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Robert Bielat was an artist’s artist, a sobriquet generally applied to creative producers whose work is brilliant but idiosyncratic, deeply compelling in a way that is obvious to other members of the tribe, but not necessarily so to the market or to the arbiters of “good” taste. Bielat (which is the way he always addressed himself to me) was definitely brilliant and definitely idiosyncratic, as anyone who knew him would readily attest. He is an artist whose work I continually returned to over the years. In reviewing my archive in preparation for this essay, I note the first appearance of Bielat in my writing in a review I wrote of the “Detroit Bronze” exhibition at the Michigan Gallery in the September 1986 New Art Examiner; the most recent was a profile for Sculpture magazine in May 2007. In between were catalog essays, features, and reviews. The total number of words I have devoted to Bielat is certainly among the most for a single artist. Yet I always seemed to find something new to say, another way into the work that is more a reflection of its fecundity than my ability to discuss it.
A Bielat exhibition was typically packed to the gills with work, another reflection of his seemingly boundless creativity and in no small measure an acknowledgment of his perceived need to get as many of his ideas out into the world as possible in the brief time he had to be a sentient part of it. (Bielat’s work is truly the embodiment of the adage: “Ars longa; vita brevis.”) Be that as it may, there are certain themes that run through his oeuvre, and I hope in the next few words to identify some of them.
The most obvious and central is the Romantic notion of the will-to-art, a self-determined, intuitive, and autopoetic approach to creative production whereby Bielat absorbed his experience of the world around him and reprocessed it into an expressive vision that was uniquely his own. Bielat possessed an advanced degree in art, but his work seemed to be completely sui generis, as if appearing out of nowhere fully formed, a result of its own conditions of being, and as if it had always been there.
This last thought brings up the notion of time in Bielat’s work. Specifically, the phenomenological concept of “sedimentation”—that the past is embedded in the present and that the present is the procrustean bed of the future—is both physically and metaphorically manifest in the work. This is evident in Bielat’s use of the castoff in many works over the years, synecdoches of past presents gone to seed. I have often invoked critic Roberta Smith’s observation, made in reference to Robert Rauschenberg, of “bringing the refuse of life into the refuge of art” in discussing Bielat’s work, especially as a register of Detroit’s postindustrial condition, which he experienced firsthand. In the later work, time takes on a more world-historical character, particularly in such work as the “Sentinels” series, several of which reference ancient mythologies and epic themes, and more recently with the use of bronze that has been patinated to evoke a connection with millennia of human creation, again fueled by a recognition of existential finitude. Time registers in other works in the buildup of surface textures—the burnt-away traces of duct tape and aluminum foil used to hold sculptural elements together prior to being packed into the mold—left as a residue of the casting process.
Bielat’s recent re-adoption of bronze manifests another important element in his work, namely, its materiality. Bielat always asserted the primacy of the thing in his production, whether it be the collection of objects, old and new, that he integrated into his sculptures, or the metals he used in casting. His approach to ceramics, as well, reflected an engagement with the material limits of the medium—stressing the clay, piling on the glaze, leaving sections of bisqueware visible. This attention to materiality is sometimes not so obvious, again, in scorched traces of bindings and other fugitive materials, such as cardboard facings, as they evaporated under the intense heat of molten metal filling the voids they left in the mold.
The multifaceted ways in which Bielat worked his materials suggests one last aspect of his aesthetic to which I want to draw attention, namely, his concern for craft. (Bielat completed his undergraduate studies at what is now College for Creative Studies when it was the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, whose “maker” aesthetic has maintained its influence throughout his work.) There was always a certain way that Bielat approached his work, not just in his concern for materials, but in how he insisted on maintaining the visibility of the steps taken in its making, for example, the fastenings of the components of an assemblage and the flash along the edges of a cast element. Bielat always worked directly, eschewing preparatory sketches or studies. He maintained a phenomenological dialog with his work, responding as much to its internal dictates—making adjustments along the way—as exercising control over its development. This sensibility aligned with that of the Arts and Crafts movement, regardless of how seemingly far afield the work drifted from traditional techniques.
In 1987, I wrote a catalog essay for Bielat in which I quoted philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Phenomenology of Perception, a book that continues to influence artists to this day, and which is appropriate to reconsider at this time:
What one too deliberately seeks, one does not find; and he who on the contrary has in his meditative life known how to tap its spontaneous source never lacks for ideas and value.
Bielat lived that principle, as an artist and as a human being. The work is his testament.