducting silent relationships with have not rescued you. No reviews, reading the SoHo News, I'm not even there and you have no friends. Although on some level you seek out approval, you know that some people aren't ever gonna be there. I continue with empty gestures that put me in a vacuum and the dialog is zero. My worst fear is tuning sixty and realizing all you've done is told stories about your work. There is nothing there. You are mediocre. Sometimes I feel like I'm sixty."

MS. YABLONSKY: What does that make you feel now? What kind of—who were you then?

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] It makes me laugh. I think it's funny.

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean here you are this very self-confident guy who knows enough to buy a building and take his slides around, and gets a show right away, and then you beat yourself almost to death with this internal club.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, yeah that's what we all have, I think. I mean I could even look at—from '76: "I'm all the things that I hate in this world. I've run away from people to run away from myself. I can't distinguish between honesty and manipulation. I never really question my need to continue to paint. It's just blind necessity. My confusion starts there. Trying to maintain the purity, whatever there is of it, and getting embroiled. Wanting to cut my hair, to eat a lot, maybe even to cut my arms, because I feel trapped into my own mechanism. Into the need to be depressed. My uselessness and loneliness. I don't the difference between my paintings and everything else I see. Not between everything I see. Nor between everything I see. And I can't understand how this happens, because I feel the opposite."

I don't know what I mean. But, you know, obviously there's a lot of psychic turmoil. And that's why I've always said and thought myself to be a kind of a modernist in a postmodern shell. [Laughs.] Like searching for the kind of purity, the clarity, the universality of something that I don't necessarily believe in and know because I'm searching for this shifting identity that is, you know, kind of moves around. So it's like not knowing who you are and searching for who you are, and that is in the end what being an artist is all about. It's not about knowing. And I clearly didn't know. I pretend to know, you know, you become good at pretending to know, and that's the shell that you grow as you grow as you get older so you don't get crushed by your insecurity, by your vulnerability, by the very things that drove you to be an artist. Which is the love, the fear of rejection, the looking for yourself in something that's real.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Why do you think, in that other piece you just read, that you were so fixated on the age of sixty?

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] I don't know. Sixty was very old to me then. [Laughs.] It''s interesting, I mean, you know—

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean, did you know 60-year-old artists?

MR. BLECKNER: Not really, no.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, actually you had a success. You got a solo show in SoHo, very early, and yet—

MR. BLECKNER: And actually.

MS. YABLONSKY: —then you— the response, which is normal, or was then for a first show, when people were just getting acquainting with your work—

MR. BLECKNER: That is true.

MS. YABLONSKY: —there wasn't a huge response. Why would you have been expecting something different?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, no, I didn't expect anything, I just expected, all I really expected, was a kind of—to open up, when I say no dialogue, or no friends, what I meant was I hadn't settled in the friendships that subsequently yet, obviously. So I was hoping that somehow having a show would kind of create a dialogue with other artists.

MS. YABLONSKY: Not extreme jealousy? [laughs] Rivalry, you know?

MR. BLECKNER: But there was some of that and I didn't realize it, and I think some of my friends from Cal Arts were very dismissive of me, like, thinking I kind of—I don't know, I— Because I was already established, or starting to establish myself.

MS. YABLONSKY: You were the point man, but it will be easy for—

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, I introduced a lot of them to other people as it came along. I mean, yeah. I liked everybody's work. I wrote an article in 1979 in Artforum

MS. YABLONSKY: Really?

MR. BLECKNER: —yeah, and it was the first time Julian's work was ever in Artforum, David Salle's work was in Artforum, Eric Fischl's work was in Artforum.

MS. YABLONSKY: That—because you wrote about them.

MR. BLECKNER: I wrote about them, yeah, but I used their work as illustrations of this really—when I look at the article, it's so opaque. It's so ridiculous. I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it's what I was thinking.

MS. YABLONSKY: You are very self-critical, that is for sure. Were you also—

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, I was reading Lacan and a lot of—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, yes.

MR. BLECKNER: What? yeah. Foucault, and I was really—

MS. YABLONSKY: Where all of you—that was '79. Were all of you showing or about to show with Mary?

MR. BLECKNER: About. Then I have two shows at Betty's.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, wait, hold on, excuse me. The first show, what were? What paintings were you showing? The ones—

MR. BLECKNER: Kind of like the paintings, like geometric, constructivist paintings, a lot kind of look cool now, but—

MS. YABLONSKY: I bet.

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm sure they do.

MR. BLECKNER: They look very constructivist. I was into Russian constructivism, and I left—like Cal Arts, corners of rooms. Light beams, I was into light, and darkness, light out of dark, you know? Anything—

MS. YABLONSKY: That is practically the sound bite of your career.

MR. BLECKNER: I know, but you know, it's like—I never really painted on a canvas. I always turn dark and make light, as opposed to start it light, empty, and make it color. I mean, even when I painted color paintings, I always thought of them of as kind of black and white paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Funny.

MR. BLECKNER: I'm not a formalist in that way. I'm kind of searching for light in some way.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I just—all the ways of doing it are almost like place holders for me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Where these paintings like acrylic paintings put on with a brush?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or how were you making them?

MR. BLECKNER: I was making oil paintings. I started out—

MS. YABLONSKY: —oil, but with a brush?

MR. BLECKNER: Brush, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Not a stick or a sponge or whatever?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, squeegee or brush—some areas were very layered. I was actually, I was, besides using oil stick, I was starting to use a lot of pigment. I always loved pigment, mixing the pigment—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, you said earlier that you make your own paint. You've always done that?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I mean, I never could get the kind of darkness and lightness, even though my paintings were black and white, but I wanted them to be more than black and white. So I started using a lot of graphite and black paint, and mixing it together and, you know, kind of creating these varying densities or thicknesses, I never could get it—I just wanted more surface control, really.

MS. YABLONSKY: You remind me—you make me think—last summer I went to Moscow for the first time and I saw the first Black Square and I was—which is in terrible, terrible condition, because the Russians didn't care about it for so long/ I mean there are others in good condition, but the first one, it is so cracked that you can see what is underneath and it is a riot of color. It is almost shocking, and very illuminating, to see how much color went into that black square.

MR. BLECKNER: That's interesting. Well, I think maybe it's also just a lot of frustration went into finally putting the black square over it all and saying, "Fuck this."

MS. YABLONSKY: It was a genius move.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, but a lot of these moves really come out of frustration and failure.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes of course. Some of the best things come out of failure. So you understand this and jet you can express this really dark, sad, self-loading kind of things about yourself. [Laughs.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I mean listen, I've always said—there is nothing—I have to say, there is nothing wrong with a little self-loathing. All this kind of bumper-sticker, pop culture, you know, like Oprah-driven, you know, kind of psychology optimism. So like a little self-loading kind of makes you change yourself, makes you want to change. Yeah, it's something I feel, like, you know, like I said of my work—if it does anything—attracts where my mind goes, and I feel like the only thing that exhausts me is, you know, luckily I've learned to control a lot of things through psychoanalysis, through self-examination, through Buddhism.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you are a practicing Buddhist?

MR. BLECKNER: I am. But, I became a practicing Buddhist when George Bush got elected, and I start to do meditation paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.].

MR. BLECKNER: That's another story.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, we'll get to that.

MR. BLECKNER: Just the way the mind works, the constant, you know, to be fully aware, to be fully present in the machination of the consciousness, the ego containing consciousness, every day it goes from over inflation to under deflation, every day. I mean, you feel grandiose on the one hand and you feel worthless on the other. And the movement of your ego, based on the littlest things, I mean that's where a lot of anxiety comes from, that what a lot of—you know, the psychic tensions we feel is like, you know—you have so many things. Part of Buddhism is about acknowledging it and being present with all those things that go on in your mind, and being present with it. You know, that you do go from feeling grandiose to feeling like it's all useless. I don't get angry. Some people get angry. That's wonderful, and this is a subject for the activism. I was never a front-line activist. I never wanted to throw myself in front of the Federal Drug Administration and lay with kind of fake blood on my body, but I got really sad.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And I used my art practice as a contemplative practice, and I withdrew into it to help me to figure it out what direction to take that would satisfy the way I wanted to be an activist. And in the end I wanted to be an activist through being involved with longer-term prospects, in another words, the idea of a cure through research, you know.

MS. YABLONSKY: So important.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, well for me was the answer.

MR. BLECKNER: This is already; I'm going—that is more—that's the '80s and '90s.

MS. YABLONSKY: You were just taking about anger. Do you mean a sense of outrage? I mean, there was a lot of fear.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't feel like, I don't get angry, I get, I get sad. I get hurt. You know, when George Bush becomes president, I was angry, but the way you express your anger—some people externalize it, and some people internalize, you know? Some people—you just have to find the right balance. So neither one is destructive, between internalizing it or externalizing, these things that you feel about the symptoms of our system that are so disruptive, and so corroding and so corrosive, that affect us all, so we're all political in that way. I mean, how—my question was always, through the '70s and through the '80s, how can I be—how can a have a kind of studio practice that I have, and kind of express my relationship to the world outside of me, not just me, not just about me. But me in the world around me, and that world too. It's not an easy bridge to cross really, and people are very dismissive of studio practice, because, you know, in that way, but, how it can be political, if—I don't make overtly political paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: No, but I just feel that the arc of them, even sometimes the sentiment in them, is a kind of a way of dealing with the things in the world. What is the word I'm looking for? I forget.

MS. YABLONSKY: I can't help you. [Laughs.] I'm sure.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] Sublimated.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, oh. Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: You know?

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, you said you went to Europe for the summer, in there, somewhere in there in the 70s?

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] I've been in Europe many summers, yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: No, no. I mean, when you sublet your loft.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where did you go? Was that a vacation or work-related?

MR. BLECKNER: No, that was—actually I went with Julian.

MS. YABLONSKY: On an art tour.

MR. BLECKNER: We went a little on an art tour, but we went on a vacation. We looked around in Italy at paintings and then we went to Ibiza, a friend of ours was there. And it was very funny, because a little magazine piece just had come out on Julian. The first thing ever written about him in a magazine. And they asked for an artist statement, and he didn't know what to write, so I wrote it for him.

MS. YABLONSKY: Boy, he was lucky to have you as a friend.

MR. BLECKNER: So I talked about his work as being like Keats, and I talked about negative capabilities, and I remember he walked the whole time in Europe with the magazine under his arm.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Which magazine was this?

MR. BLECKNER: It was Domus, an architectural magazine.

MS. YABLONSKY: Domus, yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know how I remember that, and again, back memory. He showed to every woman, everybody, he drove me so crazy.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] It's funny. It's funny if you know Julian

MR. BLECKNER: I had to get rid of him and we have—well, actually, it was interesting. We did go to Barcelona, and we went to see the Gaudis, and we were staying in this little tiny hotel room. And we had just had lunch, and we came back to the hotel room. It was a hot day and we both were lying in a single bed and there was this big closet between us. And he said to me—he was, like, nauseas, throwing up—he says, "I just feel like I just want to take those plates and break them, it was so awful, that meal," and then he looked at that big closet, and he said, "Maybe I need to make a painting of the shape of that closet and put all the broken plates on it."

MS. YABLONSKY: He said that? Already conceptualized it without actually doing anything?

MR. BLECKNER: And he made a little sketch of it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Interesting,

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean, I thought that whole thing just came out of just working in a studio.

MR. BLECKNER: I said, "That is the best idea."

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah

MR. BLECKNER: Because really what I thought, so laughable! Am I going to get a kick out of this! Because he was driving me crazy.

MS. YABLONSKY: Very funny. So you came back—

MR. BLECKNER: We came back.

MS. YABLONSKY: —and Mary gave you—after—what was the second show?

MR. BLECKNER: Betty Cuningham. The following year.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which paintings you were showing there?

MR. BLECKNER: The same as the year before, but a little more refined, I think, a little more centralized. The first ones were more spread out, geometric, and in a funny way, I mean, I don't know what they look like. They look like Picabia, and Malevich-ish. I looked at a lot of Picabia.

Where are they now? I don't know. They're around.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I have 'em.

MS. YABLONSKY: How did the show with Mary [Boone] come about? Did she approach you? Or she left Bykert and decided to open her own gallery?

MR. BLECKNER: She said, she called me and she said, "I'm going to go out on my own and do a private thing, maybe I could sell some of your paintings." I said, "Great." Betty hadn't sold any after two shows. Or she sold one. I said, "Great." I don't remember if she sold one but she might have. And then, you know, then she asked me, Do you know any artists? And I introduced her to a lot of different people. She was showing Gary Stephan. He's kind of older, a little older, and more formalist.

MS. YABLONSKY: You introduced her to Julian and to Eric?

MR. BLECKNER: To David

MS. YABLONSKY: Or David [Salle].

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, because Julian wanted to have a show at Holly Solomon. Holly had asked him to have a show. [Laughs.] He was going—he wanted a show. "I don't think you should show at Holly's, because your will look too kitsch there. Show at Mary. She is more serious." She was after serious paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Except her gallery was so much smaller.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: I remember it was a tiny gallery, sort of tiny, small.

MR. BLECKNER: Not sort of, it was tiny. It was. With the office in the middle.

MS. YABLONSKY: So did she open the gallery with a—what show she open with? Was it a group show?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't remember. I don't even remember if I was in it..

MS. YABLONSKY: I remember seeing your show there.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So this time the show opened and the response was pretty strong. Is that correct?

MR. BLECKNER: Basically negative.

MS. YABLONSKY: It was negative?

MR. BLECKNER: Basically.

MS. YABLONSKY: But a lot of people were talking about you. I remember that. Iit wasn't negative.

MR. BLECKNER: Barbara always used to kid me around—we were very close friends by then. I introduced her to Mary. And Anina [Nosei] was around, and I think Anina started to show Barbara.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Anina Nosei, yes. Mary's rival. So do you mean the critical response? I mean, it seemed to me that you were a big thing, suddenly.

MR. BLECKNER: Not then. No.

MS. YABLONSKY: No?

MR. BLECKNER: No. What was a big thing then, that was really a big thing then was—it starts then, the neo-expressionist moment started, because Francesco [Clemente] came around.

MS. YABLONSKY: You know I met Francesco on his third day in New York at the Mudd Club. Renee [Ricard] introduced me.

MR. BLECKNER: Really?

MS. YABLONSKY: At the bar in the Mudd Club, on the ground floor of your building.

MR. BLECKNER: Renee and me had a fight long time before that, and he hated me for the rest of his life.

MS. YABLONSKY: Renee Ricard? Silly.

MR. BLECKNER: The reason being that he thought that I was trying to steal his boyfriend Louie, who happened the doorman at the Mudd Club.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, Louie—Louie Chaban.

MR. BLECKNER: He always said the meanest things about me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you ever go to the Mudd Club?

MR. BLECKNER: I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: The Mudd Club was the club of the moment—I'm just gonna say this for the record—that opened I think in 1979.

MR. BLECKNER: '79. [phone rings] Phone's not supposed to ring. Forget it.

MS. YABLONSKY: And, it was the nucleus of everything that happened downtown in every— all of the arts, not just visual arts. And it really formed a community.

MR. BLECKNER: But it only lasted for three years.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, all the things that burn brightly and fast.

MR. BLECKNER: —'79 to '80, '81, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: It was eclipsed by other clubs, I guess—

MR. BLECKNER: After it closed, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: It got too big for the space.

MR. BLECKNER: Then it kept moving up!

MS. YABLONSKY: I know; it was two floors.

MR. BLECKNER: Then three.

MS. YABLONSKY: Was it?

MR. BLECKNER: Then four.

MS. YABLONSKY: I didn't realize that. I'd stopped going there by that time. Anyway, that's where I met a lot of people that I—who later became extraordinarily close friends. Or around that period—we all went together—who were artists.

MR. BLECKNER: I did too.

MS. YABLONSKY: You did too. So you did go there. There was a lot of music, live and recorded.

MR. BLECKNER: I had to— I had to deal with it. That time in my life I didn't know what was gonna happen. When Diego—to go back to 1979—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh yes, when Diego rented your loft.

MR. BLECKNER: He didn't rent it. I let him stay there. I come back and he says—he introduced me to Steve Maas, and they said to me, "Is it okay, would you let us— we want to open an artists' bar." And I thought, "That's such a great idea."

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: No, this was before the summer. I met Steve Maas, then I went away—that's what happened—for the summer, and Diego was staying in my loft. Before the summer I met Steve Maas, we hung out. It's going to be an artists' bar, community, like a local place. And I thought, "This is great. I can just go downstairs and have a beer, and talk to my friends." No music—

MS. YABLONSKY: —in the beginning—

MR. BLECKNER: —he said to me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Diego said, "No music?"

MR. BLECKNER: And Steve Maas.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Just gonna be simple, quiet. And I came back, and it did start like that for, like, a month.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And then my friends started coming, like local artists. Barbara came and Joseph Kosuth, Sarah [Charlesworth]. And then suddenly they moved in these huge speakers. I said, "What the fuck is going on?" And the next thing I know, you know, it becomes this music venue. And there was nothing I could do. So I was really upset. So I just kind of—I mean, if you can't fight it, you join it. So what I used to do, I used to sleep late then, which I never really like to do, but then I slept late. That was my little coke period.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And I used to start working at like, eight or nine o'clock at night, and after I would eat and work until like, two, and then go to the Mudd Club. Or people would come up.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did they? People you knew, I'm assuming,

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, people I knew.

MS. YABLONSKY: People you already knew.

