Norman Bluhm’s passionate, mystical art kept evolving, decade by decade.
By John DorfmanNorman Bluhm is the greatest Abstract Expressionist painter you’ve never heard of. Or if you have heard of him, you’re part of a select group of aficionados who appreciate the multifaceted, challenging work of a painter who refused to be pinned down to any one school or style and kept working regardless of the shifting tides of the market and art-critical opinion. Bluhm, who started painting in the 1940s and was making masterpieces right up till his death in 1999, has the dubious distinction of being an “artist’s artist,” but a cadre of dedicated art dealers are championing his work, trying to win for it the esteem and value they are convinced it deserves.
“In my opinion and in the opinion, frankly, of a lot of dealers at this point who are driving his market, in comparison to his contemporaries Bluhm is underrepresented in institutions and underappreciated by the private clientele,” says Cameron Shay, president of Graham Gallery in New York. “When MoMA hangs a Bluhm, it’s in a far corner where you have to hunt for it, and that’s not fair. He should be front and center—he’s a great painter, and that recognition will come in time.”
Bluhm’s comparative obscurity can be explained by several factors—historical, personal and artistic—but one of them is the diversity of his work, his resistance to sticking with one tried-and-true style. In a career spanning six decades, Bluhm essentially produced four bodies of work. His earliest paintings are figural, influenced by Cézanne and Surrealism, but by the early ’50s he had moved into full abstraction, covering his canvases with dense patterns of mostly dark colors in short brushstrokes. Some of these works, appearing luminous from behind, evoke stained glass. Bluhm’s next style was open and gestural, more in line with the mainstream of the New York School. Some are similar to color-field paintings. His paintings from the period of 1959–67 were large in scale, and at this point in his career Bluhm began using multiple panels, adopting the triptych format that he would exploit to even greater effect later on.
Starting in the late ’60s, Bluhm made a decisive turn back toward figuration, not literally but allusively. The poet and critic John Yau, with whom Bluhm collaborated on several book projects, has referred to this period as the artist’s “first major breakthrough.” Now he was adding drawn lines to his broad, energetic brushstrokes, which, in combination with masses of pink and yellow, suggest the forms and colors of the human body, in particular the female nude. These point to a growing eroticism in Bluhm’s work, a trait that would only become more pronounced over time. In the late ’70s, he introduced a swirling movement into his painting, which acquired an ornamented, almost neo-baroque look, the eroticism tinged with an Old Master-like quality. “It’s as if the clouds and goddesses of Tiepolo, Rubens, and Watteau have been transformed into highly charged, voluptuous, lushly billowing masses,” Yau has written. Bluhm’s paintings from this era are often titled with the names of Greek goddesses and other classical figures, such as Artemis, Aphrodite and Persephone, intended as references to a sort of non-monotheistic spirituality that Bluhm had evolved for himself.
In the late ’80s and the 1990s, Bluhm entered his final phase, in which his forms were repeated in even-numbered multiples, with great symmetry, almost like the mandalas in the tantric paintings of India and Tibet. These works are often multi-paneled, very large-scale, and horizontal in format, a sweeping summation of a life work in which the figural becomes almost diagrammatic, and the erotic verges on the realm of metaphysics. For many of Bluhm’s enthusiasts, these paintings are his best. In the long-term art-historical project of assessing the meaning of “late work,” Bluhm’s ’90s paintings are an important piece of data.
In general, Bluhm’s work reflects a deep study of art history, and a deep sense of connection with the art of the past that is still devoid of imitativeness or any sense of being a follower. The critic Raphael Rubinstein has written, “What’s…impressive about Bluhm’s canny use of art history is that he is able to recapitulate and reinterpret stellar moments from the history of Western painting without ever lapsing into pastiche, the bane of so much history-conscious art.”
In addition to art history, Bluhm’s art has its roots in his personal history, his life experiences and educational background—to the extent that a brief biographical summary is not out of place. He was born in 1921, on the blue-collar South Side of Chicago, and was raised there, except for a six-year period when he lived in Lucca, Italy, with his mother’s family. At the age of 16 he became Mies van der Rohe’s youngest student at the Armour Institute of Technology, absorbing Bauhaus principles of architecture. His lifelong devotion to drawing can be traced back to those days and nights at the drafting table. At the age of 20, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bluhm enlisted and became a bomber pilot. He flew 44 missions over Europe and North Africa before he was wounded and sent home. His younger brother, also a pilot, was killed in the war, shot down over Germany. “Don’t make a hero out of me,” Norman Bluhm later said. “The only heroes are those that didn’t come back.”
