Date of this Version
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska Lincoln January 14 - February 9, 1975
To undertake the "study" of the work of Ralph Blake10ck is to become involved in one of the most complex problems in the history of our national art. It is a problem which includes not only the conventional considerations of biography, style and technique, each of them in Blakelock's case something less than clear cut, but also the psychological problem which combines the intricacies of the painter's personality with the intricacies of the social scene in which he lived. One must deal with a variety of elements - the artist and his contemporaries, the dealers, critics, collectors, and auction rooms, and public taste in a period which might possibly be described as the adolescence of American interest in the visual arts. This is certainly not to imply that a recognizable maturity has arrived in more recent times, but only that Blakelock's place in his own time is, at best, described as uncertain. There is reason to believe, I think, that although many artists can be said to be ahead of their times, Blakelock was critically and tragically so. His lifelong effort to accommodate himself is a factor constantly at war with his inclinations and his abilities.
We have studied him, man and artist, for six years and we have accumulated a considerable amount of information, mostly having to do with the hundreds of paintings which carry his name. With the help of the University Research Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, we have been able to undertake a comprehensive examination of his work unlike that afforded any other artist in our history. On four separate occasions, we have been able to examine and compare a hundred or more examples of his work assembled in one place at one time. On two of these occasions, the pictures were selected as an exhibition. On the other two, it was more in the nature of a net cast out to capture the unknown, a wide variety of works having in common only their attribution to the artist. In addition there have been "Blakelock stops" to make on trips to all parts of the country, for the most part to see paintings in private collections, but also to see rumored pictures, neglected or forgotten in public institutions. The result of this effort is the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory, which now lists more than eight hundred paintings and drawings.
On the basis of this inventory, a simple list of works, "attributed" through whatever circumstance, we have established an evaluative procedure which leads to a classification of each picture. The procedure begins with the establishment of a file for each picture containing all the known or ascertainable data of a factual nature - title, medium support, dimensions, signature, condition, description of subject, history of ownership, exhibition and publication. Such factual data is, in all honesty, of critical value in only the rare instance, but, out of the accumulation of titles and dimensions and signatures, a general pattern emerges which is useful and, admittedly, sometimes significant. The facts also include evidence derived visually from photographs of various kinds and from notes taken from direct examination. This examination, on the occasions of the four successive examination- seminars, has been guided by professional conservators. Their analysis of a picture is, in itself, a special process, sensitive to nuances of technique and condition which would be invisible to all but the specialist or connoisseur. On this basis, each work has been placed, with as much certainty as seems justified, in one of four categories. To all the hundreds of owners, private and institutional, they have been described as follows:
Category I: This group consists of examples having a completely documented history of ownership. These paintings provide the technical and stylistic criteria against which other examples can be measured.
Category II: This group consists of paintings whose technical and stylistic features compare favorably with those of Category I, but which do not have a complete history of ownership.
Category III: This group consists of paintings whose histories are missing or incomplete and whose physical and stylistic characteristics may be partially in accord, partially divergent from the criteria of Categories I and II.
Category IV: This group consists of paintings without histories whose physical and stylistic characteristics do not agree in any way with the criteria of Categories I, II or III.
This classification provides, at the very least, a judgment of all the factors which have a bearing on the pictures themselves and yet it must be admitted that, in all too many instances, the mixture of plus and minus considerations does not add up to a clear cut decision. Pictures in Category III are indeed in limbo. Possibly the single most important factor here is that of condition and frequently a final decision is impossible. It is likely that, for most of the works in this category, we will never know whether they are the work of the artist or not.
Having examined almost all the works in public collections, several hundreds in private ownership and a considerable number which have appeared on the market during this period, it is appropriate at this stage that we undertake a review of our findings to date. The present exhibition is, in essence, such a review and not a final statement. It is the penultimate stage in our research. It will be obvious to the exhibition visitor that, while we have brought together a larger group of works covering a longer span of the artist's career than has been seen before, there are a number of areas of information which are barely mentioned. Such areas are the biography of the painter, his technique and the whole problem of the imitators and forgers of his work. These considerations lie ahead, in research and publication. Similarly, the catalog of authentic works is perhaps the most eagerly awaited part of the work we have done. The publication of the works placed in Categories I and II of our classification system is undoubtedly the most substantial part of the evidence on behalf of Ralph Blakelock's place in American art. Again, this is a job for the future.