Ronald Bladen

Notes on Ronald Bladen Sculpture 2012



I have wanted to write down some thoughts about my personal experiences with my late friend Ronald Bladen for a long time - to reveal the Ronald Bladen I knew, not the art gallery press release or faux art history book version of him. To reveal the person and the life of a friend unfilteredIf people's feelings are hurt here then too bad. I do have permission from Bladen himself as I shall explain. A few years after Ron had died, I was asked by my poet friend Bill Berkson to write down some observations on Rons sculpture and specifically his working methods for a retrospective that Bill was curating for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I wrote what I remembered at that time - now written some twenty-one years ago. I add to it now, but include the memory of a day in 1987 when for whatever fleeting reasons I asked Ron if there was anything about his life that he wanted hidden. He waved his hand through the air and said "No man, don't hold anything back. Tell the truth."  OK, Ron.

Ronald Bladen; X (1967), Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC


Ronald Bladen was a name I knew from my student days at Boston CollegeJust a name, but a name included in my Janson's History of Art and illustrated with a black and white photograph of his sculpture "The X" seen straddling the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. By a complete chance of fate we were to meet at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine when I was accepted as a student and he was hired as one of the resident artists. One day in early June 1981 at Skowhegan I observed Ron standing all alone in the middle of a field next to a huge boulder. He was staring straight into space. What the Hell was he doing? I walked over to him and told him that I had something important to tell him: “I hate all outdoor sculpture.” He laughed and with a big smile repliedYou know something, so do I.” I have since been told this was a very rude thing to say to a sculptor known primarily as a maker of huge, outdoor, steel sculptures. But Ron immediately knew what I meant that most public sculpture had degenerated into tame, decorative jewelry and was entirely forgettable. He also knew that even in my arrogance I did not think of his work that waySince we both did not drive (and he never did as long as I knew him and I still dont) we would take any available truck rides into the town of Skowhegan to buy the things we needed mostly cigarettes and beer. I always ended upborrowinga cigarette on the way in and he always generously offered me one of his low-tar Carltons with an embarrassed smile. (The Carltons were supposed to make him cut down on his smoking, but in fact increased it as he tried to get his nicotine fix.) The summer went by quickly and when I started graduate school that fall at Columbia University in New York, Ron re-appeared as a visiting artist therewhich was a big surprise to him as he stepped into my studio. I never expected to see him again nor he I though I was now living in New York. After lending me another cigarette Ron proceeded to talk about my painting. He specifically told me how I could make my paintings better. He was unlike other visiting artists I had already met at Columbia who had cliche answers that were meaningless. Ron told meTry making a painting with no lines."  I realized after he left my studio how dependent I was on outlining every damn thing in my paintingsHis earlier career as a painter was entirely unknown to me at that time.

Ronald Bladen; Upside Down (1956-59); Oil on canvas, 50” x 38”


After Columbia I began working odd jobs for money, mostly restaurant work in SoHo until I began work for Bill Jensen who had also been a visiting artist at Columbia. Bill and I got along immediately and he told me he just bought a building in Williamsburg. I spent the next three years working with Bill on his studio and it needed a ton of work. Now three years later the construction work was winding down and Bill suggested I try working for Ron Bladen with whom Bill had worked as an unofficial assistant for years. I figured why not since we all used to meet socially after work or after gallery openings to drink, smoke and eat at Magoos Bar just south of Canal Street (now long goneThese were still the days when most artists lived in Manhattan - Bill and fellow painter Margrit Lewczuk living on W. 14th Street near Ninth Avenue; myself right around the corner on W.16th street and Ron on 21st Street off Fifth AvenueRon I was told was working alone then and could use some help. This was around the fall of 1985.  

Ronald Bladen, Black Lightening(1981), painted aluminium



Ronald Bladen, Cathedral Evening(1969), painted aluminium

Ronald Bladen, Three Elements(1965), painted aluminium, Storm King

I began to work with Ron in his truly Albert Ryderesque studio - a fourth floor walkup at 5 West 21st Street . This was just above the third floor studio he used to share at one time with then fellow dirt-poor artists Al Held and Sam Francis in the late 1950s. (They had each worked on a separate section of wall). What a mess Ron's studio was now for a compulsive hand-washer like myself. Sawdust everywhere like sand on a beach, wood scraps galore, styrofoam coffee cups half-filled with moulding old coffee, orange Roman Meal plastic bread wrappers, empty margarine containers, empty jam jars, bags and boxes of screws and bolts, and literally hundreds of cigarette butts everywhereYou could hardly see the bent and crooked floor.