MR. BLECKNER: Like, Joseph used to come up all the time—with coke!

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Michael Oblovitz I become very friendly with—a filmmaker then. Amos [Poe]]

MS. YABLONSKY: I know I met Michael around that time— and Amos.

MR. BLECKNER: Eric Mitchell, Bette Gordon, Ericka Beckman.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, so you basically survived that period without succumbing too badly. What was going on in your personal life?

MR. BLECKNER: My personal life was—in 1978 I met a guy, and I had my first serious relationship after Robert.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, that was a long time coming.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I couldn't until then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Another artist?

MR. BLECKNER: No, he was a textile designer, and we were together like, for a year, and then I met a young artist going to the Whitney program. I think a met him when I came to the Whitney program to look around, because I was friend with David Diao.

MS. YABLONSKY: He was teaching?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know if he was teaching there yet, though. Somehow I just went to look around.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, I met David Diao— he helped me with Betty Cuningham, by the way, because his was teaching at Skowhegan that summer I was there, as was Brice Marden. So I met Brice and Helen [Marden] that summer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Interesting.

MR. BLECKNER: Then— what was I just saying?

MS. YABLONSKY: David.—You were looking around the Whitney program. Looking at what?

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, when I met an artist, a young artist and I fell in love with him. It was my first long-term relationship, Izhar Patkin.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I didn't know you were together with him. I know you both completely independently of one and other, so I didn't know that there was this history.

MR. BLECKNER: I was 30.

MS. YABLONSKY: I didn't know he was in New York then, even.

MR. BLECKNER: I was 30—He had just came to New York. I was 30 and he was 24. Or I was 29 and he was 24. It was five or six years' difference between us.

MS. YABLONSKY: Another guy with a sensitivity to good real estate. Was that your influence?

MR. BLECKNER: Hello! When we broke up, after seven years, I said, "Buy something"

MS. YABLONSKY: That place is amazing, what he has.

MR. BLECKNER: What? I've never seen it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. Well, it's a—

MR. BLECKNER: I've heard about it.

MS. YABLONSKY: I believe that he bought the building with other people.

MR. BLECKNER: He got a group of people together.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, and they developed, I mean it's a developed building, but with cool people living there at various levels of cost. I've only ever been in couple of apartments in that building. They're nice pied-a-terres for some people, but his place is incredible—

MR. BLECKNER: I've heard.

MS. YABLONSKY: —it's like not being in New York. You feel like you're in some palazzo somewhere. Because it has an outdoor space—an interior outdoor space.

MR. BLECKNER: I know. We didn't break up in good terms, because—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, that was good advice you gave him, anyway.

MR. BLECKNER: I gave him good advice, and I helped him do it too.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Okay, so you have this—during this period when you have your first show with Mary, and all this basically cultural fever of the moment—

MR. BLECKNER: —should we go to the end of my relationship with him and then back? You—because you asked me about my personal life.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, but, but—having this serious—Was he living with you on White Street?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, he moved in with me.

MS. YABLONSKY: So, how did that—did it affect your working life as well as your social life?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, he moved in with me right after the Mudd Club opened. He worked—first he worked somewhere else, then he worked, like, on another floor. I gave him part of a floor to work on. And I also started to rent a house upstate, and we go upstate in the summer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where was that?

MR. BLECKNER: Up in the Catskills, a little farmhouse I rented.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: For $2000.

MS. YABLONSKY: For the whole summer? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And when I started showing then, after that—that was after Betty—Mary hadn't started yet—when I started showing with Mary, somehow he met Holly Solomon, I don't know—I don't remember— but nothing really happened then. I think there was some tension between us. I know it—when there was real tension, when a lot of younger artists started responding to my work. That's when the real tension—

MS. YABLONSKY: How you were aware of that? That younger artists were responding?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, my first show with Mary was 1981 and I showed all the stripe paintings. Nobody was interested.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, '81?

MR. BLECKNER: I think so.

MS. YABLONSKY: It think it says something different in here. "Mary Boone, 1979." December—January. It went into 1980.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay, then the second show was '81, the stripe paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. So what was in the first show?

MR. BLECKNER: More kind of waxy, dark paintings, still of spaces, geometric things. I mean, I don't know if any are in that book, but in the beginning— look at the beginning— you can see— with grids on them— I was really into—that one. This one.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] But there are objects—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, like—

MS. YABLONSKY: —in this. Not just grids.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, they were kind of hovering around between representation, abstraction— the rooms, still, I was into.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, I see. There is always, well not always, but often this architectural element in your work.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, a lot.

MS. YABLONSKY: So these are oil and wax?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you already making your own pigments then?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is, what is, why is this, why this like conch shell?

MR. BLECKNER: It's a conch shell. [Laughs.] Well, I was trying—

MS. YABLONSKY: It's the figure in the room.

MR. BLECKNER: I was trying kind of create an object in a room. You know? You can see, if you see the paintings, it's a lot of objects, things erased. It's a lot of cool things.

MR. BLECKNER: It's a very cool painting which, I know how the paintings look, so I know—it's hard to reproduce the kind of luminosity that's actually in this very dark painting. I love this kind of rain on the side here.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And I then I started doing, like those—

MS. YABLONSKY: These stripes?

MR. BLECKNER: I got rid of everything. "Enough," I said, I'd had it.

MS. YABLONSKY: What do you mean?

MR. BLECKNER: I had it—with stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: You got rid of—

MR. BLECKNER: —with imagery.

MS. YABLONSKY: So it become more severe.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah also, because—

MS. YABLONSKY: But there's a landscape on this.

MR. BLECKNER: I know. But that's what it is. It's kind of—it's also a stage.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is The Arrangement of Things, from 1982.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Kind of lights.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, there are lights behind a curtain, or a veil.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, well, it's kind of like that. But I—everybody—I just felt like—

MS. YABLONSKY: There's a lot of color in here, aside from the black and white.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I felt like it was—that imagery was overly cathected—there was already so much abstract, neo-expressionism. I was already sick of it and I wanted to pull away from all kind of imagery and do abstract paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: And what did Mary say about that—did she respond? I mean, did she care?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, she didn't love them very much. She didn't like them.

MS. YABLONSKY: But these were the paintings that everybody responded to.

MR. BLECKNER: Not then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Not then?

MR. BLECKNER: A few years after. That's when Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher said, "You know what? Nobody really liked that show. We loved it." And then I had a show at Nature Morte in '84—

MS. YABLONSKY: Which was their gallery.—they're two artists who operated a gallery.

MR. BLECKNER: Right. And then everybody loved the paintings. I don't know.

MS. YABLONSKY: These paintings. They went back?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So Mary didn't sell these right away?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, I have this completely wrong, backward. Because it seemed to me—I responded to them! Not an artist, not even that smart about art yet. And I thought it was a great show.

MR. BLECKNER: I know, but they were very out of sync too.

MS. YABLONSKY: I remember those stripe paintings. I remember the whole—I can see— I see it in my mind's eye in the gallery, because I responded to it.

MR. BLECKNER: That's nice. Can I take this off please— get some water?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. That show at Nature Morte was '84, did you say?

MR. BLECKNER: '84.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, that was '84. You're in a monogamous—you're still in this relationship with Izhar?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay. So you're in a monogamous relationship.

MR. BLECKNER: I wouldn't go that far.

MS. YABLONSKY: All right. So you were a little promiscuous.

MR. BLECKNER: Slightly.

MS. YABLONSKY: But look what happened in 1981—"gay cancer."

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you were not going to bars?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or those clubs, so you weren't exposed the same way—

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: —a lot of other people were?

MR. BLECKNER: No. In that way I feel lucky because I did go—I never, this is a whole other subject, but I never enjoyed the gay world. I was a—I was a kind of—you know something? Tony Kushner put it really well in Angels in America. He said about Roy Cohn, it came out of Roy Cohn's mouth, but it was so interesting, "I'm not really a gay man because gay men are too marginalized. They have no power. I'm just a man who like to have sex with other men."

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I remember that

MR. BLECKNER: So. I've always had an ambivalent relationship to, not being gay, but—so strange—

MS. YABLONSKY: The gay culture.

MR. BLECKNER: —the gay culture.

MS. YABLONSKY: I understand.

MR. BLECKNER: I've always thought it was a little—actually, I really did like woman. I always sensed a certain misogyny somewhere in it that I didn't like. And a certain homogeneity obviously, that I didn't like. I just thought it was odd.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I share that same ambivalence.

MR. BLECKNER: I just thought it was odd. Like, I never—I can be in a room with a mixed crowd like the Mudd Club, or a club, or a place, or a party. I could always figure out who's gay. I don't care if they're gay or not. I'll talk em into it if I really want it.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] The founder of the Blow Job Club can talk anybody into anything! [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, you can up to certain age—until your shelf life expires. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Now I can't talk anyone into anything, believe me. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: I don't know that that's true. I mean, listening to you and you are a compassionate person, you have a lot interior and exterior experiences, and you're very articulate it about it. I'll bet you're a great teacher, even an inspiring teacher. I can hear it when you talk about your work, and what you really believe—what your core beliefs are, that you would be a great teacher.

MR. BLECKNER: I think, yeah, I enjoy it. I do. I enjoy it. I just try not to let my skepticism, my cynicism—I don't have a cynicism, but I do have a skepticism. I certainly feel that it's really hard now.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah?

MR. BLECKNER: I feel the art world is really difficult. It's just so symptomatic, but it's symptomatic of everything in the world. It's not in and of itself. It's not a separate entity, you know? It's our minds, our ways of life, are kind of post—, like, neo-liberal kind of capitalism, that so values competition—all these things that sometimes are really difficult for young artists, to get their head around, even for older artists, you know? I mean not just for young artists, for people. You know? It's like, how do you manage with some kind of equanimity your ambivalence about a system that you need, that you want, and you also loathe? That's a real question—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —that, you know, I think we all deal with—at least the more aware people that I know, you know, the system that you're part of, that you want, that you loathe—the ambivalence that you're feeling—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —and be able to continue to make your work, in the spirit you that need to make it—you know, sometimes you have to separate yourself. It's a question of how you turn down the volume, you know? Which is why I don't read your column. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: I hope it's a little more than social.

MR. BLECKNER: It is. It's sociological, but—

MS. YABLONSKY: I try to make it so—no, no. I try to make it critical.

MR. BLECKNER: I tell you this. I don't know if it should be, but the thing amazes me about your column?

MS. YABLONSKY: What?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know anybody anymore.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, well.

 

MR. BLECKNER: Because you're out there on the front.

MS. YABLONSKY: I don't really know them all. I mean, I know some of them, but I need to write down names.

MR. BLECKNER: These names, names, names, names. I'm always, like—it has to do with the kind of globalization, the expansionism—

MS. YABLONSKY: —it has everything to do with it.

MR. BLECKNER: —the hyper-festivalism, but not things that kind of benefit me. So I go, "Oh my god," like, you know? You get artists who are good, but their work is so much about the spectacle of the festival.

MS. YABLONSKY: I don't think it's about anything. I mean, but we can get there tomorrow. This lack of subject matter. Or that it's all about one thing. Okay, when you had that show at Nature Morte, you showed one painting. But it was a tiny space.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, but one big painting.

MS. YABLONSKY: Big.

MR. BLECKNER: Big, big, big.

MS. YABLONSKY: Is it in this catalogue I'm looking at?

MR. BLECKNER: It was like that painting, but not that painting.

MS. YABLONSKY: It was Op-Arty?

MR. BLECKNER: It was up Op-Art-ish.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, of stripes. I didn't see that.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay.

MS. YABLONSKY: Because I was working every night.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: In those days I didn't see much art.

Mr. Bleckner It was long time ago. It doesn't matter.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, it matters, because it made a difference to your career. And I guess the East Village scene, the gallery scene—

MR. BLECKNER: The East Village scene was starting then, and it was—

MS. YABLONSKY: —and people were dying every day then, from AIDS—every day—that we knew, that I knew. And yet there was this whole, you know, the drugs— the street drugs scene in the East Village was very active, but that's where artists could afford to live.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I didn't know about that. That was—

MS. YABLONSKY: But there were always people in the street is what I'm trying to say.

MR. BLECKNER: That is true. I didn't obviously—I mean, if you want to get into this tomorrow, we can. The first time I noticed really AIDS was a friend of mine who lived on White Street, who lived right down a block from me—he wasn't a good friend, he was an acquaintance, a very handsome older guy—so if I was 30 by then, in 1980 I guess I was 29 or 30, he was let's say 40. And he would be called, he would have been considered, in the language of gay culture then, a clone—you know with the body, the mustache— there were a certain kind of, you know?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And he went out to all those clubs I didn't go to, like you go out, you take drugs, and you dance all night—it was, like, the Mineshaf then, and I would see him on the street in the late, like '77, when I was living on White Street, he would always tell me about it, how fun it was, how hot the guys were. He would always say, "You should come with me one time. Come with me, come with me." But I wasn't interested in that. I was more interested in, you know—first of all, I was with Izhar, and just, we didn't do that. Then I saw him—I think it was 1979 or 1980—he looked really, really bad.

MS. YABLONSKY: In 1980?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: That was early.

MR. BLECKNER: He was one of the first people. He died, I think, in '82, but he looked really bad already. People were getting sick through the 70s, and not dying until the early 80s. They didn't die like that.

MS. YABLONSKY: All the people I knew—

MR. BLECKNER: They were sick before.

MS. YABLONSKY: Do you think?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Maybe.

MR. BLECKNER: It still took a few years. That's what happened, and then suddenly, you know, the symptoms materialize bigtime. They little things—scratches, itches, colds, this, that, and I knew people who kept getting things, and didn't think anything of it and, the doctor said, "Don't worry about it. It will go away."

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, take two aspirin.

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: Take two aspirin.

MR. BLECKNER: But he starts looking really bad, like, in 1981 and he died in 1982. But I remember saying, "What has been the matter with you? Everytime I see you, you're looking so weak. I feel bad. " He said—I remember him telling me he had to give a cat away, because he got parvo, parvo disease he caught from the cat. I thought to myself, "That is weird," I remember thinking. The next thing I know, Boom, he's dead. And I read about AIDS. And other people, friends of mine, who I was very close with then— this really, really nice, cool painter named Larry Stanton, who had been a boyfriend of David Hockney— really good-looking young painter.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Kind of painted like, gay paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] You know, guys together. They would be very popular now.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: He calls me up, says he's in the hospital, has pneumonia. And I said, "How the hell did you get pneumonia?"

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: "It's okay, I'll be fine. I just got a bad cold." Boom!

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you say—you said—when you said younger artists were starting to respond to your paintings, did you mean younger, like Peter and Alan being younger than you.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, if I'm 30 they're, like, 24.

MS. YABLONSKY: I keep forgetting you were only 30. So were you aware of this— this creeping shadow of darkness—you who were always drawn to darkness— on your radar at all—I mean, in your consciousness? Because the rest of your life is going really well, its sounds like. You had a relationship, you got an income from the building, you're showing in good galleries.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I would say that's true. But I'd really become aware of people—less at the beginning, because I did always keep a little distance from the gay culture.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. But you've always had this melancholy, and sense of tragedy and loss.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's been part of your work.

MR. BLECKNER: And I think the first painting I did, I did very commemorative paintings—

[END OF bleckn16_1of2_sd_track01_r]

MR. BLECKNER: —after the stripe paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why did you, so you just stopped painting stripes—

MR. BLECKNER: I was actually commemorating ideas—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Ideas that were interesting to me. I did a painting commemorating the loss of my sister's mind.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. When was that?

MR. BLECKNER: 1980—

MS. YABLONSKY: In that period.

MR. BLECKNER: —'83, maybe.

MS. YABLONSKY: Is that in this [catalogue]?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know if it's in here.

MS. YABLONSKY: And what— was that part of another body of work?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, it was a body of work like this.

MS. YABLONSKY: I like this—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is beautiful, Delaware.

MR. BLECKNER: And then it was—

MS. YABLONSKY: These are all amazing.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, that, but that—

MS. YABLONSKY: The skies.

MR. BLECKNER: This painting right here is called Flora and the Future.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: That's her name.

MS. YABLONSKY: '83, yeah. These are amazing. So you did these after this? You were done with the striped paintings when you did these?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or are these—

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, these were after I did the striped paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: And what sort of technique did you use to make these—

MR. BLECKNER: Just a—

MS. YABLONSKY: — I would say really surreal looking paintings.

MR. BLECKNER: They are very light out dark.

MS. YABLONSKY: They are sort of like black and white Turners.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, that is what I thought about.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: But what I thought about was also, like, what was the main component that I wanted to express in my stripped paintings? And what it was, was a kind of a pulsating—a pulsating light. It was like this enveloping [pause] throbbing, a quality about throbbing. So the light that was in them was both kind of optical but emotional, so I just took the stripes away.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: In my mind—

MS. YABLONSKY: But is this, how are you getting this—

MR. BLECKNER: Like this.

MS. YABLONSKY: —this kind of stippled effect? Oh. It's not scraped.

MR. BLECKNER: Scraped, brushed, undone, done—you know, a lot of layers. This is gonna be in the Parrish. I have to pee again [interference]

MS. YABLONSKY: Maybe we can stop. Oh god, this one. Monday Fever. That's a little throat, heart in the throat.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah well, and then it really hit me, you know, hospital room. Memoriam].

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Alright

MR. BLECKNER: Why do they want it [the interviews] over two separate tapes days? It's interesting?