World War II profoundly affected him, as it did so many artists of his generation. As has often been said, the angst-ridden grappling with materials, the quest for pure originality, the spiritual or quasi-religious elements in Abstract Expressionism were all artistic reactions to the trauma of the war. Bluhm tried to return to architectural training but realized that it was no longer for him. Instead, in 1947 he took his G.I. Bill money and went to study art in Paris, where he met such cultural figures as Antonin Artaud, Alberto Giacometti and Jean Cocteau, in whose film Orphée he had a bit part. In Paris, he associated with other American expats in Montparnasse, notably Sam Francis (with whom he has often been compared), but resolutely went his own way, imitating no one and joining no school. His paint handling was wholly his own and even in its most gestural phase does not quite fit the standard Ab-Ex playbook. “Imagine de Kooning’s raw, loaded brushstroke synthesized with Lichtenstein’s refined image of a brushstroke,” wrote Yau, “and you get a sense of the hybrid form that Bluhm developed in his paintings.”
Returning to the U.S. in 1956, he continued painting full-time and frequently spent time at the Cedar Tavern, learning from and arguing with the artists and critics who were establishing the New York School. Soon he was showing at Leo Castelli Gallery, and his career was launched in earnest. In 1961 Bluhm married Cary Ogle (who today maintains the Norman Bluhm Foundation) and over the following four decades the couple lived in Millbrook, N.Y., East Hampton and Vermont. While Bluhm achieved success, sustaining his career and never needing to do non-art work to support his family, he did not reach the level of sales and fame of his contemporaries, such as Francis or de Kooning.
One reason for this may have been his notoriously strong personality, which led to fallings-out with various dealers over the years. Another factor is undoubtedly the evolution of his style, which makes him hard to pigeonhole. “The story of Bluhm is the story of a career that really remains pure, true to himself throughout his whole life,” says New York dealer Peter Findlay. While that unclassifiable quality has made Bluhm somewhat hard to market, dealers like Findlay and Shay are positioning it as a strength. “Dealers are showing a very good quality of work and showing them in the right context, cleaned up and framed well,” says Shay. “It takes a lot to bring clients around—even curators. But we’re selling Norman’s work at higher levels than they bring at auction, and that goes for different periods and media, both drawings and paintings.” For the most part, top Bluhm paintings are selling at auction in the six figures. This past May at Christie’s, his 1959 triptych Winter Nights sold for $722,500. The record for a Bluhm is $1.1 million, set by Chicago 1920, also at Christie’s, two years ago. “Dealers are buying at auction, and at good value,” says Shay. “We’re adding the connoisseurship, showing them how they should be seen, selling them for what they’re really worth.”
Manny Silverman, a dealer in Los Angeles who knew Bluhm and sells his work, observes that in general, paintings by the artist are still a relative bargain. Late works, he says “can still be bought at galleries for well under $100,000. You can even scout out paintings from the ’50s and ’60s in the five figures at galleries and auction houses.”
Findlay says, “According to the vision of people today, the period 1959–63 is best.” Shay concurs: “The year 1959 was a signature year for so many artists, certainly for Norman. There are great paintings in many other years, but the ones that resonate for me are ’59. All around, there’s less 50s material available by Norman than the other decades, the ’60s and onwards.”
The ascendancy of the late works is yet to come, in terms of the market and the museum establishment, but dealers and collectors are increasingly drawn to look closely at them. “I keep coming back and nibbling at them, the late ones, though I haven’t bought any yet,” says Findlay. “They have an integrity of their own. As you keep looking at them, they hold up. They’re not comfortable at all.” Silverman says, “It’s a market in flux. People are looking at the works from after 1975. He was getting better and better—in last 20 years of his life he was running on eight cylinders. People who just discovered Norman were not discovering the great Norman of the ’80s; they wanted the Norman of the ’50s. That’s a marketing problem, but not one that can’t be overcome.”
For Rubinstein, the late work is like a depth charge that has yet to go off, not in market terms but as a force in the development of painting itself: “Bluhm’s work of the 1990s is ‘visionary.’ I would even propose that it is on the basis of these paintings that Bluhm’s work may hold the kind of significance for the 21st century that Cézanne’s held for the 20th.”
This article appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Full Bluhm”