Ronald Bladen at Lippincott fabricators in July 1972 - courtesy of Lippincott Inc.


Ronald Bladen looking at his sculptures at Compass Rose Gallery in Chicago - May 1987 - MAGICIAN on right  - photo credit Larry Deyab

The first work I remember doing was sanding half-finished sculptures and lengths of 1 x 2” pine that he used in his sculpturesRon must have felt that I was careful enough and did things exactly as he asked because eventually I was allowed to do more and more work on the sculptures themselves. It was a great experience to be able to see Ron working from beginning to end on his sculptures and more amazing to find myself working side by side with an artist I had heard about before I had even left Boston. One day a week with him quickly became two days a week and finally three days a week. We began work each day at noon. When I got there Ron would be eating his usual lunch of bread, jam and margarine. This would be followed by coffee and cigarettes. He would make instant coffee for the both of us (strong as hell since he could never find a spoon in the mess around us and would always spill way too much from the jar into the two cups for us). While drinking it we would talk NY art gossip, tennis news (as a former tennis player in Canada he particularly loved Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and the Spaniard Andres Gomez) and ask what I was painting or what I had done the night before. Then we would begin to work.  “I need four 1X2’s thirty-six inches long and two 1 X 2’s fourteen inches longfor example. I would then cut and sand them. As I worked he would be arranging pieces of wood together, clamping them together with precision. Ron never used sketches, drawings or models for the sculptures we worked on. After he had clamped a sculpture together, he would mark in pencil where the holes were to be drilled. While I would be drilling he would be planning in his head his next few steps. After we had been working together awhile we were comfortable in each others presence. Ron was often very quiet and far away in his own world while I sanded and drilled away at the worktable. I never dared say anything or bother him. Usually I didnt even move or else sat down on his broken-down cat hair-covered couch if it was close to me. After he would come out of this reverie he would say that he needed this or that piece of wood, or that the structure was wrong and unscrew half the piece or bring in a whole new structural idea which would make no sense to me at all (even after a few days of work) but which later came together so perfectly that I was thankful I was a painter. Occasionally  he would say "Al, could you cut…" then stop and say "Sorry, Larry." He had worked so much in the past with Al Held in this old building saying Al became a habit.

Double Summer(1980)


We worked on the sculpture DOUBLE SUMMER all that hot summer of 1987. I particularly remember thinking after it was completed that Ron had worked on it like a painter. He had a big, powerful structure that contained so many possibilities as to how it could turn out that, as often happens to lesser artists, the possibilities could have become paralyzing. It had two heraldic aluminum shields to it and because it seemed so menacing and complex and it was the summer, we started referring to it as the "Double Summer" piece. A purely descriptive title that became its ultimate title. The structure looked like a scaffold. There were 1 x 2's zig zagging in different directions from the four corners of the top section of the piece. Then Ron simply took a large Swedish handsaw and we each took turns cutting the 1 x 2's off at the angles Ron had marked. Him the left side and me the right. Suddenly the sculpture appeared before us. The smaller wing sections he had screwed onto the sides below it now made total sense. Ron knew the sculpture was finished. I remember telling Ron it was just like painting. He had just added the last few masterful strokes. What I didn't know at the time that just beyond the wall behind us were over fifty large paintings on masonite that Ron had painted in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After Ron had died I discovered them along with some paintings by his friends Al Held and Alice Noera painted on what appeared to be bed sheets. The paintings were hidden behind a partition in the locked hallway closet just to the right of his studio door. I had recognized the Helds by their style and the Noera paintings by her small signature on the backs. The Helds were so heavy with paint they had pulled the canvas right off the stretchers and were heaped at the bottomSome of these early Bladen  paintings would be shown at the Washburn Gallery in New York and later at Rons early hometowns of San Francisco and Vancouver ( asRonald Bladen: Early and Lateat the SFMoMA and the Vancouver Art Gallery all curated by Bill Berkson).