MS. YABLONSKY: I don't know, I guess it adds some perspective.

MR. BLECKNER: Right. Reflection.

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm looking through this list of your exhibitions. And I see here that, after— with this show at Nature Morte of this one painting that you got—you did did get a lot of press. And from then on, every show, there was a lot of press.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So that did seem to light a fire under your career, that one painting in that one small gallery in the East Village.

MR. BLECKNER: It did. Absolutely. I think what happened was that for some reason being out of that kind of SoHo—SoHo was kind of becoming so establishment, that the appeal of my work that was kind of non-expressionistic—

MS. YABLONSKY: —Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —was setting—a setup, and allowed to be contextualized with a lot of younger artists who were not interested in that kind of heroic, what they considered—

MS. YABLONSKY: —Right—

MR. BLECKNER: — a kind of machismo, you know, gestural expressionism. They were much more—it's kind of a different thing came into play, which was more, you know, kind of step back from that. I mean that's like— I met Peter Halley, for instance, then and, Ashley—

MS. YABLONSKY: Ashley Bickerton.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I was going to ask you if you, so those International with Monument [Gallery] group, and Meyer Vaisman—

MR. BLECKNER: And Meyer became a really close friend of mine.

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you know Keith Haring then?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, Keith Haring I knew, because he worked at the Mudd Club.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, so were you cognizant of the scene around him, which was slightly different?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Even though in the East Village—

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, I did. I was.

MS. YABLONSKY: with the Fun Gallery stuff. And Jean-Michel [Basquait]—did you, was he, on your—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So was this exciting? I mean this was like another turn of the wheel, in a way, for the art world. There was a lot of energy in these shows.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I mean the whole East Village. I mean, that's like when— I mean I remember then meeting Philip [Taaffe] through Donald Baechler, and Philip Taaffe, and Pat Hearn, and Colin de Land. And they all started opening galleries. But for me, it was basically Nature Morte.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Donald Baechler? How did you meet him?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know how I knew him. Just—he was always kind of around. He would be the type that would just ask— I remember going to his studio at some point a little before that.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you went to other artists' studios?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I loved to. I was very close friends with Troy Brauntuch. Before Izhar, but yeah, even during Izhar.

MS. YABLONSKY: What did Mary think, when you— I mean you were still—she was still representing you in this period. I mean your next show was with her again.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I was really— I don't think she thought much. At some point—at some point she didn't want to give me another show. I forget exactly when.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, she did give you show right after that one, according to this. You—

MR. BLECKNER: She did but—

MS. YABLONSKY: You had another show—well, actually it was three years later.

MR. BLECKNER: No. No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh no. Same year.

MR. BLECKNER: No, but she didn't want to. She did give me the show. But, you know, I was kind of like [growl]—her gallery started to get hot.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, very.

MR. BLECKNER: And I wasn't. So she—

MS. YABLONSKY: Even after the show at Nature Morte?

MR. BLECKNER: No, before. In the first two shows—that was the third show I had with her.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, yes, yeah you were eclipsed by—

MR. BLECKNER: Oh yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Some of the others—

MR. BLECKNER: Everybody!

[They laugh.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, Jeff [Koons] felt the same way. You know, he was supposed to show with her in 1980—

MR. BLECKNER: I know.

MS. YABLONSKY: —and pulled out, because he thought he would be overwhelmed. Because he wasn't doing neo-expressionism either—

MR. BLECKNER: I know, he was doing vacuums in Plexiglass boxes. I thought they were so cool. Anyways, so do you want to end there? Because it was just—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —getting to the point at which the AIDS thing starts, really, and the paintings take—

MS. YABLONSKY: Changed.

MR. BLECKNER: Changed, because of it.

MS. YABLONSKY: It seems like the painting that you made about your sister, hat we were just talking about, almost was the bridge into the technique and subject-wise—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —was the way into what came in 1985 and 1986?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it wasn't outside of my oeuvre, so to speak, the idea that, you know, these feelings or this kind of sense of loss couldn't be approached somehow in painting, or through you know— I mean, I don't know why but mortality was just always something that was on my mind. And then when it got close to me, really close, it became a little bit like a cultural rupture.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: You know. Like I felt like business—I couldn't really go—the striped paintings, the abstract paintings. I couldn't really go on with business as usual. I had to address more specifically what that light said—whether it's sad, or sorrow, or melancholic or commemorative, what it is. You know, so that was when I did, you know, the paintings—hospital room. I did a painting I found in there, Memory of Larry.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: You know, and I wanted to be a little more specific about the reality that, you know—just one of those times in your life when you know things change. You know, your sense—that sense of industrial optimism that was held over from our parents and the postwar generation suddenly broke, and the idea of early mortality was our own reality.

MS. YABLONSKY: I was going to say you were 30..

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm thinking about this.

MR. BLECKNER: So, you know, it's like the idea of progress, even, kind of comes to a halt, because there's no cure. What kind of progress is that? And then, you know—

So should we leave it there?

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, yes. Tomorrow we will make more progress.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.]

[END OF bleckn16_1of2_sd_track02_r]

MS. YABLONSKY: This is Linda Yablonsky at the home of the artist Ross Bleckner in New York City on August the 8th—oh, sorry—

MR. BLECKNER: July.

MS. YABLONSKY: —scratch that, it's July the 8th, for the Archives of the American Art, Smithsonian Institution, card number two. So we're back. We started yesterday to talk about the '80s. When did you meet Thomas Ammann, the Swiss art dealer?

MR. BLECKNER: He came to my studio in 1981.

MS. YABLONSKY: And how did he know about you?

MR. BLECKNER: I met him through a woman who had become a friend of mine by then, after I had my first show at Mary Boone—should we get that—the Guggenheim book out, so I can go through the—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, probably, if you have it handy.

MR. BLECKNER: I do.

MS. YABLONSKY: That would be good. That'd be for the catalogue for your [retrospective]— what year was that?

MR. BLECKNER: That would be 1995.

MS. YABLONSKY: '95, okay.

MR. BLECKNER: After I had my first show at Mary Boone in 1979—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, through that, I met people, and one of the people I met who was friends with some of the artists in the gallery then was Barbara Jakobson.

MS. YABLONSKY: A collector in New York.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, a collector in New York. And through her, she had Thomas Ammann come over to my studio.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see. And he was—just for the record, a Swiss art dealer—

MR. BLECKNER: And collector.

MS. YABLONSKY: —and collector in modern and contemporary art in Zurich, Switzerland.

MR. BLECKNER: Right. And he—I was doing these kind of gridded paintings, with kind of layering and black and grids and runes and objects in them. And he really liked them, and he bought a couple of them. And that, in fact, was my first—the first real sales that I remember.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah— to a kind of major, international collector besides from, you know, like—I don't remember. From the first show, Mary did sell the paintings, but I don't remember to who, you know? I mean, the prices were pretty low—

MS. YABLONSKY:Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —and she was just getting started, and—

MS. YABLONSKY: And so were you.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and Thomas was a high—already considered a pretty high-profile collector/dealer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. He was a friend of Andy's, and collected Andy's work?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes?

MR. BLECKNER: —in depth and he was known to do that. And actually, from really, one of the first people who started really collecting artists in depth.

MS. YABLONSKY: American artists?

MR. BLECKNER: And European, I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —you know, because—yeah, but American artists. And he started becoming—he became very supportive of my work. And we became really close friends. Really close friends.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you go to Zurich in that people to see him? Or—

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't go to Zurich yet because the friendship—I think—let's say if that happened in '80, '81, I think we became really good friends by like '85, '86. And actually, I remember, first time really traveling with him, when he invited me with him to St. Bart's. We went on a sailboat.

MS. YABLONSKY: Like for Christmas?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, something like that. And on that trip was Bianca Jagger, who he was very close friends with. And we got along really well, and I became really close friends with Bianca, and I've remained really close friends with her ever since.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Who else did he introduce you to?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, over the years, I mean, he introduced me to— oh, through him, actually. I met Andy before that—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —Andy Warhol. But through him, I hung out with Andy.

MS. YABLONSKY: And this is all in the '80s, not in the '70s?

MR. BLECKNER: Right. This is the '80s.

MS. YABLONSKY: Hung out with him in what way?

MR. BLECKNER: Like, dinners that Thomas would organize. He was very—you know, he liked to bring people together. He introduced me to curators, and it kind of—[laughing] he was very good friends with Elizabeth Taylor—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really?

MR. BLECKNER: —He introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. [laughs]

MS. YABLONSKY: How did you meet Bob Colacello?

MR. BLECKNER: I met Bob through Thomas, I'd say, yeah, around that time. And we became very good friends as well. And actually, it was Bob—somebody's birthday party. I forget what year it was, but around the early '80s, where Bob, Bianca, and I all had birthdays at the beginning of May, so Thomas made a party for the three of us. And a lot of people came to that party.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where was that?

MR. BLECKNER: Some restaurant in SoHo somewhere. And—

MS. YABLONSKY: This sounds like you're becoming more social than you've ever been before.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it's kind of changing. What was interesting, as—up until then, I was friendly—I was very close, before Thomas, I would say, between 1980 and let's say '85, my closest friend at—the Mudd Club closed, I was working on White Street, I was really close friends with Barbara Kruger, and from the Mudd Club days, Gary Indiana. And Gary and I were really close friends. Actually, I did a theater set for him—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —when he worked for—did something with Richard Foreman. And we would speak every day.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And Barbara and I would speak every day. And I was also very close with Troy Brauntuch.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Then I—you know, was—through the whole Mary Boone thing, more David Salle again, and Eric Fischl again, you know, kind of reestablishing our friendship.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And yeah, and so I started kind of, I suppose, socializing—I'd only really—what was interesting for me was I only really liked to socialize. In '84, remember, my show at Nature Morte.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: So I knew a lot of younger artists then, too. Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher, and Meyer Vaisman, and Peter Halley, and Philip Taaffe. But I started socializing more—I never liked to socialize outside the art world. I always—I didn't feel really comfortable. But I kind of opened up to that, kind of a little kicking and screaming. [They laugh.] Thomas would, you know, kind of tease me and kind of drag me around, you know—

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you have a sexual relationship with him?

MR. BLECKNER: No. Never.

MS. YABLONSKY: No? It was really a friendship?

MR. BLECKNER: He had a boyfriend from the time I met him—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —to the time he died. The same boyfriend. And I also became really good friends with his former boyfriend, Matthias Bruner—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —and all the people he knew. And I think through Thomas and Bianca I became friendly with Calvin Klein.

MS. YABLONSKY: Through them, not through Donna Karan?

MR. BLECKNER: Right. No, not through them.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, that's interesting.

MR. BLECKNER: Actually, I re-became friends with Donna through Calvin.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, that's funny. [They laugh.] So all of this is in the early 80s?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So, some of these people—Bianca, Andy, Elizabeth Taylor, even Gary, definitely Calvin, they're—they were on a scene. They created a scene in New York of—or were considered, to use an antiquated term, fast company. You know, people who live large and fast, and burned bright. And some of whom burntedout, but not these people. And did any of them also—were they collecting your work?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, besides Thomas, no. Because, I mean, they're not collectors.

MS. YABLONSKY: Barbara Jakobson is.

MR. BLECKNER: She collected—I think, not really. She didn't. She never—maybe she bought a drawing or a couple of works on paper around that time, I kind of remember.

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you ever trade work with any of the other artists you mentioned? Eric or David or Troy?

MR. BLECKNER: Eric, David, Troy, yeah. Julian. I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: So, you all have little art collections.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, something—you know, things.

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean, it's a way of supporting your colleagues.

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, absolutely. And yeah, I bought some work too, from younger artists, when I first—you know, kind of had extra money, because I started selling my work more regularly after—not before—the stripe paintings. After the stripe paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: After '84? After that show at Nature Morte?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, after that show. Like, that—the painting from that show sold. Like, Mario Diacono, who was an important Italian dealer then, and was living in Boston, and opened a little gallery in Boston, where he would just show one painting—took that painting and showed it there, and he sold it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

MS. YABLONSKY: Whatever happened to him?

MR. BLECKNER: He's still alive, still around. Very old.

MS. YABLONSKY: I think I met him recently. I think I met him—did he also show Jannis Kounellis?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: I met him with Jannis Kounellis not long ago, because I remember the Boston gallery.

MR. BLECKNER: He must be in his mid to late '80s now, so I'm sure he's slowed down. But he formed the collection for Maramotti, in Italy, who now has a museum. They have that company—a fashion company. But the—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —big collectors in Italy, and they have a museum, and they do shows. They have a lot of my work through Mario Diacono.

MS. YABLONSKY: So, is it safe to say that now, you're making money on your art, and a sufficient amount of money to give you a good life?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, it is, because in '87 and '86, different people who I rented studios to in my white building on White Street, they all left—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, because they didn't have—you know, it was not—it was very easygoing, those days.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. You could come and go.

MR. BLECKNER: And there was no leases. They were just friends. And Meyer Vaisman had a studio there, for instance. And McDermott and McGough had a studio there. A lot of different people worked there, but they all left and I actually—I left the building for, like, half a year, and had it renovated so that I could move back in. So I must've had the money. [laughs]

MS. YABLONSKY: And where did you go in that time?

MR. BLECKNER: I forget. I rented a studio—that's when I first went to the Hamptons, and I rented a studio there.

MS. YABLONSKY: In East Hampton?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Rented.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mmm-hmm. And did you meet another group of people out there? Artists, I mean, or collectors?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I did—

MS. YABLONSKY: Or the same people?

MR. BLECKNER: More or less the same people, but kind of expanded a bit. You know, it kind of keeps expanding. I became more friendly—more friendly with—I would say Hollywood types. Like, through Calvin, maybe, I met Sandy Gallin and David Geffen. And through Sandy, I met a lot of Hollywood types, because he was a kind of a high-profile talent manager in Hollywood, and he managed people like Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson, and Cher—

MS. YABLONSKY: That's big. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: —and Mariah Carey. You know, when their careers were peaking.

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you meet—I know you met Dolly Parton.

MR. BLECKNER: I met Dolly Parton. She came to my studio, in fact.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's kind of amazing.

[They laugh.]

MR. BLECKNER: That was—that was great. That was actually, I must say, unreservedly terrific. She asked me if she could come to my studio.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you met her at a dinner party, or some other kind of party?

MR. BLECKNER: I met her at a dinner, yeah. At Sandy's. And she wanted to have—come downtown, see an artist studio, and Sandy showed her a painting of mine, and she said that she loved it—she's not—she had never bought anything, but she said it reminded her of angels.

MS. YABLONSKY: And what was she looking at when she said that?

MR. BLECKNER: She was looking at a blurry painting that I did, called Hands and Faces, which was just kind of spots and blurs on a big surface. You know, light spots out of dark, but many of them.

MS. YABLONSKY: And this is mid-80s, or later?

MR. BLECKNER: No, now I'm jumping ahead—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —that's later '80s.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, still in the '80s. Well, I would say your social life was now on a new level.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, what's so interesting is because I felt like it—it was—affected some of my friendships.

MS. YABLONSKY: Of your previous friendships?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you in a relationship at this time? I'm trying to remember.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Let's go back. So I broke up—Izhar and I broke up—

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: —in 1986, after seven years of kind of on and off. And he moved to where he presently lives in East Village. I met another artist—I was teaching at SVA, actually. I was teaching at SVA then.

MS. YABLONSKY: The School of Visual Arts, yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And I actually saw this kid in the hallway the first day of class. And I was teaching a senior class. And he was really the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen. So I got kind of weak-kneed, and I said to him, "Are you in my class?" as he was coming down the hall. And he said, "I'm not an art student. I'm an illustration student." I said, "No, you're not. You're an art student, and you're in my class." That's Alexis Rockman.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh! Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: So I started hanging out with Alexis, and that kind of—

MS. YABLONSKY: —a heterosexual person.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, but I—you know, I said, "Come to my studio." And I did—he did change from illustration to art at my suggestion, because I was telling him, "You know, you're really good at drawing. All you have to do is just kind of do the drawing like an illustrator, and then fudge it up a little." You know, smudge it, and it'd be art. [They laugh.] So, anyway, yeah. He—I kind of "hired" him, quote on quote, and—

MS. YABLONSKY: As an assistant—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: In your studio, not your class?

MR. BLECKNER: In my studio, but yeah, we started hanging out. A lot, a lot. And that was the final straw. Izhar sort of had it—gone.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: And it was just one of those relationships that should've been over probably two years before anyway, so it was good that that happened. But—

MS. YABLONSKY: But Alexis is not a gay man, or did you have a sexual relationship with him?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, well, we did.

MS. YABLONSKY: I only know him as a married man, so—

MR. BLECKNER: He was married. He had a girlfriend then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, he did?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and we were friendly all year. And he was always, you know, he was living with his girlfriend. And I had this house, remember, upstate.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And I was going upstate for the summer, but I wasn't with Izhar anymore now. So I was going upstate to paint, so I asked Alexis to come upstate and paint as well. So we spent the summer upstate, painting. The girlfriend was French, and she had gone to France for the summer. So, yes, so that summer, it turned.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: And in fact, in the fall—it was '86 or seven, I think, we came back to New York, and he broke up with the girlfriend, and he moved in with me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, really. Good for him.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, he couldn't handle it.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: That lasted about a month—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: —and he moved out—I think he moved to the Chelsea Hotel, and you know, went back to his girlfriend. And it was, you know, kind of a drama—you know, a lot of drama, a lot of emotion. That ended. While my career kind of was ascending, my romantic life was descending, precipitously.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you had what sounds like a very glamorous social life at a time—well, maybe you can help me characterize this scene, or—that's the wrong word.

