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Ross Bleckner
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Birth Place: 
New York City
Known for his paintings reflecting themes of loss, memory and change, often addressing the subject of AIDS, Ross Bleckner is also an accomplished printmaker. He was born in Brooklyn in 1949. Soon thereafter his family moved to Cedarhurst on the South Shore of Long Island. His father owned a successful manufacturing business, and around 1961 the family moved to nearby Hewlett, a more affluent town. Bleckner attended public schools and studied art at Hewlett High School. A visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 Op Art exhibition, “The Responsive Eye,” would have a large influence on his art. After graduating from high school in 1967, Bleckner enrolled in Washington Square College, a liberal arts division of New York University (“NYU”). He took art classes as electives. He became an art major by his junior year, studying under Chuck Close (b. 1940) and Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). Bleckner spent the summer of 1970 in the San Francisco Bay Area, taking classes at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now the California College of the Arts). After graduating from NYU in 1971, he took Close’s advice and attended the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, with the goal of a career teaching art. Eric Fischl (b. 1948) and David Salle (b. 1952) were among his fellow students. Bleckner received a MFA degree from CalArts in 1973, and then returned to New York City. The following year he purchased a building in Manhattan’s Tribeca district, using a loan from his father for the down payment and financing from the seller. Bleckner occupied the top floor, rented out the other floors to artists and the ground floor to the “Mudd Club” nightclub and soon paid off the loans. He began exhibiting his works in 1975 in a solo exhibition at New York’s Cunningham Ward Gallery, in group shows in New York and Chicago galleries and in that year’s Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (Bleckner’s work also appeared in the Whitney Biennials in 1987 and 1989). The gallerist Mary Boone (b. 1951) showed Bleckner’s work in her loft in 1977. In 1979 she gave Bleckner a solo exhibition in her New York gallery and included him in a group show with Fischl, Salle and others. Boone has represented Bleckner ever since and mounted solo shows of his work every few years. Bleckner moved away from the “stripe” paintings of his early years for abstract works depicting atmospheric conditions and works reflecting the AIDS epidemic. His 1980 “Small Count” depicting starry points of light refers to white blood cells ravaged by AIDS. In 1981 Bleckner met the Zurich art dealer and collector Thomas Ammann (1950-1993), who purchased many of his works. Ammann later introduced him to such celebrities as Bianca Jagger (b. 1945), Calvin Klein (b. 1942) and Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011). By the mid-1980s Bleckner’s works were selling well. For example, the Italian gallerist Mario Diacono (b. 1930) sold Bleckner’s 1986 painting “The Arrangement of Things” to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts By 1986 Bleckner was teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His first solo museum exhibition was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1988. A solo exhibition organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1989 traveled to museums in Pittsburgh, Houston and Toronto. Other solo shows were mounted by museums in Zurich in 1990 and Stockholm in 1991. Three solo museum exhibitions of his work were mounted in 1995, most notably a large mid-career retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, with other solo shows in Valencia, Spain and Oslo. Bleckner first made prints at Berkeley’s Paulson Press in 1999, ten aquatint etchings. He subsequently created aquatints at Paulson in 2002, 2007 and 2011 (then Paulson Bott Press). After being introduced in the late 1980s to Dr. Joseph Sonnabend (b. 1933), the physician who was an early researcher of HIV/AIDS and founder of the nonprofit Community Research Initiative on AIDS (later the American Community Research Initiative on AIDS, or ACRIA), Bleckner became involved in supporting the organization, joined the board of directors and was board president from 1992 to 2014. He was instrumental in raising funds for the organization, most notably by persuading his artist friends to donate works to be sold to benefit ACRIA. In 1993 Bleckner bought a house in Sagaponack, in the East End of Long Island, and later built a studio on the property. In 2004 he sold his Tribeca building and moved to the quieter West Village of Manhattan. He continues to create art in studios in both properties. Bleckner was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in 2009, the first visual artist to be so honored. Bleckner has taught at NYU for over a decade and is now a Clinical Professor of Studio Art at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. (TNB 5/2017) Selected bibliography: Dennison, Lisa, Thomas E. Crow and Simon Watney. Ross Bleckner. Exhibition catalog. New York: Guggenheim Museum, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Oral history interview with Ross Bleckner, 2016 July 6-7, conducted by Linda Yablonsky, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.