Ronald Bladen, graphite on paper, 1970s,  courtesy Larry Deyab

In the beginning Ron he would have me cut all the aluminum he used with an old Rockwell saber saw. The aluminum was actually flashing for repairing roofs and came in big rolls as wide as twenty-four inches. Ron would sandwich the aluminum  between sheets of one-eighth plywood. Each time he would carefully measure, adjust, clamp and draw the lines to be cut, no matter how long or short the piece was. It was very time-consuming setting up each cut along the length of the work table. Eventually I suggested it would be easier if we cut the metal using a mat knife with a clamped down T-square as our guide. Ron saidshow me" and I did so. After he saw how fast and easy it could be done he allowed all the aluminum when possible to be cut this way. This mat knife method was used in FUGUE, DOUBLE SUMMER and most of the late wood and aluminum sculptures. The long piece of aluminums used in both IN 5/4 TIME and GRAND PRIX were cut using the original saber saw method since GRAND PRIX in particular needs a very long and wide piece of aluminum that can't be dented or scratched in the slightest. We had to rig two connecting tables with a supporting bridge to do it - and all this kept level to cut using his old vintage 1960 Porter-Cable saber saw. Ron then made one continuous cut with the saw braced against and guided by long piece of pine. I remember the last year we worked together before Ron became sick with what turned out to be cancer he would have me cut a large number of 1 x 2's, enough perhaps for three new sculptures. These pieces would then be assembled into small rectangles. Ron would use these as starting points for very different ideasThese rectangles later became MAGICIAN, BIRD'S SONG (CHARLIE PARKER) and BEATRICE NOW which he named for his mother Beatrice(the name of both our mothers).

Ronald Bladen, graphite on paper, 1970s,  courtesy Larry Deyab


The sculpture LION'S EYE was first exhibited in a different form than now exists and it helps illustrate Rons way of working. Originally the sculpture was totally stationary on the wall. After Ron's exhibition at Washburn Gallery ended in late 1985, he realized that he wanted it better to be able to grab the available light. So back in his studio we built a structure beneath and behind it to allow the front horizontal aluminum section to be tilted upwards to meet the light. It was his belief that light completed his sculptures. Unlike many sculptors who consider the lighting in a gallery as an afterthought, Ron thought of light from beginning to end. Theoretically all of Ron's sculptures should be able to be lit with one bare light bulb  because that was all he ever used in his studio. It always seemed to us that the fancier the gallery lights, the more trouble we had with the installation. So even the aluminum itself was sanded  by Ron to control the light. When we first started working together, Ron had been using very fine steel wool to sand the aluminum. Later he moved on to very fine sandpaper. Some of the sanding Ron did and some I did, often both of us combining on the same sculpture. I had a heavier way of sanding which Ron liked very much, in particular DOUBLE SUMMER. In other sculptures, such as BIRD SONG and BEATRICE NOW, Ron did a more delicate sanding himself. After watching Ron sand certain sculptures with a specific intent to capture the light, I said  to Ron "So, you're painting again, huh?" And Ron saidYeah." He agreed.

Ronald Bladen; Black Tower (1986) small version

During a period of the roughly three years Ron and I worked together, he competed to get two big sculpture commissions, one in Omaha, Nebraska and the other in Broward County, Florida. Both commissions were for airports and the sculptures BLACK TOWER and SEVENTH VOYAGE were the results. Ron began by making a series of rough pencil sketches on long, horizontal sheets of paper. The drawings I remember were powerfully futuristic. When I came upstairs one afternoon I saw Ron had them attached to the walls so that he, Connie Reyes his companion and personal tormentor in my opinion - and I could discuss and try to select which idea to use. All three of us had to agree on which drawing was the strongest for it to be chosenOnce chosen, Ron would figure out a schematic treatment of the drawing which could be cut out in heavy cardboard and glued together and painted black to see how the plywood model might look. Modifications would be discussed aesthetic and practical such as proper drainage of rainfall off of the sculpture. Once Ron was satisfied with everything we could begin work on the plywood model. These were made with one-quarter inch luan plywood. Ron would draw the forms out on vellum tracing paper and figure out the exact mathematical proportions he wanted, plus straighten out the lines and perfect the curves. These forms were then drawn onto the plywood and then cut. To get the exact perfect curves Ron wanted, he would build the most beautiful, elaborate, painstakingly-built templates. (They still exist somewhere.) The curve of SEVENTH VOYAGE was cut with a saber saw along one of these templates. The precise cutting, gluing and nailing of these templates was maddening. It was during the building of these templates that our puns would start flying. Ron loved puns of every sort. Punning became a finely honed skill with us. It was a way to relieve the tension after days and days of exact cutting, measuring and gluing. Now I cant remember even one of them.