MR. BLECKNER: But you know, because of this, I felt like I lost my friends because I got so involved with Alexis—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —I kind of stopped dealing with friends. And then my friendship after that, with Bianca [Jagger], who was very, very understanding, and very kind of nurturing—like, people, I remember, like Gary Indiana, who I was very close with, hated the fact I was friendly with all these people. I mean, he just wouldn't have it. And he actually became very abusive.

MS. YABLONSKY: As I know he can be. But he also— I guess, that was too bourgeois for him?

MR. BLECKNER: It was too bourgeois for him. Bianca was a socialite.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And I said, you know, you don't even know her. She's really very political. And she's very committed, and she's very intelligent. I mean, he was just, you know. I said, you just believe everything you read in the New York Post?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And anyway, he kind of had a kind of a hold on me, in a way that—and I just couldn't deal with his drinking, actually, so—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, he has a very forceful personality, and he's one of the most intelligent people who ever lived, and—

MR. BLECKNER: He is.

MS. YABLONSKY: —his brilliance—

MR. BLECKNER: We had a wonderful friendship—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —until he drank—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Did he ever write—

MR. BLECKNER: —or was angry.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I know. Did he ever write about your work?

MR. BLECKNER: He did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Because he was a critic for the Village Voice for a while, and Art in America as well.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, well, guess what? I said to Gary, "Gary, you're the smartest person I know. You write great. You can—you want to get well known? Start writing about art. Become an art critic."

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, you have started a lot of careers, Ross!

MR. BLECKNER: So, I mean, he'll verify this—I said, "Just start writing. Submit it to the Voice." And he did. And he got hired—or he had written other things for the Voice, but never art criticism. And they hired him as an art critic. And one of the first reviews he wrote was of me, which was 1985, maybe.

MS. YABLONSKY: So that would've been a show at Mary's?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I actually curated the show. I was a visiting artist at the Studio School, and I curated a show there—

MS. YABLONSKY: Ah.

MR. BLECKNER: —called From Organism to Architecture. That was the name of a painting of mine.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: The painting with the shell in it—in the room.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, with one of—yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, that was the name of that painting. And I curated a show there. I forget exactly who was in it, but it had to do with the kind of interface between representation and abstraction, with things that aren't what they seem. And Gary wrote a glowing review in the Voice. And he even prefaced it by saying that I was—that he's impartial—that I'm a really close friend of his, but then went on to talk about the show and my work. That was actually the first really good review that I'd ever had. So, yeah. That was nice, and I would take Gary around, and I would show him different artists who were just starting, and he started meeting a lot of artists then, obviously, and kind of had a kind of, you know, Gary likes to lash out, and also kind of cuddle up to people at the same time. Like, for instance, right after that, I saw the first show of the Starn Twins.

MS. YABLONSKY: Doug and Mike Starn.

MR. BLECKNER: And I'd really loved it.

MS. YABLONSKY: That was at Sonnabend?

MR. BLECKNER: No, that was at a new gallery called Stux Gallery.

MS. YABLONSKY: Stux? Oh, okay. Oh, wait, they showed at Castelli, not Sonnabend.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, that's later. Well, way later.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And I showed Gary, and I told him, you know, this is really great stuff. And he wrote an incredibly glowing review. That was, like, his second review. And that kind of started, really started the Starn Twins' career, and also really started Gary's career as an art critic. And then, of course, he loved the attention he was getting.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: So. But my friendship with Bianca?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, what happened?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that was too much for Gary.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. But what else was going on at the time, or culturally, that you—I mean, by the mid-80s, AIDS was a daily fact of life, cutting through all of the arts.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: And was anybody making work about that?

MR. BLECKNER: Well—

MS. YABLONSKY: Other than you.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know. I mean, I can read something—well, this is '88.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: But it's definitely a concern, because I don't know who I'm talking about, but I'm saying, "My love affair, constant melting, absolute sex, complete dizziness. My entire psychic system is completely rendered mute. There are no symptoms. There is no libido. Just the passage of chemistry through my body. All, that is, all I can respond to. We don't talk, except with eyes, and it feels so complete. He takes care of me with only a glance. I try not to think too much of AIDS. Could this be the moment of entry? And any laughter is out of control. Giddiness seizes me, and I remember, or I'm reawakened by the pounds of laughing that I want to release. That fun is complete happiness."

MS. YABLONSKY: But you don't know who you're talking about?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Were you—

MR. BLECKNER: I was having little love affairs.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you were having safe sex, for lack of a better term?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Protecting yourself?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, I was.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you—did you know people who refused to do that?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, I—it depends on what year we're talking about. By the late '80s, I didn't—getting tested started in the mid '80s, okay?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Because I remember anything that happened with Alexis. After Izhar, I had gotten tested. That was the first time you could get tested. And I remember that I thought that I probably had AIDS.

MS. YABLONSKY: You did?

MR. BLECKNER: I thought so.

MS. YABLONSKY: Even though you'd been sort of monogamous?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, sort of, okay? But in the last few years, it was kind of winding down, and we were kind of doing our own thing, in a way. But I didn't, and I was all clear. And therefore, I remember because Alexis—that was a concern of his, by then. There was still a lot of confusion.

MS. YABLONSKY: A lot of confusion. Also, a lot of fear, and I would say a lot of anti-gay activity because it was identified as a gay virus, even though it wasn't. And did you experience any particular prejudice, or any form of bigotry, or it's—you know, people refused to consider you—your work—

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: —because you were a gay man?

MR. BLECKNER: That never—that, I never felt. You know, I think people were somewhat—there was somewhat—kind of a hysteria—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, a lot hysteria.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: And there were doctors who would not treat—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —HIV positive men and women.

MR. BLECKNER: I remember hearing all this—I mean, the only real thing that happened to me is I had a dentist who didn't want to work with me anymore, and I was kind of shocked, and you know—I found another dentist! But no, nothing overt happened like that. I remember kind of my own sense of it was kind of a denial, kind of—like, again, retreating to work and running—in a way, running from people, you know. Actually, yeah. I mean, I spent—was spending a lot of time with Bianca.

MS. YABLONSKY: In New York, or elsewhere?

MR. BLECKNER: In New York. She lived in New York. And I hadn't met anybody—so I just didn't meet anybody for a while.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you go to Europe at all in this period?

MR. BLECKNER: I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, you could've gone, outside of exhibitions—

MR. BLECKNER: No. I mean, yeah, I'm sure I did. I don't know—I'm sure I had—I don't know—I think my first show, really, in Europe, was in 1988, in London.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where was that? In a gallery— oh, Waddington. I see.

MR. BLECKNER: At Waddington.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, with an essay by Peter Schjeldahl.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you—were you acquainted with him, or did the gallery—

MR. BLECKNER: No, I was acquainted with Peter. I was acquainted with Peter from the early '80s, because, you know, he was friends—he had written about other friends of mine, like Julian and David [Salle]. He was kind of around already, and I think he was writing also for the Voice.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, he was the Voice art critic, but I can't remember when he became the Voice art critic.

MR. BLECKNER: Before Gary, and then Gary became it.

MS. YABLONSKY: —because he wrote for the New York Times—the Sunday Times

MR. BLECKNER: Long time before—way before.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, that was before. And then there was Sseven Days—a short-lived magazine. And I guess after Gary, he went to the Voice?

MR. BLECKNER: Before Gary.

MS. YABLONSKY: Before Gary, oh.

MR. BLECKNER: And Gary, I think, came after him.

MS. YABLONSKY: No—

MR. BLECKNER: Or something like that.

MS. YABLONSKY: —I know it wasn't, because Jerry Saltz replaced Peter [Schjeldahl] when he went to The New Yorker.

MR. BLECKNER: Right. Then Peter came after Gary.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah—so anyway, he was on the—

MR. BLECKNER: Anyway.

MS. YABLONSKY: —he was definitely writing about art. So—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And he wrote a piece about me in '86, after a little show I had, I think at Mary Boone in Art in America. That was—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. So, that's where I kind met him—I mean, I knew him from around, you know. I mean, you forget how you meet different people, but you know, I was going to openings and stuff then—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —more than I do now.

MS. YABLONSKY: This show, 1987, at Mary Boone— what was in that show? Because you got a lot of critical attention for that show, I see, including a review by Roberta [Smith] in the New York Times, Kim Levin in the Village Voice, Kay Larson in New York magazine, all major critics at the end—or I don't know how major was Roberta was, but she was at the Times at that point. Michael Brenson at the Times. That's a lot of good attention. So what were the paintings?

MR. BLECKNER: Those were the paintings that dealt with the AIDS crisis.

MS. YABLONSKY: So were you—you were one of the first artists to address it directly without being literal—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, actually I was alsobeing literal, because—

 

MS. YABLONSKY: At that point?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, at that point—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes?

MR. BLECKNER: —at that point, the first painting I did, I think, was 1985 or six. And so, I'm not sure about—and well, it had the number of AIDS—the number of people who had died of AIDS, as of the point that I did the painting, which I remember was 8,000 people. So—

MS. YABLONSKY: That's not the one you showed me yesterday—

MR. BLECKNER: No, that was a—

MS. YABLONSKY: —it was a much bigger number.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, I did those paintings for a few years.

MS. YABLONSKY: So, you were like the On Kawara of the AIDS crisis.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, yeah. I mean, I kind of thought I wanted to document this, somehow. But—

MS. YABLONSKY: And did you know people who were sick, or dying?

MR. BLECKNER: I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Close friends?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, not so many close, close friends, but close friends, and I obviously knew what was going on. And it was scary, and everybody was scared. And gay men, particularly, were frightened, because there was so much misinformation, and such a lack of government advocacy.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I would say it was advocacy in the wrong direction.

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: This was during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

MR. BLECKNER: It was—they were stirring up homophobia—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —actually.

MS. YABLONSKY: And the Jesse Helms—

MR. BLECKNER: The Jesse—

MS. YABLONSKY: —thing was starting in Congress.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. But I did realize that, you know, for me, it was a kind of a not only a crisis emotionally—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —but it was like a cultural crisis. It was like a fracture in the cultural landscape. And it really kind of signaled the end of, in a way, my ideas of abstraction as a kind of—even as a way to deal with—how do I say this? As a way to deal with issues that are kind of held in common in a discourse of civil people amongst each other, over time.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: You know, I thought that abstractions still had, like, these possibilities to raise a level of discourse about, well, future potential, about possibilities, about hopefulness. About, you know, like construction of a world. It's almost like going back to Mondrian.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And that's when my work became, like, more overtly representational. Because I felt like I had to be here in the world. You know, the world—the day world—the day-to-day world. Even—I mean, I said it. I said, I never imagined—I actually thought of myself as an abstract painter, because I really thought that the possibilities of abstraction could be opened up again to new meanings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: I never thought I would paint flowers—like, if you would have told me in 198—

MS. YABLONSKY: Like your mother did.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. That I would be painting flowers in 1986, I would have thought you were crazy. Like, "Are you crazy?" That's not what a real artist does. That's kind of kitsch. Well—

MS. YABLONSKY: That was also a world away from your previous paintings and those numbers paintings.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. The point is, is then I started—I don't know, it was like, the offering—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —of something to somebody in distress, that would stay in place, that wouldn't die, like a flower—you know, a flower that wouldn't die. I was afraid to give someone a flower that would die.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's a good point. They do die.

MR. BLECKNER: You know? And painting, like, One-Day Fever. You know, it just had—

MS. YABLONSKY: Is that the title of a painting?

MR. BLECKNER: A painting on the cover of this book.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, yes.

MR. BLECKNER: With the body going out of the picture.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. That's a very frightening picture.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's because that had to do with the confusion about how fast people go from having a little sore to being bedridden with sarcoma—Sarcosi [Kapozy], sarcoma.

MS. YABLONSKY: This picture—so this picture is—it has flowers in the foreground, the legs of a man that seem to be—you don't see anything but the lower part of his legs.

MR. BLECKNER: Flying out of the picture.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Disappearing into the top edge of the picture, there's a—what is this?

MR. BLECKNER: A psychotrophy.

MS. YABLONSKY: A trophy, an urn, and light, or, like, a veil of light, or—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —something that almost looks like a rain of light that the man is ascending to, and that's coming down on the flowers. So these were your first—is this—it's a black-and-white—

MR. BLECKNER: Black-and-white painting.

MS. YABLONSKY: —painting, not color. And these were the first flowers that you painted?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. The first group of paintings with flowers.

MS. YABLONSKY: With flowers.

MR. BLECKNER: The other ones were called Hospital Room and Memoriam, Memory of Larry. They were specific.

MS. YABLONSKY: But did they all have flowers in them, or they were paintings of flowers?

MR. BLECKNER: Not all of them. What? They all had flowers in them.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Just in them. You know, I wasn't really interested in painting flowers.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —or a still life, even.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —if anything, I was painting a kind of—you know, I actually didn't know what I was painting. It was kind of like a bit of the fog of war.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. That's a good analogy.

MR. BLECKNER: So I kind of—it was just in a—I tried to—not lighten the situation, but give a certain dignity—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —to the people who were sick, you know, that almost had to do, and dealt with—against my prior belief—almost a certain idea about ascension to a space, or a place of spirituality.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] But these paintings also connected with the public in a way—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's why.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why?

MR. BLECKNER: Because they were—they were paintings that dealt with—and ongoing and pressing, contemporary panic.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, I think that—

MR. BLECKNER: —in a way that kind of contained a certain level of emotion, but also represented what was going on in some way. You know, I mean, a lot of artists—ACT-UP! You know, I did it from the point of view of a painter. People would do—were addressing it from the point of view of graphic art, and posters, and fliers, and banners, and—and I don't know if the quilt—the quilt hadn't started yet.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: That was later.

MS. YABLONSKY: ACT-UP! and General Idea contributed largely to this graphic representation and protest.

MR. BLECKNER: So I think, you know, I felt like—I mean, I became friends at that time—through my gay friends, you know—I kind of very compartmentalized my life. You know—the art world friends, and the kind of Hollywood thing, and the gay thing. There's some overlapping, but actually, a lot of the artists—most of my artist friends, which is why I kind of left my art friends behind. Actually, they were surprisingly ungay, and surprisingly unsympathetic.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, at that time, the people I knew in the art world—my generation—none of them were gay.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, of the people you know, maybe.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, then. The people I knew then, yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Do you know, you didn't know Peter Hujar or Robert Mapplethorpe?

MR. BLECKNER: I knew them to meet them.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. I mean, they're your generation.

MR. BLECKNER: I knew Robert and Peter from around, in gay venues or places. They were—we were never friends.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: And Robert never actually even—he always had, like, a weird attitude with me. I mean, he just didn't talk to me. You know. When I got a little more well known, he was a little friendlier, but he was already pretty sick by then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. He got sick in 1987, I think.

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: And Peter died in '87.

MR. BLECKNER: So I only knew Peter, like, a tiny little bit before that. And David Wojnarowicz, I only knew slightly. I knew him through Gary Indiana.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. Yeah. David was kind of in Gary's crowd.

MR. BLECKNER: But yeah, I did know them. But my friends—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —who didn't—and even the ones who were gay, I mean, if—I don't remember who they are, even. You know, they didn't identify—you know, there was—people started identifying more as gay artists then. You know, I would have said in 1983 that I was just an artist. Yeah, I happened to be gay, but what of it? Big deal.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: In 1988, I would have said, "Yeah, I'm a gay artist."

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, that's when the gay movement—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, because it was all to do with identity politics—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —came—started to kind of coalesce around, and because of, the issue of AIDS advocacy.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. That's when it became—the gay movement, politically—became politicized by the protests, because of the bigotry.

MR. BLECKNER: So through that group, I met a good friend—I became really good friends with this guy—a gay guy—named Michael Goff.

MS. YABLONSKY: G-O-F-F?

MR. BLECKNER: G-O-F-F. And he was a writer, and he knew a lot of writers. Sarah Pettit.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: But more in the mainstream, not in the art world.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: He didn't really know about art. And he was starting a magazine, and I helped him start the magazine. Actually, I was the first financial backer—the first money—I helped him, I gave him the money.

MS. YABLONSKY: And we're talking about Out magazine?

MR. BLECKNER: Out. And Sarah Pettit and Michael Goff were the two editors.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: Michael Goff was the founder.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right, I remember now. Sarah, I knew.

MR. BLECKNER: She died.

MS. YABLONSKY: I wrote for her.

MR. BLECKNER: She died of cancer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, she didn't have AIDS.

MR. BLECKNER: Huh?

MS. YABLONSKY: She didn't have AIDS-related cancer.

MR. BLECKNER: No, breast cancer.

MS. YABLONSKY: I know. She was very young when she died.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, very young—very wonderful person.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And through Michael, I met people like Dr. Joseph Sonnabend—who was one of the first people with Larry Kramer—who I also met—who started Gay Men's Health Crisis, and were founding members of ACT-UP!

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And were talking about safe sex. And even people in the gay world were kind of doubting them, saying they were hysterical. I mean, there was a lot of confusion.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I think that there—I was going to say about your paintings—because of that panic and confusion, they kind of, in a way, made sense of things, or made what was happening real—what people were feeling—mirrored what people were feeling.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. I also because, you know, I was there and I was part of it, and I was gay, and I was feeling all those things. The melancholy, the panic, the confusion, you know, so—you know, it's not like anybody really knew where to go or turn yet, and hadn't really—like, the protests hadn't particularly started yet, you know, in terms of the FDA and Reagan, who wouldn't say the word. Even Mayor Koch, who didn't, you know, who was obviously secretly gay, but—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —so hidden that he couldn't deal with the whole idea of helping the gay community. So there was—that was building up, and I met a lot of these people who were advocating in a lot of different ways—Adam Moss.

