Born Detroit, 1949 / BFA, School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts; MA, Wayne State University / Died Ferndale, MI 2018
Robert Bielat was an artist’s artist, a sobriquet applied to those whose work is brilliant but idiosyncratic, deeply compelling in a way that is obvious to those who can see it, but not necessarily so to the market or to the arbiters of so-called “good” taste.
A Bielat exhibition typically overflowed with work, a 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 truly embodies the adage: “Ars longa; vita brevis.”) Be that as it may, there are certain themes running through his oeuvre worth remarking upon.
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 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 ground from which the future emerges—which 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, for example, the twisted, rusted steel screen in Bridge (Connections) (2017), and the found metal object embedded in Daedalus’ Wing (2016)—synecdoches of past presents gone to seed. In the “Sentinels” series (2006), the works reference ancient mythologies and the primeval, such as Menhir, titled after monoliths found in western Europe that date back to the Bronze Age. The use of patinated bronze in works such as Feather from Icarus’ Wing (2016) evokes 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, corrugated cardboard, and aluminum foil in River Locks Eta (2011-2012), 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 sculptures like Allure (Wall Sketch) (2018), or the metals he used in casting View from Drone II (2013-2014). His approach to ceramics, as well, reflected an engagement with the material limits of the medium—severely distressing the clay, slathering on the glaze, leaving sections of bisqueware visible.
The multifaceted ways in which Bielat worked his materials suggests one last aspect of his aesthetic: 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; consider, for example, the C-clamp holding the elements of the assemblage Creation (2017) together, and the flash along the edges of the cast elements of Cenotaph (2006, from “Sentinels”). Bielat always worked directly, eschewing preparatory sketches or studies. He maintained an iterative dialog with his work, responding as much to its internal dictates—making adjustments along the way—as exercising control over its development.
The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once wrote the following, which resonates in considering Bielat:
“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.”
Robert Bielat lived that principle, as an artist and as a human being. The work is his testament.
Vince Carducci, June 2019