BLADEN "Head" Drawing from 1980 - Pencil on papercourtesy Larry Deyab


To achieve the curve of the inner section of SEVENTH VOYAGE, Ron carefully soaked the plywood strips we cut in water to get the curve we needed without breaking the wood. After assembling the sections and carefully gluing and clamping the model together, it was sealed all along the edges with DAP compound and sanded. We both did this. Finally I would spray the model with forty or fifty separate coats of Krylon semi-flat spray paint with both of us decidedly not wearing masks and probably smoking cigarettes at the same time. Then Ron began the specification drawing that were necessary for both the fabricator and the presentation. Each section of the model about fourteen views for each piece had to be drawn. Once these were made Ron and I would trace copies from his originals that could be mailed out to fabricators and each of the selection committees. He kept his original drawings and once gave me his original schematic drawings of BLACK TOWER as a gift which I still have. I was always totally dependent on Ron. Many times I felt like a baby taking tiny, careful steps around him. I was a painter, not a sculptor and on top of that I knew nothing about carpentry. I understood two dimensions not three.

Ronald Bladen, graphite on paper, Black Tower (1986)courtesy Larry Deyab


Ron and I used to spend many hours after work talking about his early life in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s. Life among the earlyfoot soldiersas Al Held called them of the anarchists and poetry movement. Sitting down with our red wine and cigarettes, Ron spoke of his friendships with such painters, poets and dancers as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Dave Koven, Yvonne Rainer, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia and Lawrence Ferlingetti. It seemed any artist or writer I mentioned or admired, Ron personally knew like his one-time neighbor in Partington Ridge, CA, the writer and painter Henry Miller who is a particular favorite of mine. (MillersBig Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Boschwas written at this time of their lives.) So our conversations would go on and on into the night, refueled by cheap red wine and cigarettesOld gossip was remembered - Ron told me how in 1950s San Francisco during a party Kenneth Rexroth took Ron aside to accuse him of having an affair with his wife MarthaAs Ron and I both knew, she was actually having an affair with poet Robert Creeley. The fact that I already knew it was Creeley endeared me to Ron. He loved the fact that I knew so much about the Beats and art history in general. We talked about the now famous night at the Six Gallery in San Francisco when Allen Ginsberg read HOWL for the first time with Ron and Al Held in the audience. This was the early counter-culture being born. The Six Gallery was also the place where one of Ron's first painting exhibitions in America was shown. It was organized by his poet friend Robert Duncan. It was ironic that the same day Ron died in New YorkFebruary 3, 1988 all the way across the country in San Francisco Duncan died as well. Both their obituaries were in the New York Times on the same page two days later



Music was important to Ron. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday around noon I would knock on his door to start work. The inside of the door was covered with photographs of jazz musicians, especially saxophone players. Photos of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and his friend Gato Barbieri with whom Ron would play in his studio whenever Gato was in town for a concert. Eric Dolphy was one of his favorite  saxophonists and Ron talked to me about the day he had heard of his death and the sadness he felt. Ron played the saxophone himself, often recording himself on homemade tapes and performed with a group of his 1960s Park Place Gallery artist friends like Richard Van Buren, John Chamberlain and Frosty Myers. Even John Coltrane occasionally joined in as I remember. I own one of the two saxophones Ron's used and it remains in the same purple, velvet-lined case he kept it in with all his old mouthpieces, including his old Rico reeds. His radio was always tuned to only one radio station ever - WKCR - the New York jazz station. IN 5/4 TIME, FUGUE and SILVER IN C SHARP were based on music and BIRD SONG (for CHARLIE PARKER), COLTRANE and DEXTER'S DREAM (for Dexter Gordon) were made for the musicians he loved