MS. YABLONSKY: Adam Moss, yes. Editor.

MR. BLECKNER: Who was editor of Seven Days, then New York Times magazine, then New York magazine.

MS. YABLONSKY: He was involved in this as an activist?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: I didn't know.

MR. BLECKNER: He grew up where I grew up.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: His father worked for my father.

MS. YABLONSKY: Another one! [laughs]

MR. BLECKNER: So his father, actually, always had a kind of—was a figure in my life, but that's another story. His father was like my father's—vice-president. My father was the president of the company. Yes, I've known Adam a long time. And so through all these people, they were—and Larry Kramer, and they were starting GMHC, and Dr. Sonnabend was one of the first doctors who started to really identify, and kind of document, the cases over a period of time, and call for gay men to restrain themselves. And he started American Community Research Initiative on AIDS.

MS. YABLONSKY: American. That would have been American.

MR. BLECKNER: At first, it was called Community Research Initiative on AIDS. That's what the name was. So it was CRIA. After I became board president—

MS. YABLONSKY: Which was when?

MR. BLECKNER: 1992.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And I was the board president till 2014. So through Michael and Joseph Sonnabend, I became—I went—I started going to CRIA meetings. Then I went onto the board and we—and then I became board president. They started it—it was informal around 1988, 1989. It got, you know, more formal as a non-profit, you know, and soliciting board members from the gay community. And I went on the board and became the board president pretty quickly. And that was my second job. That became a job.

MS. YABLONSKY: You also could rely on some of your social relationships for contributions to this—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's, you know, I felt ambivalent about—to go back to Gary Indiana.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I felt ambivalent about the entry into the art bourgeoisie, so to speak. You know, it didn't—it's not really—when we were younger, we really didn't have a definition of what it meant to be a successful artist. But you know, I just was a little more bohemian and unstructured. By the late '80s, it was a little more structured, and it didn't revolve around money and shows and, you know, the art world had already kind of expanded. And, you know, there were more players.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, they came into the—I know when they came into the art world, because I've researched this—but it was in 1982, from Wall Street. The money started coming into the art world from Wall Street, and created a new class of collectors, and made stars out of several members of your generation because of the money.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's no—

MS. YABLONSKY: And there was a lot of celebrity and glamour attached to that.

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you were in that group.

MR. BLECKNER: Later.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Not at the first part.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you already had these connections.

MR. BLECKNER: Later.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: It started in 1982. I kind of got on board in, let's say, 1986.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, a little later.

MR. BLECKNER: A little later. But it seemed like a long time to me.

MS. YABLONSKY: But in the '80s.

MR. BLECKNER: Because all my friends were flying by.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Your straight friends?

MR. BLECKNER: All my straight friends. But, you know, I was already involved in something else, too, which was—my gay life was much more pressing, you know, and—actually, you know, through Barbara Kruger I met, like, Craig Owens.

MS. YABLONSKY: I was going to ask if you knew him, yes. Another writer.

MR. BLECKNER: Who died pretty quickly.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And even though I knew he didn't like my work, because it just wasn't his thing. You know, he was—they already started, that whole Pictures thing had started, Douglas Crimp—.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Artists Space, I think 1981.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, something like that, yes.

MR. BLECKNER: So, you know, I felt like I was fighting, kind of, a couple of fronts. Dealing with critics and people who thought painting was dead and couldn't do anything.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And I was trying to emotionally respond, or the only way I could, through something that was going on, and also fighting this kind of—kind of, you know, my—like I described, I kind of kept my distance a little from gay culture. I didn't like it before AIDS, but when AIDS happened, I felt like, you know, I didn't want to be one of these people who did nothing.

MS. YABLONSKY: You had to stand up somehow or other.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes. I just knew.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I had to kind of put down my marker, somewhere, somehow. And I just had to figure out for myself how to be an activist, even though I have a studio practice that doesn't really literally translate. You know, so I was kind of fighting that little battle with myself, and I just felt like using whatever little bit of teeny celebrity I had by that time—or connections—to bring in to the cause.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why would you say—what was attractive to you about CRIA, more than any of the other associations you could have made, or ways you could have participated?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, one thing is that I didn't really know about ACT-UP when it started.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay. I knew about CRIA. That's where people I knew were forming, because it was an outgrowth also of Gay Men's Health Crisis, and I didn't really—I mean, I did participate—I forget—I mean, there was a march on Washington. I went. There were a few things I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: But I thought that the research part—you know, there were two parts. There was—and then there was TAG, which was Treatment Action Group.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Peter Staley and—he's dead now, what's his name, he was so nice. I'm blanking on his name. Anyway, I just had to be dealt with in many fronts. You can't do everything. I just felt like the one that I can think more clearly about was the research, to try to do the research, and find—you know, I was always kind of like a little into a cure. You know, whether it was a cure for my sister, when she went mentally ill.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Or a cure for, you know, love affairs broken. And now I just—it kind of, like, fit with me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: To look for something, you know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, also, as you said, there was panic, confusion, and no funding. Or very little funding for research into treatment or medication.

MR. BLECKNER: So we were trying to raise money.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And do funding for doctors who were starting to do clinical trials to see what it was, and how it spread. And, you know, that's what, you know, education, treatment and research, you know. So yes, I tried to bring a lot of people into the organization. And I did. That's what I did. That's what I spent a lot of time doing.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: From 1991, to when I became president in 1992, to 2014.

MS. YABLONSKY: I will come back to this. We have touched in the last few minutes on some of the work you were making. Was there—would you say there's a difference in your painting technique or approach to making a painting from those rooms with objects to the numbers—very abstract, or nearly blank, numbers paintings, to the—or the striped paintings—to, like, what's on the cover here? The paintings that directly respond to the AIDS crisis?

MR. BLECKNER: To the painting from the middle '80s?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. So were you using different techniques?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, I was.

MS. YABLONSKY: What were they, and how did that come about? Nuts and bolts stuff.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay, the nuts and bolts goes back to—you know, there's a, like I was just saying, there's a compartmentalizing—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —that I've always—it's always been the way I've thought about things. And I've always compartmentalized that sense that if there's any way I could discover—it's like I didn't believe in the power, really, of the narrative or the image. I actually believed more in the dissolution of the power of narrative and image. Like, to take it apart—or repression, actually, seemed more interesting to me than expression.

MS. YABLONSKY: Ah.

MR. BLECKNER: It's almost what was underneath the surface. How things bubbled up and percolated and, you know, manifested themselves in different ways. So I felt like, literally, that percolating translated for me into a chemistry. I always thought if I was going to discover anything about painting that could be new—because remember, you know, I went to Cal Arts, it was a very post—it was just very conceptual kind of ideologically conceptual, anti-painting atmosphere that I was always trying to deal with. And I just felt like, if I could just come up with some concoction, some literal chemical concoction, like a scientist does.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Like, do this experiment, let it mutate a hundred times, and out of that constant brew of chemistry, maybe some little, new thing— new life will pop up. So I always started playing around with, like, breaking down the chemistry of painting and trying to make it myself in different ways—some which were kind of correct, some which were incorrect in terms of, you know, conservation. But almost, like, boiling it and blending it and mixing it, and finding pigments to put in it, and hoping that I can make the same old thing new again. Just by a chemical mutation. Like, just pray for the right mutation.

MS. YABLONSKY: I would say part of—one part of your—the studio I saw yesterday was part-kitchen. There were a lot of pots and pans for mixing paint, I mean, making paint there.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, there's a lot of pots and pans—

MS. YABLONSKY: You were like the mad scientist, but with a kitchen.

MR. BLECKNER: You'll notice that there's none here.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, I did notice that.

MR. BLECKNER: I can't deal with pots and pans once I leave my studio. I always say, I've cooked enough today. I'm cooked out. You know, the heating, the straining, the cleaning, the mixing, the oils, the looking, the research for material.

MS. YABLONSKY: Anyway, you came up with—

MR. BLECKNER: So anyway, I felt like I had to go almost back to the Old Masters to paint those paintings. I had to figure out how they express this kind of aspirational—this kind of—like, the artists I always loved. Also, I didn't want to give up. You know, how could I make my work have this kind of political resonance, but I'm still a painter. Maybe I just should try to learn how to paint better. You know, so I studied all the formulas—of Greco and Titian and Goya—to try and make these paintings kind of almost—the imagery and the idea of not being able to identify our time as modern any more, the rupture of modernity which abstraction represented—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —to me had to do with a little bit like medieval imagery—like the Dark Ages, like the Plague.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: Those artists somehow represented their fear of all the things that could happen that they had no control over. Because they had no medicine then. And I began to think—and I still think, actually—that all the ideology around the discourse—the critical discourse around art is all so silly, when all of this stuff in real world is going on. I mean, if you read David Foster Wallace—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: -you know, it's like, he gets back into the sticky humanity of not being ironic. It was actually important for me not to be ironic, you know. It's kind of—it doesn't mean anything to most people, but it meant something to me. And actually, it still does, you know, it's kind of like—you know, it's like, "Let everyone else be ironic. I'll not be ironic."

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, it was certainly kind of the defining characteristic of '80s art.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And I just felt like it's just not the time. It's the time for—it's almost like, "Why did these people call this a post-modern time?"

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Who said it's post-modern? You know what? We're not even modern. We're actually living in a Dark Ages. In 300 years—or 500 years now—people are going to look back, and they're going to say, "Are you kidding? They put themselves—they gave themselves poison to cure themselves of a thing called cancer?" Chemotherapy is going to look like a leech stuck on your skin. They're gonna think—when I walk around the streets of New York, and I hear the nerve-wracking noise, people are going to think like when we thought, "All those people in the Victorian Age lived with all that horse manure on the street, How could they have done it without sanitation?" People are going to look at us and think, "They lived in those polluted cities with streets, with these spewing machines that basically shortened their lives by fifty years, and that's what they called modern life?" You know, so all of this kind of came very much into focus, and the kind of—the only thing that was ironic to me was the irony of calling it post-modern, when we haven't even come up to modernity, really. You know, if you think of women's rights and gay rights, and all of the things that might represent something. And medical, I mean, it's just, it's so—our modern life is so infantile now. It's just starting. You know, the nano-technology.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: You know, the kind of—the gene-splicing. The ability to eliminate the things that have been scrooges all throughout human history, might be 300, 200, 500 years away. But religion won't stop them, because they'll happen. You know, religion is always the thing that tries to stop things.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: But anyway, so, therefore I kind of wanted to make paintings that were Old Master-ish, that were emotional, and that had subject matter that kind of had to do with my confusion about these issues, and being gay.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, you've given me the kind of theoretical and philosophical framework of this work. What about the actual technique of painting them?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it depends on which paintings. I mean, I'm also—you know, the compartment now that talks, you know, the places in your mind that have the constant conversation? The compartment in my mind says, you know, "I really just want to be a painter." I started out that way. I'm surprised it's stayed that way. I had no real—I found this identity through this chemistry.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: So the way I did it depends on the ideas of what paintings. I look around, I mean, sometimes I just use straight paint out of a tube, and make it oily and smush it around so that it's fuzzy and kind of foggy and out of focus. These particular paintings were very layered with—

MS. YABLONSKY: Which?

MR. BLECKNER: These paintings from the middle '80s. Very layered with under-painting and under-painting.

MS. YABLONSKY: And these paintings have flowers and other imagery.

MR. BLECKNER: Dots, flowers—

MS. YABLONSKY: Streaks of light.

MR. BLECKNER: Streaks of light.

MS. YABLONSKY: Dots of light.

MR. BLECKNER: Things coming apart, things—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —coming together. You know, I've always thought of the different layers in a painting kind of like a body.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Like, there's things that happen underneath the skin.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: There's things that emerge from the skin. There are things that are on the skin. And then there's a kind of a dressing, which is the accoutrement. So I kind of—you know, there are these things under the painting that are covered up.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is a chilling title, somehow—Deathlessness—from 1987. I mean, that's deathless in lifelike—they somehow carry two entirely different emotional meanings.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, they do.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: But then, you know, you want to keep things open. Because in my mind, that's, I mean, you know, I mean, I'm sure you and anybody, when you think about it, you think in two completely different ways. You know, a lot of my thinking, you know, comes up—I come up with a thought or an idea for a painting, and then right away I'll do the painting. But then I'll say, but on the other hand—and I'll want to think of another kind of painting that kind of contradicts the work I'm doing. So, like, a lot of times if I feel like I'm getting too flowery, I suddenly want to contract. So it's the expansion and contraction, you know. It's also like the chemical flow, like, kind of like water, ice, steam—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —liquid. You know.

MS. YABLONSKY: But were you torching the canvas?

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: In the '80s? The way you showed me yesterday?

MR. BLECKNER: I was. I started out by kind of painting it and scraping lines or grids, and then kind of torching it, like—you could see where there's openings—like, here, for instance.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: It's an opening, it's like trying to make openings to look back into the making. You know, I was always kind of like—

MS. YABLONSKY: It looks a little like you scraped it, but you didn't. You torched it.

MR. BLECKNER: I didn't, I torched it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: There's scraping and torching. Torching—I just wanted to—and it had to do with kind of making the image, and ruining the image too.

MS. YABLONSKY: What about this? The Gate from 1985, which looks almost Baroque, compared to some of your other work. Or Victorian, like a Victorian garden. I mean, it's a gate to a garden, but it has these—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it is. It is a gate, and then you'll see—

MS. YABLONSKY: Heaven's gate.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's kind of what it is. And I did another painting called Gate, which is the opposite.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is one of your striped paintings.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, with a gate on it.

MS. YABLONSKY: With a gate too.

MR. BLECKNER: So I just wanted—

MS. YABLONSKY: So this is like an iron gate.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: This is a very interesting painting.

MR. BLECKNER: It's painted so differently.

MS. YABLONSKY: So differently.

MR. BLECKNER: So differently. And that's the idea, that, you know, I used—

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean, this is flat. It doesn't have the same—well, it has the sense of depth, I take that back. Between the bars.

MR. BLECKNER: And then the striped paintings kind of started relating to the representational paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —in the mid-'80s too. You can see by that title.

MS. YABLONSKY: Reef, 1986. Which is much more colorful, brighter colors, striped.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes.

MS. YABLONSKY: But there's a lot of spots of colored light underneath.

MR. BLECKNER: And this one is one that I really liked.

MS. YABLONSKY: Circle Of Us. Why? I mean, what's that particular—

MR. BLECKNER: It has to do with coming and going in and out of existence.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: It's the circle of people—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —connected. And gay—it was the circle of us, and then I was actually thinking about the circle of us gay men.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: And women.

MS. YABLONSKY: And so there's—just, there are these—

MR. BLECKNER: a tree.

MS. YABLONSKY: Vertical bars. There's an image of a tree behind them.

MR. BLECKNER: Behind them.

MS. YABLONSKY: And hummingbirds very clearly on the tree, and kind of bleeding—

MR. BLECKNER: Spots.

MS. YABLONSKY: —spots of colored light—

MR. BLECKNER: Light.

MS. YABLONSKY: —that come in and out between the bars. They're almost like a bamboo fence. Yeah, it's beautiful. How large is this painting? 72 x 108 inches. It's pretty big. So when did you bring the hummingbirds—or these birds—into your image vocabulary? You're very well-known for those paintings, with the birds. Did they come later? Like, the painting you showed me yesterday that's going to the Dallas Museum of Art.

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: When did you start doing those?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't remember exactly when they—they kind of flew in.

MS. YABLONSKY: What about this one that you made for your—in regard to your sister Flora, In the Future? Was this a torched canvas?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: No. So that was 1983.

MR. BLECKNER: But you can see that there were all kinds of arrows—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —underneath the painting, kind of directing up and down, like wondering which way it's going to go, the kind of landscape, and the world—

MS. YABLONSKY: It is a—I mean it looks like moonlight on water and this is like Casper David Friedrich, just the light.

MR. BLECKNER: It is. I mean that's what it is. I mean it also, you know, I've looked at the same artists my whole career.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: I've never not painted a flower from an actual flower. I've only, only painted a flower from the same picture that I hold in my hand from 1985, when I first started doing them, till now.

MS. YABLONSKY: You mean from a reproduction?

MR. BLECKNER: It's the same reproduction.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which is?

MR. BLECKNER: A Manet.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, of course. Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Glass Flowers. That's his last painting, Glass Flowers. I just, I need to hold it in my hand. I don't really have that much of a good imagination. I really don't know how to draw very well. But if I hold something in my hand, I could kind of get in the area.

MS. YABLONSKY: I understand that. I have a Manet flower painting on my computer that I just love, that he painted at the very end of his life. I don't know what it's called. It's a white flower.

MR. BLECKNER: I just love the way the paint sits.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: The way—there's a physicalness and a beauty and a—a longing and the feeling of loss, and you know—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —it's like a—it's silly, but how can a little piece of paint—and this is a big question that most people think is already answered, and the answer would be no, it can't.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: But how can a little piece of paint carry some weight, emotional resonance? I mean, it seems silly on the face of it. But, you know, if you put it together in the right way, anything can. So that's my answer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] What do you—

MR. BLECKNER: So, to go back to your question about the techniques—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: —depending on the period and the techniques, I've gone from very simple geometric techniques right out of, you know, the tube very complicated, you know, formulas that I write down like a scientist. But then I forget, like, the next day and I have to, you know, basically it has to do with what period of work I'm at. Or, you know, where I am and what the idea for the painting is, and I do the research, and I try and hopefully paint different bodies of work that are different from each other.