RONALD BLADEN - Self Portrait ( dated twice on front by artist "Dec. 24, 1931) Watercolor and tempera on paper - 16 x 15" - Given to me by Ron's sister Kitty Carson

Poetry played a huge part of Ron's daily living and working. Rons love of poetry and literature was reflected in the sculptures we built together. DOMINION was his homage to poet Dylan Thomas whom he had heard reading during Rons first exploratory visit to New York in the 1940sHARMON was titled for Jim Harmon, San Francisco poet and best man at Ron's 1949 wedding to Barbara Gross in SausalitoKEROUACS ROAD was made for his friend Jack Kerouac with whom Ron used to hang out in the San Francisco railroad yards. The story Ron told me and others was that he was sitting with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as they improvised verses for PULL MY DAISY. My Boston accent made Ron laugh and remember this; he said it reminded him of the way Kerouac pronounced words.

Installing Grand Prix, photo courtesy Larry Deyab


In 5/4 TIME (1987) Aluminum and wood - 12" X 29 feet X 10", courtesy Larry Deyab


The sculptures IN 5/4 TIME and GRAND PRIX were so complicated to hang that Ron and I - on my suggestion wrote out detailed instructions on its installation. I still can't figure out how he built the sculptures without any drawings and managed to install them on the wall by himself. The walls of his studio were not even remotely flat there were cracks and curves and bumps all along the long narrow walls. To hang the separate carriage sections of the sculptures, the most the measurements on the wall between them could be off was a sixteenth of an inch. And even if all the measurements were correct, just to hold up and attach the aluminum to each carriage and bolt it on while making sure the aluminum section is taut and undamaged, is an amazing feat for any one person especially an almost seventy-year-old sculptor. But that was exactly what Ron did. My presence just made it easier. So before Ron's exhibition at Compass-Rose Gallery in Chicago opened in May 1987, we rehearsed over and over like a daily fire drill the installation procedure for both GRAND PRIX and IN 5/4 TIME. Chicago was too far from his studio to make any mistakes. Ron, Connie and I flew to Chicago for two weeks to install the show and after the exhibition was over Ron and I flew back to Chicago by ourselves to take it down. I mention the second trip because Ron and I stayed together in the same hotel room and in the manner of an English rock band we trashed the place - by accident. Over the course of a few days as we drank and smoked while lying in the two beds we ended up spilling a large amount of brandy and wine - on the beds and the rugs as well as burning cigarette holes in our sheets and pillowcases. Ron left a sad, faded five dollar bill on his bed before we left for the maid. To him it was a lot of money.

Bladen installing Grand Prix in Chicago


Back in New York our work on new sculptures became more and more intense. Ron wanted to get more work done. I realize now he must have known how sick he really was. As we progressed his sculptures became better and better the lines more precise and straight, the aluminum tauter and more brilliant. I can only try to imagine the brilliance yet to come had Ron lived even a few years longer. He had started to get into color, painting blue acrylic paint directly onto certain parts of the wood to get blue reflections cast up onto the aluminum. The last large and heavy aluminum and wood sculpture that we started was left unfinished. He was to sick to work very much any more. He would pass out unconscious on his couch and five minutes later come to. It was horrible for me to witness and it marked the beginning of the end for him. I tried to get Connie to take him to the hospital but she told me to mind my own business. A few days later she bought him a bottle of cheap childrens vitamins from the discount place on the corner. Cheaper for her than taking him to the hospital.