MS. YABLONSKY: What do you mean research?

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: What do you mean you do the research?

MR. BLECKNER: Well to try to figure out the paint—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: The actual paint, the imagery, like—

MS. YABLONSKY: Do you make drawings? Or I saw a number of small studies in oil.

MR. BLECKNER: I do studies, I do—I don't really do drawings. But I look—I kind of try to find imagery that I like, usually from magazines and papers—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —like, you know, these paintings are—oh, here you can see. These are burnt.

MS. YABLONSKY: These paintings from the '90s, which are really of cells.

MR. BLECKNER: This is clinical—this is a painting called Clinical Trials.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. This is a really different aspect of living in the era of the AIDS crisis.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and then you can see where it came from.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's—oh, that's like a medical illustration?

MR. BLECKNER: Of a T-cell.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Getting infected.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. Oh, God.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, to me, that obviously was a mesmerizing image.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Wow. So from that came this painting, Internal Medicine, '91?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which is almost like a misshapen honeycomb—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —of cells?

MR. BLECKNER: Of cells, and dividing and proliferating.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. That are simultaneously kind of beautiful and peculiar and bewildering.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's—that to me is the real, the kind of intersection between us being people with consciousness and awareness, and us being vectors for virus. That always has fascinated me. And that our skin is very fragile and protects us.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: And we're basically one thin cell membrane away from destruction.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow. Yes. That's scary.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it's scary but you don't think about it. But it is—I mean, you know, we support colonies of bacteria and virus—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —and keep them in check and it's a checks and balance system. And that's the kind of scientific side of my work that I just find fascinating. It's, like, even—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —you know, when my father, you know, when my father showed me, you know, when he had cancer, and he showed me, you know, people get very concerned with their sickness.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, it's very consuming.

MR. BLECKNER: And they research it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean all the pictures of his particular cancer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which was what? What kind of cancer did he have?

MR. BLECKNER: Prostate.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: I said, "Oh, they're beautiful." And he was, like, "Are you crazy?" He showed me all these beautiful pictures. I said, "Well, Dad, you have to realize it's scary, but they're beautiful." And what's so interesting— and then I did a whole group of paintings called Overexpression, which had to do with dividing cancer cells. And that's when I did all these kind of cells, and molecules. They're not in this book. They're in another book.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right, but they seem to have been made by a different technique entirely.

MR. BLECKNER: Completely different.

MS. YABLONSKY: They're much more opaque. These are translucent.

MR. BLECKNER: No, I learned a whole different way to do them. I did them with air.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right, with an air gun.

MR. BLECKNER: With air. Yeah. I was really interested in just blowing the pigment and the paint to create these pools of cells that blob onto each other and connect and disconnect, and mutate.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I kind of wanted them to be that organic process, you know. There's something that I put—actually, I'll show you, I'll read to you, which kind of always—I read it during the AIDS crisis. It was in a magazine. But it—

MS. YABLONSKY: Is it in this? Oh no, this is the New York Times [book].

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. But it stuck with me. "It's the perfect seducer. It's patient. It's versatile. Endlessly changing and regrouping. And if acquiring it were not so deadly, we would probably call it brilliant." And it's true when you think of all those things, you know?

MS. YABLONSKY: Now, was that talking about the HIV?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: And who wrote that?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't know.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, you don't know?

MR. BLECKNER: It was just in a kind of gay magazine.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: It's on my Instagram.

MS. YABLONSKY: But did you—this looks like somebody—a painting or a poster or something or some graphic. That's the way it appeared in the magazine, like that? Like—

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, like on a page.

MS. YABLONSKY: On clouds?

MR. BLECKNER: It was like, you know, a magazine like Adbusters, you know that magazine?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: My favorite magazine.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] This painting, The Seventh Examined Life, from 1990—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, you could see whether it's burned. The images—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I'm looking at the imagery. I mean, it does seem to have a celestial aspect. It's got some of your birds in it and has a—what looks like the Star of Bethlehem at the top.

MR. BLECKNER: Like a chandelier.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: But underneath, I mean, this almost looks like an airport seen from above.

MR. BLECKNER: It is.

MS. YABLONSKY: I mean, what you see a plane coming in—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, they're very layered. They're perspectival—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —they're about space. Some of my paintings, when I do paintings that are really about the flatness of space, and I want to do things that, you know, like going back to my early work that kind of have different planes and different things going on, on different levels. Whether they're, you know, metaphorically or physically, you know, like that idea of under the painting, over the painting, behind it, in front of it. Also space in it. Now, what year are we on? Let's take a break.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, okay.

[Audio break.]

MS. YABLONSKY: I was—ah, CRIA.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, maybe you'll be living on the West Village.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, we'll see. Unlikely. Maybe Harlem. I like Harlem.

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.] It's very nice. I like it, too. I'd live there.

MS. YABLONSKY: It's beautiful. But it's also being developed. CRIA, '90s. So you become, at this point, early '90s, you have a big career. Is that a fair statement? As a painter.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, things are going well.

MS. YABLONSKY: And some influence.

MR. BLECKNER: Things are going well.

MS. YABLONSKY: And you become involved with ACRIA.

MR. BLECKNER: I was doing these paintings, called "Examined Life" paintings in the early '90s—.

MS. YABLONSKY: —Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —which kind of brought a lot of the elements from my painting from the mid '80s and even from the early '80s, the black-and-white—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —the layering, the burning, the scraping, the images and that kind of dissolution of image. You know, you could see that how the white image just becomes like white light in different parts of the painting?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. So—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, so.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you became fairly consumed, or maybe that's too strong a word, with the work you did for ACRIA? At the same time, maintaining this very disciplined, it seems to me, painting practice?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Well, yeah. The ACRIA thing took a lot of energy and a lot of time. And my main kind of job there was to basically help run the organization, which we grew from the beginning, from $100,000 a year budget to a multi-million-dollar budget, and kind of were able to fundraise through my, you know, knowing the people I knew, and expanding the board with doctors, people from publishing and media who I met. I started doing—asking artists, you know, I kind of made—I tried to make ACRIA very integral to the art world's response to the AIDS crisis—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —by asking many artists to give work. We started out by doing benefits where I would ask artists to make, like, fifty or I mean, I remember, I think the first one, I forget exactly when it was. We actually did a book, I'll show you, that documented it all. You know, I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm sorry, excuse me. ACRIA book?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: What was it called?

MR. BLECKNER: Art Against—hold on one second. Let me get it.

MS. YABLONSKY: All right. I didn't know about that. Unframed: Artists Respond to AIDS. Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. So—

MS. YABLONSKY: Who published that book?

MR. BLECKNER: With a forward by Manuel Gonzales.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Who published it? Let's see. Powerhouse Books.

MS. YABLONSKY: Ah, okay.

MR. BLECKNER: So—

MS. YABLONSKY: That was published in what year?

MR. BLECKNER: This is 2002. [Reading] "Ten years documenting from 1993: a chronicle of art sales benefitting the AIDS Community Research Initiative."

MS. YABLONSKY: I see. So they started in, I mean, though the—when did it start? 1997? The benefits?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. No, 1993.

MS. YABLONSKY: 1993. And that was your idea?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. [Reading] "We would especially like to thank—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —our board president, Ross Bleckner, for his unparalleled commitment to finding a cure for AIDS. ACRIA would have unquestionably been a much different and less effective agency without his contributions of artwork and his request for donations every year from friends and colleagues within the art world."

MS. YABLONSKY: I have to say— I remember Bob Colacello brought me to one of the first benefits, if not the first. I don't remember now if it was the first or second. But maybe there was 100 people there?

MR. BLECKNER: Right. The first one—

MS. YABLONSKY: And when I went again a few years ago, it was huge. It was huge.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, well we grew it. We were very—we really worked on things like that. Between fashion and art, we really thought there was a place that we can, you know, make our home. And essentially to help raise the funds, it's a single—[continuing to read] "ACRIA to study new therapies for HIV diseases. The $1.5 million in funds generated have enabled us to examine nearly forty treatments that had the potential for improving the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people across the United States. Seven of these therapies have been approved by the FDA and have in turn made a tremendous difference in the quality care for the disease. There's no doubt today that countless individuals are healthier today."

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: So—

MS. YABLONSKY: Tell me what happened in the more recent years with this as AIDS, you know, was no longer a crisis—is still an epidemic for sure in the world, but in this country, you know, more education, now there are medications that keep it under control. People don't have to die from it, at least not immediately, the way they used to. So was it harder to raise money when it became less, you know, instead of making headlines every day?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, now, ACRIA is a very well established—

MS. YABLONSKY: And it's ACRIA, not just CRIA?

MR. BLECKNER: ACRIA, yeah. It's very well established, and, you know, part of what they do actually, they've done the biggest clinical trial and investigation of people living with HIV long-term. And the consequences of long-term HIV treatment and care.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's good—which nobody knows about, really.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, which has to do with people over the age of 50.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: People who are living longer and how they can stay healthier and a lot of what ACRIA does now is they also go into minority communities and hold, you know, like you know, do research, education and prevention clinics. So their reach is far, and they just actually expanded to San Francisco. So actually it's been growing, ACRIA.

MS. YABLONSKY: You must be awfully proud of the work you did with this organization.

MR. BLECKNER: I actually am. I feel that whatever it was that was in my studio, that was in those paintings—I mean, I know it's corny to say this— that kind of light I was looking for—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —to help me through the darkness also kind of pushed me out my door. And although I'm a studio artist, I became—my practice really became a social practice before it was called "social practice."

MS. YABLONSKY: That's so interesting.

MR. BLECKNER: But if it wasn't for the painting, I would have never had the kind of way to move forward.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, if I wasn't able to clarify myself through the articulation of images and express my own kind of emotional response to these kind of—kind of deep-seated cultural shifts. Plus, also, I always thought that there was some kind of, not fraudulence, but fakeness to the cult of celebrity that surrounds, like, certain artists that do very well. And I feel like the egotism and the—the level of discourse is always about who they are, and the projection of their persona. And you get so tired of those personas just being meta-personas, you know?

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: They're like meta-personas.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: They only are about themselves.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yep.

MR. BLECKNER: And when I started doing well in the art world, I wanted to myself to include this other world [sneezes]—

MS. YABLONSKY: Bless you.

MR. BLECKNER: —that I was also part of. And to somehow join them, and to try to leverage whatever success I had to move forward some organization that could have a concrete effect on people living with HIV and AIDS, and ACRIA really was the one for me.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: So in a way, my abstract ideas that were kind of fuzzy, and sentimental, and confused, and emotionally driven ran all the way through to something that was very articulate, and very specific, and very medical.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: So,I felt like I went the whole kind of arc, you know, from a confused identity to a kind of specific effect. And the thing actually that upset me during that time was the criticism I got from the art world.

MS. YABLONSKY: What?

MR. BLECKNER: I found that very upsetting.

MS. YABLONSKY: Criticism for being an activist?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, this was before the '90s, okay?

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, before the '90s.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, in the early '90s—

MS. YABLONSKY: You mean criticism of your art or your public persona?

MR. BLECKNER: Both. Yeah. My public persona. Heavily criticized.

MS. YABLONSKY: More so than some of your peers—

MR. BLECKNER: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MS. YABLONSKY: —like Julian [Schnabel] or Eric [Fischl]?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I mean, I was called—I mean, I remember a few things that really upset me. I mean, I mean, when I had my show at the Guggenheim, Michael Kimmelman wrote a really bad review.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I was about to bring up the show at the Guggenheim, so let's go there.

MR. BLECKNER: Michael Kimmelman wrote a really bad review—

MS. YABLONSKY: That was the '90s, though—

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: That was the '90s, not '80s.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, that's the mid-'90s.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay, but even before that, people, critics were implying that I'm a socialite, I'm more of a socialite than an artist. A party boy. And, you know, I never really like going out. I actually—

MS. YABLONSKY: I know, it's so not like who you are. But there was this idea about the Velvet Mafia, which was you and Calvin [Klein] and David Geffen—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: —and yeah, that was a negative—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. But I mean, I also think that was a kind of—

MS. YABLONSKY: —characterization.

MR. BLECKNER: —negative. First of all, it was untrue.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, it was kind of like a little bit of a media fantasy that there's this thing going on.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, we used to kid around, like, "I wish! It would be so easy." But—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. But why do you think that is? Just because—where did that—what was the root of that? Did it come from Page Six or was it something in the art world?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, for me, it started in Page Six, but then went to the art world and vice-versa. You know, it's like you get, somehow, the art world gets dismissive of anything that they don't invent themselves.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Or discover themselves. Or say themselves. Or—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —I mean, yeah. Michael Kimmelman said that I was—

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, let's start in the beginning about the—your retrospective at the Guggenheim. Who was the curator of that show?

MR. BLECKNER: The curator was the director, then, the chief curator at the Guggenheim was Lisa Dennison.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, right. I keep forgetting she was it for a long time.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So she brought the show in with—yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: She approached me. I was surprised, out of the blue.

MS. YABLONSKY: How many years before—

MR. BLECKNER: Like, 1990.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, it took five years to get that together? Did it travel?

MR. BLECKNER: It did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Where did it go after the Guggenheim?

MR. BLECKNER: It went to Europe. It went to Spain, to—

MS. YABLONSKY: To the Guggenheim? Oh no, there was no Guggenheim—

MR. BLECKNER: It wasn't open. It went to—

MS. YABLONSKY: Like the Reina Sophia?

MR. BLECKNER: No, it went to IVAM.

MS. YABLONSKY: IVAM in Valencia.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and then it went to—was it Denmark or Norway? I forgot.

MS. YABLONSKY: Scandinavia. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Scandinavia. [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, great. Okay, so this was a big moment, then for you. The opening at the—the fact of the show, actually, at the Guggenheim, which, you know, I mean it's one of the most important museums in the world. And it's an international platform, not just American, even though it's in New York. And what were you feeling? You know, this is still—you're involved with ACRIA, AIDS is still a huge fact of life and—

MR. BLECKNER: Well yeah, it's good for me. It's good for ACRIA. I'm really being able to bring things to ACRIA. You know, like, like for instance Martha Nelson, who had come forward during one of our—to underwrite some of it. She was the editor of InStyle Magazine.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right.

MR. BLECKNER: Then she became the editor-in-chief of Time? Time, Inc. But, you know, I got her on the board. All the—you know, I just used to basically look around for people to get on the board.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I understand. You made some very good choices.

MR. BLECKNER: I got Bob on the board.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. Colacello.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, I literally need to look at who's on the board.

MS. YABLONSKY: Was Donna, or Calvin, or David Geffen, were they ever on the board?

MR. BLECKNER: They all contributed, not on the board.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: Donna gave very generously.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: So did Calvin through his foundation, so did David, actually, through his foundation. Mrs. Cisneros, Beth DeWoody, Aggie Gund.

MS. YABLONSKY: They were on the board? All of these women?

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: Adam Lippes was on the board. Who else did we get on the board? Francesco Costa.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: You know what, I have to look at the board to see.

MS. YABLONSKY: It's okay. I get the picture.

MR. BLECKNER: But you know—

MS. YABLONSKY: It was a mix of art and fashion, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Very—

MR. BLECKNER: Art, fashion—

MS. YABLONSKY: A very functional mix.

MR. BLECKNER: Art, fashion, and media was our target audience.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, because we thought that was a very good combination. You know, to get the proper coverage for the treatment, for the research, and doctors, and the medical community.

MS. YABLONSKY: So, what happened? I mean, there was some controversy after Michael Kimmelman's review appeared in the New York Times.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, because he—

MS. YABLONSKY: There were a lot of people who wrote opposite, opposing opinions.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, the best thing that happened was Herbert Muschamp—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —who was a friend of mine, who was the architect critic at the New York Times, wrote a full-page rebuttal—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: To Michael Kimmelman. And he had never written about art in the New York Times before.

MS. YABLONSKY: What was Michael's chief complaint?

MR. BLECKNER: That I—

MS. YABLONSKY: Because you were this social gadfly?

MR. BLECKNER: That I was a social gadfly—

MS. YABLONSKY: —who didn't deserve a show? I don't remember

MR. BLECKNER: Something about that. And that I had exploited the AIDS epidemic for my—

MS. YABLONSKY: Personal gain?

MR. BLECKNER: For my career.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's insane.

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, I thought it was.

MS. YABLONSKY: Why would he assume that? Well, you can't speak for him.

MR. BLECKNER: I can't speak for him.

MS. YABLONSKY: But that is wild. Well, no wonder. That must have really stung.

MR. BLECKNER: It stung, because I had been working really hard—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —for a long time and, you know, yeah. It was kind of weird. You know, there's just—you know, Jerry Saltz wrote something—that if I would spend more time in my studio and not so much time at parties, maybe I'd be a better artist. You know, all these parties I organized— I fundraised like crazy. You know? So, sure, it's like every time I went out, I guess there was a picture of me somewhere. You know, because I was the face of ACRIA—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —for, like, 15 years, almost.

MS. YABLONSKY: You also appeared with a speaking role in a movie. In a Hollywood production, As Good As It Gets.