Ron had always worked alone up in studio on the fourth floor and would come down each night after work to his makeshift living quarters on the third floor. Most of the space was used as Connie Reyesstudio (she lived nearby in an apartment on Second Avenue). Rons bed was a small cot and because he was so tall, he had to pull out a drawer from a small nightstand table by his bed and put a pillow in it to sleep on. Otherwise his head would hang over the end. (Somehow I imagine William Blake doing the same). He ate very simple food and had an absolutely British hatred of onions or anything spicy. We got into an argument in Chicago when I bought us cheeseburgers from McDonalds and he found onions on them and disgustedly took threw them off onto the same tortured hotel rug we were destroyingHe was convinced by Connie that he had no money and would often live on plain pasta and potatoes. Often during the last year of his life I would buy him bags of small red potatoes and carrots from the  nearby Union Square farmer's market, which was ironic since I had very little money myself. I was only paid $7.00 an hour for all my work with Ron, but if it were up to Ron he would have given me any amount of money I asked for. Since I filled out my own check myself and gave it to him to signI once told him I was paying myself $1000.00 for the day's work. He saidGo ahead! I'll sign it!”

Speaking with Egidio Marzona while installing the exhibition "Ronald Bladen Sculpture" exhibition at the Kunsthalle,Bielefeld in Bielefeld, Germany in 1998 - Photograph by Marcus Schneider


We had great fun together. Some of the best times I ever had with him were in Westhampton, Long Island at a summer cottage Connie Reyes and her husband owned there. Ron and I once spent an entire weekend alone together doing small repairs on the roof, talking about art, drinking massive amounts of red wine and brandy. Before we both passed out late one Saturday night Ron noticed we had only one small plastic cupful of wine left and he managed to get himself to the refrigerator and place the cup on the shelf for the next day. It was so ridiculous. In the morning we were too hung over to remember where we left the cup and so searched forand found - the secret stash of booze Connie had hidden away for herself. We sat in the sun drinking and smoking all that Sunday so that by the time Connie arrived we were both shivering uncontrollably. She slapped us both for drinking all her wine and being sick on top of it. Fortunately she had a second hiding place for her other secret stash of alcohol and so we opened bottles and the three of us continued drinking into the night. We drank a lot.

Ron and I at MAGOOS with Connie on left in 1987 - photo by Ron' sister Kitty Carson


I mention all these little moments to remind myself of the many good times Ron and I had together before the memory of the last few months of his life burned these memories away. How many lessons on art and life did I learn from this artist who never compromised with the world? Ron lived simply and honestly and cared only for his art and his friends. It seemed Ron could survive anything since he had so few needs. Then the inevitable happened. One morning in mid-December 1987 I got a telephone call from Connie to come to the studio. Ron had gotten so sick that she realized that he had to go to the hospital and now he would no longer listen to her. She knew he would listen to me and asked me to go upstairs to his studio and convince him to go to the hospital. I went up, knocked on the door and when he heard my voice he let me in. As I told him he needed to go to the hospital I noticed for the first time that his stomach was swollen out from the cancer. In the cold of his studio I hadnt seen it before under his jacket (Cruelly, the landlord had shut off the heat when the winter began to force him out of his loft since she wanted to raise all the rents). Ron was standing around fussing with his broken down shaving kit trying to get his few things together if he was going to go. His cat Bon Bon was on the couch. He didnt want to go to the hospital because as he told me: “ If I go in, I know Ill never leave.” I didn't know what to say. Ron finally agreed to go with me and I got him downstairs and hailed a taxi and we left for the hospital.


The ride there was very silent. What could either of us say? We got to Beth Israel hospital on First Avenue and I helped Ron into the emergency room entrance and filled out all the necessary forms as the doctor and nurse took him to be examined. I could hear them behind a curtain in the next room. Maybe a half hour later a nurse told me Ron wanted to see me. Ron was sitting on an examination table. He thanked me for being there with him and we held hands and I told him we would see each other again soon. But I wouldnt really. I never saw him conscious ever again. By the time I returned to New York from a Christmas visit to Cambridge to see my mother, Ron was in a comaMy very last contact with him still alive was in the hospital. Still in a coma, I grabbed hold of his hand and held it as I talked to him. After a half hour I let go of his hand to leave and found he was now tightly holding mineIn the time we were talking the energy had shifted from my hand to his. I am sure he knew I was there and heard everything, but could not speak. He died a week later.

All this pains me even now after twenty-four years.

                                                                                                                                                              Larry Deyab

                                                                                                                                                            September 24, 2012

                                                                                                                                                             Cambridge, MA


Ronald Bladen; MAGICIAN(1987)