MR. BLECKNER: I did.

MS. YABLONSKY: That seems, like, so unlike you. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Well, what happened was—

MS. YABLONSKY: But you were good. You weren't playing yourself, or were you?

MR. BLECKNER: No—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —I played a lawyer. I mean, that was just a kind of coincidence. Through my friends in Hollywood, I happened to meet James Brooks.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] The director.

MR. BLECKNER: The director. Who also had bought a painting of mine somewhere along the line.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: So, he knew me. He knew who I was. And we met personally. And he actually asked me if Greg Kinnear could come to my studio just to get the vibe of being in an artist's studio for a few days.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see, that's how it started?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And then James was with him—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —in my studio. And James thought that I was so authentically New York and the movie was, like, about an artist, and New York, that he just asked me would I be in the movie. So I said sure. [Laughs.] I thought it was fun.

MS. YABLONSKY: When was that? Was that in the 2000s, or still in the '90s?

MR. BLECKNER: I don't remember.

MS. YABLONSKY: I can't remember. Anyway, alright, so Michael writes this stinging review and then Herbert Muschamp—

MR. BLECKNER: Wrote a rebuttal.

MS. YABLONSKY: —rebuts it. I also remember reading letters to the editor, which, you know, there weren't that many letters to the editor related to contemporary art, so that was unusual. There was a lot written.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: But what do people think? That a museum like the Guggenheim wouldn't know what it's doing when they pick an artist for a retrospective?

MR. BLECKNER: What do you mean?

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, it's like Jerry Saltz saying you'd be a better painter. Well, you were good enough for the Guggenheim.

MR. BLECKNER: Right. I mean, yeah, better than who, what?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, exactly.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, yeah. Of course. I mean, I'm—depending on what kind of work you're doing, you know, do I paint a figure like John Currin? No. Was my work—did my work have a particular relevance at the time that I had a show at the Guggenheim? Obviously, and clearly, yes. And hopefully it still does, by the way.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: That's another issue. So, yeah. The reviews were mixed, obviously. But I imagine they're always mixed in a big show—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: —that some people think you deserve, some people think you don't deserve. Some people are championing other artists and they think they deserve it way ahead of you.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, that's true, there's always this carping and jealousy.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, you know, I would expect that, you know.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you could weather this storm easily?

MR. BLECKNER: No. I weathered—that stung a little, that particular Michael Kimmelman thing.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: The idea that I was exploiting something that I was a part of.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Did he ever write a review of any of your subsequent shows?

MR. BLECKNER: No. Well, then he became the architecture critic soon after. Not too far after.

MS. YABLONSKY: No, he was well, maybe.

MR. BLECKNER: Way after?

MS. YABLONSKY: It seems—that was '95. I don't think that happened until 10 years later.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, it's like funny. When you have a show at a museum like that, it's like, I don't remember anything about it. I mean, I kind of remember the opening. It's all so—you—I think it's so overstimulating that your mind shuts it out to some extent.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I've spoken to other people who've had big shows at major museums in New York, particularly where your home is anyway.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: I can remember other shows in other places perfectly well. But here, I blanked out on most of it.

MS. YABLONSKY: How old were you in '95?

MR. BLECKNER: I was 45.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, there is this—I don't want to call it—wel,l there's an idea, there's always some talk about mid-career retrospectives, how they can—that there's nowhere to go but down after that. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: I know. But you know—

MS. YABLONSKY: —how they interrupt a career rather than carry it forward.

MR. BLECKNER: I agree. And I worked really hard to get around that. I changed my work.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. Yes, you did.

MR. BLECKNER: I did really new work.

MS. YABLONSKY: How did you change your work?

MR. BLECKNER: After that retrospective, I looked it over. I thought, you know, some of the criticism, I take to heart as well. There are some things that, you know, nobody could write criticism that's as damning as the artist thinks about their own work, anyway. I mean, nobody could out-criticize me when it comes to criticism of my work.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: So, yeah, there were some things that I took to heart, like I wanted maybe to loosen up a little, a little more. I thought that kind of a little more color, or a little less morbidity, in a way.

MS. YABLONSKY: Morbidity, yes, I understand.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So you were moving away from using any black-and-white?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, so I kind of started doing more these kind of puffy, colorful, blobby paintings, which I enjoyed making and which I thought were, you know, beautiful and interesting. But they were only interesting to me in the sense that I wanted— after I did them, I kind of peeled them back and started doing them under a microscope. And then I started doing all these kind of microscopic paintings, which were totally different, a whole new body—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, you don't mean microscopic paintings. You mean you—

MR. BLECKNER: Paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: The subject matter, not that the paintings themselves were tiny.

MR. BLECKNER: The subject matter, yeah. Of cells, of plants, and people under electron microscope. You know, different mutations, and different diseases, and different molecules, and the formation of DNA, and the breaking apart—it's called over-expression, you know? Which I like. I like the idea that an artist could be, like, telling too much. And could, you know, there's repression, there's expression. And actually in medicine, overexpression, which just means when a cell overexpresses itself it mutates, you know, into cancer.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Which I always thought—you know, all that kind of—I kind of rejected all that kind of bravado and, you know, machismo of a lot of painting.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, my painting is the painting of a gay artist.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I—

MR. BLECKNER: Even though I don't necessarily think of myself as a gay painter. So, you know, figure that one out!

MS. YABLONSKY: But those paintings, I mean, some of these I can sort of get that sensibility. But those cellular declensions, let's call them, they don't necessarily—they aren't gender—or sexual preference-specific.

MR. BLECKNER: No, it's not sexual. It's—I don't think a straight artist would do the body of work that I've done, that's all.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: It has to do with the fragility of identity. And that kind of fluidity of ideas. I think that I'm much more open even to kinds of sentiment—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —that I don't really see, you know?

MS. YABLONSKY: You also did this series—it's so brilliant in the book, in the other book—Our Lives in the New York Times—which are the page three, basically, of the New York Times.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which has an international news story always next to a Tiffany's ad. And the juxtaposition is sometimes, you know, throat-grabbing. I mean, it is so awful.

MR. BLECKNER: I know. I just noticed that over the years, and I had been doing it for years.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: And I started it actually. And I love photojournalism. And there's always actually beautiful photographs.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Really great photojournalistic disasters on page three. That's where the main international photograph of the day usually is. And obviously, Tiffany always has the top upper right corner—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —on page three. When you put them together and you see that you're reading the paper and this is the news, it's like all the news is contained right in that juxtaposition.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: The luxury, the tragedy, the poverty, the wealth, the disaster, the beauty. It's like—it really popped out at me—popped out to me. That famous photograph of a vulture hovering—this is a—

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I saw that picture. It's heartbreaking, God.

MR. BLECKNER: —hovering over a starving child. Literally waiting for this little child in Africa to die. And the Tiffany is this $10,000 elephant, which could basically be in the same landscape—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: —facing the child as well. So you have the vulture, the elephant, and the child, you know? And I just couldn't believe it. I actually thought it's, like, a goof. Whoever put this together is very subversive.

MS. YABLONSKY: I often think that about the photo editor at the Times, because the things they choose to put on the front page next to what—it's very telling.

MR. BLECKNER: That's what I always thought.

MS. YABLONSKY: But you're right about that page. That was particularly striking.

MR. BLECKNER: That was very—he won the Pulitzer Prize for that photograph, and he ended up committing—

MS. YABLONSKY: Who was the—

MR. BLECKNER: The photographer, I forget his name. And he ended up committing suicide.

MS. YABLONSKY: Seen too much that he couldn't bear, probably.

MR. BLECKNER: Huh?

MS. YABLONSKY: He's seen too much of the unbearable.

MR. BLECKNER: Too much. It's unbearable. I mean—

MS. YABLONSKY: I have a friend who's a photojournalist now, who's a conflict zone photographer. And he's—I mean, I've worked with him, because he couldn't stand it anymore. He wanted to do an art story. He'd never done any art stories. He wanted to do a fashion—he was a fashion photographer before he was a war photographer. But he couldn't live with what he'd seen. He's still having trouble.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, there's no reason why a photojournalist wouldn't get post-traumatic stress as well. They see the sights, they hear the noise. I mean, that's what does it.

MS. YABLONSKY: And their lives are threatened in the same way.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. I could understand them coming back with that.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah. So what do—now, the reason I'm mentioning this— when Richard Prince, not a gay artist, did those Tiffany paintings, it seemed like he was cribbing from you.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, those were just painting—.

MS. YABLONSKY: This was, like, ten years later.

MR. BLECKNER: I know, but those were just Tiffany paintings about Tiffany. Mine were not about Tiffany. Mine were about the juxtaposition of our lives.

MS. YABLONSKY: Right. But he used the same ads. I mean, not the exact same ads, but—

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, he used the Tiffany ads, sure. Maybe he saw—

MS. YABLONSKY: He used the newspaper page, but without the—

MR. BLECKNER: —without the photojournalist—

MS. YABLONSKY: The meaningful photographs.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, which I thought weren't that interesting. It's almost like—what's so interesting to me about so many artists—and what I actually don't quite understand—is why artists who celebrate pop culture and who are considered the people, or the artists, who most represent this American moment would be so popular. This American moment is not interesting. This—the level of discourse at this American moment is so debased that you get reality television, you get Fox News, you get the polarization of the right and the left—equals Donald Trump.

So tell me what is so interesting about American pop culture now. And why do people fetishize it and celebrate it so much through—I mean, even, you know, Jeff Koons is a really terrific artist at times. That part of his work I don't—I just—ideologically, I don't get why. Because people who run hedge funds want to see their values expressed in their art, you know?

And that goes back to it, what you said in 1982, how the audience expanded in the art world and changed things, it proliferated throughout—from then until now.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Till the art world itself is—

MS. YABLONSKY: A corporation.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it's a symptom. It's all it is.

MS. YABLONSKY: It's a corporate culture, it's not a creative culture.

MR. BLECKNER: It's a symptom of the system that it's a part of, a system which, hopefully, one day in the future another generation—clearly not ours—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —will figure out how to change. You know, I kind of want my work to emotionally relate to that future by kind of being a little pessimistic about this present. You know? Like, American pop culture doesn't interest me. Just like a lot of artists in my generation who wanted to do institutional critique called—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —wanted to—they used to say "subvert" the, you know, the kind of popular discourse from within. When all they did, really, were enabling the system to expand and incorporate them. And it helped expand the system, not contract it and change it.

MS. YABLONSKY: I think that the whole pop cultural fixation is partly due to a lack of subject matter that's bigger than the artists. And I think that great art comes with something that's both extremely personal and bigger than that artist. And it's a form of escapism. And it's totally infantilizing, so that you feel protected by this stupid stuff in our popular culture. A lot of music is regurgitated—

MR. BLECKNER: Right.

MS. YABLONSKY: —very calibrated—calculated, I mean—overproduced stuff from the past, when music was good. [Laughs.] Not that there isn't still, but there's nothing revolutionary happening in the arts.

MR. BLECKNER: No.

MS. YABLONSKY: Maybe in television, in terms of subject matter only, not in the way it's done.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, certain parts of television. But not the part I was talking about.

MS. YABLONSKY: No.

MR. BLECKNER: But anyway—

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, so, anyway—

MR. BLECKNER: I don't want to talk about individual artists because I'm being recorded.

MS. YABLONSKY: You don't have to. Yes. Anyway, so, you—but you are—I don't know if it's true of your generation, but it's certainly the one that came before you—there's a certain kind of thread of philanthropic ambition that has been—artists like Jasper Johns.

MR. BLECKNER: I think that's really important. I actually think that that was kind of outlined by some, you know, like groups of writers and artists who really thought that the changing of popular culture will come about by the artist really becoming a citizen, too.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, and I think Robert Rauschenberg—we're talking Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, gay male artists who both established foundations that supported other artists to carry on with their work—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, particularly Rauschenberg, who was doing social activist stuff.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, he also did that. And for me, he's the model—the model artist-citizen.

MR. BLECKNER: Yes, now there's this thing called Blade of Grass, which I'm actually on the board of advisers for.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, what is that?

MR. BLECKNER: Which was set up by the people who started the Rubin Museum, Don and Shelley Rubin. And they give grants to artists who are doing community participatory work, which is work that involves other people that, you know, like they just did— I have to look. I have to look online. I blank out. But, you know, we gave grants. I mean, Anne Pasternak's on the board, and—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] Who's now the director of the Brooklyn Museum.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, but she's always been very socially—social activist-oriented.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes, she has been.

MR. BLECKNER: In her tenure.

MS. YABLONSKY: And a crack fundraiser.

MR. BLECKNER: And her tenure at Creative Time.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. But it just seemed—I mean, there has been this philanthropic thread, and certainly artists have gotten together in support of AIDS—various AIDS organizations and—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, certainly there's always been—one second. I want to get one thing.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, what is this that you're looking for?

MR. BLECKNER: Just something I've read.

MS. YABLONSKY: What is this?

MR. BLECKNER: It's just—I've been—you know I write sometimes stuff. And I was writing about—when I was saying post-ironic?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I was saying post-ironic artists, even writers like Dave Eggers—

MS. YABLONSKY: Eggers, yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: [Reading] "Eggers, David Foster Wallace, have tried to craft, in its place, a relatively open ethos that includes philanthropy and the act of construction of alternative institutional structures, like publishing houses, collective art spaces, tutoring and charitable foundations." That's all. I just wanted to—

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, there doesn't—it seemed like in the '90s, that disappeared—that impulse or that desire to do something for your world that wasn't about you. And very few artists who had huge successes in the '90s seem to have established foundations.

MR. BLECKNER: Like who?

MS. YABLONSKY: Jeff Koons is an exception, because he has this foundation. But did Damien Hirst establish a charity? Did John Currin establish a charity? Did Richard Prince? Well, he's an '80s artist, but, I mean—

MR. BLECKNER: He's a '90s artist, actually.

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, he started in the '70s. He's your generation—

MR. BLECKNER: He's my age, same age. But he was—

MS. YABLONSKY: He became a force later.

MR. BLECKNER: He became a force recently.

MS. YABLONSKY: But he was making art. I mean, his success came later. That's true.

MR. BLECKNER: I mean, to me, it's funny straight-man art is what it is.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, so that's why I brought this up, because you were saying you made work that you don't think—that only gay man would make. So maybe it's true. You also have this other impulse, it seems, to run also among gay male artists of this philanthropy. Other artists give very generously to other charities, but they haven't established them except, like Robert Mapplethorpe did before he died, But that was part of his estate. Or Andy Warhol. So that's different.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: That's, like, your legacy rather than what you do in your lifetime.

MR. BLECKNER: Right, I mean I feel like Rauschenberg was always, you know—I mean, a lot of this actually started when we started this conversation, when I went to NYU, the Workers' Coalition ,and the political activism of, you know, people—some of the minimal artists, [Robert] Smithson and [Carl] Andre—oh, Andre.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, he was very political. Just like, anti-war. Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] That—when you carried that—so you were the ACRIA board president till 2014. When did you become this United Nations—what was it called? Cultural ambassador?

MR. BLECKNER: Good Will.

MS. YABLONSKY: Good Will. That was amazing. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: That was.

MS. YABLONSKY: When was that? 2000s, right?

MR. BLECKNER: That was—no. That was seven years ago, so what is that? It was my 60th birthday.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, I remember that. So seven years ago? So that was 2009?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: So how did that come about?

MR. BLECKNER: 2010!

MS. YABLONSKY: 2010.

MR. BLECKNER: Six—seven, did I say seven?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: My 60th birthday—I'm 67. Yeah. It was the day of my 60th birthday that they had—that I organized the event at the UN.

MS. YABLONSKY: But the commitment was for a year? How long?

MR. BLECKNER: The commitment was ongoing.

MS. YABLONSKY: You're still doing it?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I didn't realize. So what does it involve?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it involves working with the people at the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, because that's the office, and the undersecretary, who I met—

MS. YABLONSKY: Michel Sidibé.

MR. BLECKNER: No, his name—

MS. YABLONSKY: Isn't he the undersecretary of the UN?

MR. BLECKNER: There's like seven of them.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, I see.

MR. BLECKNER: The different, you know—different areas they cover. Blanking on his name. I'd have to look at one of my little books to remember all the right names.

MS. YABLONSKY: All right. So what—how did it start and what is involved in the—in your being—

MR. BLECKNER: Well, strangely enough I had a show at Mary Boone, and after I was doing the cell paintings, I think. Then I forget what I did. Let me look at my book.

MS. YABLONSKY: In the '90s—

MR. BLECKNER: Let me look in my book. One minute.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: Ah, forgetfulness.

MS. YABLONSKY: You have a willful forgetfulness?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. So I could go in. It's like a zen thing, to try to keep my mind, you know—to try to want to do something new.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. God, that looks beautiful. What is this—when is this from?

MR. BLECKNER: This is 2003, these paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: These are cell paintings? They look different.

MR. BLECKNER: Blood cells.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, so that accounts for their bright color.

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, and then I did—

MS. YABLONSKY: They're turning into flowers.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, they did turn into flowers.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. Talk about mutations.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, that's what happens.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or transformation, I guess.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. So anyway, they turned these paintings were—I started—when did George Bush become president?

MS. YABLONSKY: 2000.

MR. BLECKNER: His second term was?

MS. YABLONSKY: 2004.

MR. BLECKNER: Okay, so I started doing meditation paintings...

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm sorry, not 2000. That's Clinton.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, it's later. I thought so.

MS. YABLONSKY: 2008?

MR. BLECKNER: Eight years ago.

MS. YABLONSKY: Eight? 2008.

MR. BLECKNER: No way. That's eight—before Obama. Obama's the president eight years. So it's eight years.

MS. YABLONSKY: 2008. Just figure—

MR. BLECKNER: 2008.

MS. YABLONSKY: Sent us crashing into a recession.

MR. BLECKNER: I got really upset. I just thought, like what we were just talking about—the dumbness, the dumbing down. The—everything just seemed wrong. And I kind of started taking Buddhism more seriously then.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see. You mentioned that. But I thought you said you picked that up in—around the beginning of the 2000s. Earlier.

MR. BLECKNER: I did. But I started taking it more seriously.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh. Okay, I understand.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, and I wanted to bring it into my work, this kind of Tree of Life. I wanted to—like, this is like looking down at all this kind of interconnected—

MS. YABLONSKY: Which painting is that?

MR. BLECKNER: They're called meditation paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, and it looks like—yes, you're looking down into leaves.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. Kind of circulating—

MS. YABLONSKY: A canopy of leaves.

MR. BLECKNER: —circulating around, floating and coming and going and just the interconnectedness of, you know, life and nature and things. I just kind of withdrew. You know? I didn't know—

MS. YABLONSKY: But they're very irradiated.

MR. BLECKNER: Huh? Yeah, they are.

MS. YABLONSKY: Color-wise.

MR. BLECKNER: They are.

MS. YABLONSKY: Like they're something either wrong or supernatural about them.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, but I also like to keep in the kind of optical element to keep—you know? Give them a little sense of life and movement, because, I mean if you notice, like each one is painted four or five times and like a trace. So it's like shadow images, you know? And shadows and then finally it makes itself there at some point, kind of connected and disconnected?

The reason I'm—what was your question?

MS. YABLONSKY: About how you became the good will ambassador at the United Nations.

MR. BLECKNER: Oh.

MS. YABLONSKY: To Africa in particular, right?

MR. BLECKNER: Right. So a friend of mine, who was a human rights lawyer, who I had met through friends, through ACRIA, named Michael Kennedy, who died recently of cancer. But he'd been around forever. He defended the Chicago Seven.

MS. YABLONSKY: I know—and he has that house in Sagaponack.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, right.

MS. YABLONSKY: The famous house.

MR. BLECKNER: The famous house.

MS. YABLONSKY: I don't know why it's—it's just by itself in a way that stands out.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, because it's iconic. It's iconic. It's right stuck out there. It's the perfect old authentic shingle house, not one of these fake things.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, but he was a very important lawyer, it's true.

MR. BLECKNER: Wonderful, wonderful man. I mean, he defended people, you know, who no one would defend—terrorists and drug people who were convicted of minor drug infractions, he would defend for free. I mean, he defended the people who own High Times magazine. And when they couldn't pay him—a long time ago, when it was worth nothing—so they gave him High Times magazine. So he owns it.

MS. YABLONSKY: I didn't know that. [Laughs.] That's funny.

MR. BLECKNER: Anyway, he knew the Undersecretary and he took him to see my paintings.

MS. YABLONSKY: I see.

MR. BLECKNER: And then the Undersecretary of the UN had this idea, and he called me and he said, "Would you ever think of working with us to help philanthropically?"—because he had known my work with ACRIA and AIDS— "To work with children, to rehabilitate children who have been kidnapped and made into, you know—

MS. YABLONSKY: Soldiers.

MR. BLECKNER: Soldiers. Kidnapped child soldiers by this kind of rogue maniac wandering around Sudan and Northern Uganda named Joseph Kony.

MS. YABLONSKY: What—Kony?

MR. BLECKNER: Joseph Kony. K-O-N-Y. And he had something called the Lord's Liberation Army. But basically he's just a drug dealer who kidnaps kids, turns them into drug addicts, brainwashes them, uses the girls to turn into wives and sex slaves.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, god.

MR. BLECKNER: And then a lot of them escaped and they are in—they were interned in internal displacement camps and, you know, they're trying to kind of rehabilitate them, get them over this trauma. And he asked if I thought—you know, art can be—facilitate them expressing themselves. I thought—I said it was a great idea. I would love to do it. I would raise the money. We would go to—me and these people—would go to Africa with the UN. And then I stayed there, like, two weeks. And, you know, I was—

MS. YABLONSKY: Stayed where?

MR. BLECKNER: In Gulu, in Northern Uganda in a refugee camp. And we set up, you know, our little place to make art to get them to open up about what happened there to them. And it was very successful. The kids just loved it. And I made a book with all of the children. I took their photographs, and made a book with their art in it.

MS. YABLONSKY: What was—I remember seeing that book. The United Nations published it?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Does it have a title?

MR. BLECKNER: It's called Welcome to Gulu.

MS. YABLONSKY: How do you spell Gulu?

MR. BLECKNER: G-U-L-U. Gulu. And then what I did was I had organized a big event when I came back here. And I had a show of all the drawings in the United Nations, at the United Nations. You know, with Ban Moon-Ki showed up and gave me the thing—

MS. YABLONSKY: The Secretary General?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. And we sold their drawings. So that—supposedly in Africa, the schools are free. But they're not really free, because the kids have to buy uniforms and books and pay the teachers, you know? Everything is very laissez-faire.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh.

MR. BLECKNER: So the kids—this was a fund to get all of these children back into school. So—

MS. YABLONSKY: Brilliant.

MR. BLECKNER: Huh?

MS. YABLONSKY: Brilliant.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, so that's what we did.

MS. YABLONSKY: Sorry about that interruption. Okay, we're fine. Okay, so this is—so have you been back to Uganda since then?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I haven't been back. But what I've done is, you know, I've worked with the people at the UN, and I've been on panels. The most recent thing I did was a panel on human trafficking. So I'm kind of like a spokesperson, a little bit.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow. This is so far beyond Five Towns. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: [Laughs.]

MS. YABLONSKY: This is amazing that you've been—I mean—

MR. BLECKNER: So I did—

MS. YABLONSKY: It's very important to be involved with your humanity—

MR. BLECKNER: So I did at the UN a special panel, which is in the conference room at the United Nations headquarters, the role of the arts in helping to end human suffering, which was award-winning author Patricia McCormick, Ruchara Gupta, founder and president of APNE AAP Woman Worldwide.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, can you spell her name? The first one was McCormick.

MR. BLECKNER: R-U-C-H-I-R-A. Gupta.

MS. YABLONSKY: R-U-C-H-A-R-A.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, and Gupta—J-U-P-T-A.

MS. YABLONSKY: J? Not a G?

MR. BLECKNER: G, G. Sorry. She's the president and founder of fighting against human trafficking, it's called Apne—A-P-N-E—Aap Woman Worldwide.

MS. YABLONSKY: Go on.

MR. BLECKNER: H.E. Sarah Mendelson, United States ambassador, Oscar-winning director Jeffrey Brown.

MS. YABLONSKY: So they come from all over the world.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, contemporary pianist Chloe Flower. Artist and UNODC Good Will ambassador Ross Bleckner.

MS. YABLONSKY: I'm sorry, who was the one right before you?

MR. BLECKNER: Pianist Chloe Flower.

MS. YABLONSKY: Flower spelled like flower?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. With special guest, award-winning actress Gillian Anderson. Do you know who that is?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. She's great. I love her.

MR. BLECKNER: She was on the panel, too, so.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: See, that's it.

MS. YABLONSKY: So this was—when was this?

MR. BLECKNER: March.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, this year.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: This just happened. Oh, wow. And what was—who was there? I mean, what was the audience for this?

MR. BLECKNER: UN, UN diplomats. It was actually interesting, the German representative to the UN, a lot of the ambassadors come.

MS. YABLONSKY: Did they ask questions?

MR. BLECKNER: They asked questions. I gave a talk. I wrote it out. I gave it.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wow, fantastic.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, about what the arts can do to help rehabilitate and how—you know, individual artists can be citizens and work on behalf of NGOs and establish philanthropic efforts and foundations, you know? And help, you know, both administratively, artistically and financially, to raise money.

MS. YABLONSKY: Do you talk about—all of these things that we've been talking about today—irony, postmodernism, modernism, medievalism, philanthropy, politics, AIDS—do you talk about this in the classes you teach? I mean, I assume they're studio classes, but—

MR. BLECKNER: They're not studio classes, because—

MS. YABLONSKY: They're not?

MR. BLECKNER: No, I've been teaching at NYU, I guess, ten years. So I'm a professor at NYU, Steinhardt School, and it's the graduate program. So the graduate program is not, per se, studio classes. They all have studios in a building on 10th Street, 2nd Avenue, the Barney Building.

MS. YABLONSKY: Barney? It's called?

MR. BLECKNER: It's called the Barney Building.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay.

MR. BLECKNER: You know, right on Stuyvesant Square, across from St. Mark's.

MS. YABLONSKY: I thought it was just Steinhardt. So, all right.

MR. BLECKNER: And, you know, we meet in a seminar room, and we talk about issues.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, so it's a seminar. It's not a painting class.

MR. BLECKNER: Well, no, because there's only—there's 20 graduate students in the program and they do what they do. Most of them are post—quote, unquote—"post-studio" artists. Some of them paint. Some of them paint part of their practice. Most of them, in my experience, are not painters. They do installation. They do performance. They do sound. They do video. They do it all.

MS. YABLONSKY: When you taught at School of Visual Arts before NYU—when did you start teaching?

MR. BLECKNER: I taught at Columbia before.

MS. YABLONSKY: First?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: Your first teaching gig was at Columbia. When did that start?

MR. BLECKNER: Sometime before NYU. That was just a visiting kind of thing for—

MS. YABLONSKY: but when did you start, you know—when were you a member of the faculty, not just artist in residence.

MR. BLECKNER: I was never a member of the faculty. I always did visiting artist things.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, and SVA as well?

MR. BLECKNER: I was a member of the faculty for, like, two years, back then.

MS. YABLONSKY: Which was—I'm just trying to get where it fits in your timeline.

MR. BLECKNER: eighty—that was '87 and '88, when Jeanne Siegel asked me to do it.

MS. YABLONSKY: All right. So how did—how do—do you involve your students in some of these philanthropic activities? Do they become assistants in your painting studio, or—

MR. BLECKNER: They do. Some of them do. But not really. I mean, because I don't need assistants in my studio, really. I have an assistant. I just have an assistant and then someone who will be part-time doing, you know, more manual stuff. And I have kind of administrative assistant who just runs my studio. But yeah, I mean, I look at their work and I go to their studios by appointment after, like, a seminar and studio visits.

MS. YABLONSKY: So they're crits.

MR. BLECKNER: They're crits. But I invite other artists to the seminar—

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: —is what I do, really. And I tell the other artists that it's not—they don't need to give a rap or a schtick about their work. Everyone's sick of that. Just answer questions and talk to the students like artists, or will-be artists, or soon-to-be artists. And it's worked out very well. The kids love it, and, you know, it's a very—New York. You don't have to travel. I only have them stay an hour. You know?

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]

MR. BLECKNER: I invite a lot of different types of artists. I mean, I invited everyone from Martha Rosler to Jordan Wolfson to Cecily Brown to Tom Sachs to Mickalene Thomas to Catherine Opie.

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, wait. Gotta catch up to you. What do you most enjoy about teaching—if you do? How does it figure into the rest of your professional life, or not?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, it does, in the sense that it's—you know, in the—in some sense, it's—you—it's hard for an artist who's been practicing and doing their work for 40-some-odd years to remain current. As a matter of fact, I don't have that much interest in remaining current.

MS. YABLONSKY: But—you mean in the market? Are you talking about the market?

MR. BLECKNER: Who's interesting, who's around, what new artists, the galleries, everything. Looking, looking. I'm not as curious as I used to be about looking, about going to openings, about going—being socially in the art world. I don't—luxury to me is kind of—I always kid around, it's like Groundhog Day, the movie.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.] Such a brilliant movie.

MR. BLECKNER: I work until I'm exhausted, you know? I exercise. I go to the gym in the morning. I go to my studio, work until I'm exhausted, come home, rest, go for dinner, watch the news and read, go to sleep. Repeat. And, you know, I did this painting with a German word—Torschlusspanik, which means—

MS. YABLONSKY: Wait, I have no idea how to spell that, you showed it to me yesterday.

MR. BLECKNER: I don't either, but it's on the painting. It just means, you know—and I'm very concerned, obviously, as you've heard and you can see about how much time we have to do the things we want to do in our life. And I don't know if I've actually proved to myself yet if I'm the artist that I feel that I could be. So I actually feel I have a lot of work to do, so I better hurry up and cut out the bullshit.

MS. YABLONSKY: What is that word—the meaning of the word you told me yesterday?

MR. BLECKNER: It means you have to get things done in your life as soon as possible because—

MS. YABLONSKY: No, but you told me it was like, panic at the gates—

MR. BLECKNER: The literal meaning is "gate-closing panic."

MS. YABLONSKY: Gate-closing panic, that's what it—okay.

MR. BLECKNER: Now, I've felt—I've always felt I had a little bit of that.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, who doesn't? [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Everybody does, right?

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah.

MR. BLECKNER: That's why I thought it was such an apt word, and beautiful, and the painting—

MS. YABLONSKY: This is one of your newer paintings. You've also been painting some architect—like the domes that you painted in the '90s?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah. But I go back—you know, my work is very elliptical. I kind of have things, then I have ideas and shoot off, because I need to fulfill the idea that's new, but I need to come back to finish the idea that I had that I didn't feel I completed yet. So it becomes very elliptical, like, you know, like I could do a dome painting and then ten years later, I think of a new way to do these dome paintings that I really wanted to do. But I had another idea that seemed more pressing to get out at the moment.

MS. YABLONSKY: But by dome paintings, we're referring to interior of domes like the Pantheon, which was the original inspiration?

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah, or mosque.

MS. YABLONSKY: Or a mosque. So not the exterior, but the interior architecture.

MR. BLECKNER: The interior. I always think of just the point where the light touches, the architecture touches the sky. That's why I call them architecture of the sky.

MS. YABLONSKY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.] How has your Pantheon—your personal Pantheon changed since you first came across the Pantheon in Rome?

MR. BLECKNER: Which Pantheon?

MS. YABLONSKY: Well, I assume you meant the Pantheon in Rome.

MR. BLECKNER: And the Hagia Sofia.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yeah, what's it's called—

MR. BLECKNER: In Istanbul.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay, those. Okay. So how has your personal conception of the Pantheon changed since you brought those two domes into your paintings?

MR. BLECKNER: Well, what's interesting for me is, again, it goes back to the idea that it's a way of like kind of looking back into the painting, you know? These holes bring in and bring through the light from underneath the making of the painting. So it's like a grid, but what I think is so interesting is just with a tiny little curve, it becomes an image. But I actually think of it as a grid, in a way, to make a painting that has this invented surface, this beautiful painterly surface with light coming through it. So that's how I see them, you know, kind of conceptually or formally.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes.

MR. BLECKNER: Yeah.

MS. YABLONSKY: What—if you could—I'll rephrase this. If you could make a personal Pantheon of figures that are meaningful to you, either artists or philosophers or spiritual leaders or political leaders, who would the—who would be on the Mount Rushmore of Ross Bleckner?

MR. BLECKNER: The Buddha, Dalai Lama, El Greco, Barnett Newman, Samuel Beckett.

MS. YABLONSKY: Oh, we haven't talked about him. [Laughs.] Go on. If—are there any others?

MR. BLECKNER: David Foster Wallace.

MS. YABLONSKY: What about Monet?

MR. BLECKNER: What?

MS. YABLONSKY: Monet? Monet.

MR. BLECKNER: Manet.

MS. YABLONSKY: Manet.

MR. BLECKNER: Manet. Manet would be on it. So would Roland Barthes. I mean, you get into philosophy, I mean—Richard Rorty.

MS. YABLONSKY: Rorty?

MR. BLECKNER: R-O-R-T-Y. Who else do I love to read? He's a kind of pragmatist American philosopher died last—there's a whole thing on him in here.

MS. YABLONSKY: In My life in the New York Times, which I haven't had a chance to read.

MR. BLECKNER: His obituary.

MS. YABLONSKY: Ah, yes.

MR. BLECKNER: I would say Michel Foucault, but I don't understand Foucault well enough to put him in there. I like reading more about him than reading him.

MS. YABLONSKY: Okay. I think there's—that's a good—that's a good number.

MR. BLECKNER: A lot of pessimists.

MS. YABLONSKY: [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: Oh, Freud for sure.

MS. YABLONSKY: Yes. [Laughs.]

MR. BLECKNER: The three people I like the most now who I think about a lot are Mike Kelley—

MS. YABLONSKY: Hmm. Why?

MR. BLECKNER: He was so, so brilliant. I mean reading him—

MS. YABLONSKY: Did you go to school with him?

MR. BLECKNER: No, after me. But I knew him. Brilliant. And I didn't really read him until after he died. David Foster Wallace, I love.

MS. YABLONSKY: You—so both of these people committed suicide.

MR. BLECKNER: I know. That's the weirdest thing. And who's the third? They also committed suicide. I forget. I'm blanking on them.

MS. YABLONSKY: I think you have a particular sympathy with people who choose to end their lives early.

MR. BLECKNER: I could understand why. Let's put it like that.

[END OF bleckn16_2of2_sd_track01_r]

[END OF INTERVIEW]

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Ross Bleckner, 2016 July 6-7. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.