The 20th-century American painter Norman Bluhm gets a long-overdue retrospective.
When he was still a teenager, Norman Bluhm was Mies van der Rohe’s youngest student at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago. Bluhm had graduated from high school early, and his family had encouraged him to enroll at Armour so he could become an architect like his father. One day in class, he grew dissatisfied with a rendering he was working on and started drawing little nudes dancing around the building. The Bauhaus master looked over and asked, “What are you doing here, Herr Bluhm?” The future artist replied, “Oh, I’m ruining a drawing. So I just thought I would draw a few nudes dancing around enjoying themselves.” Mies said, “When we are going to draw nudes, I will tell you when to draw nudes.” Mies never got the chance, because before long, Bluhm walked out and never came back.
That little anecdote, which Bluhm told an interviewer in 1969, more than 30 years later, prefigures a great deal about Bluhm’s career. The prickly, authority-averse personality persisted, leading to ruptures with dealers and other impolitic actions which negatively affected Bluhm’s standing in the art world and ultimately contributed to an underserved obscurity for his work. The little dancing nudes, too, foretold the future in their way. While Bluhm became an abstract painter and stayed one his whole life, in mid-career he started to introduce figuration into his canvases, not literally but allusively, and the most prominent allusion was to the female body.
Another reason Bluhm’s work has been relatively little known is that he worked in many different styles and resisted all orthodoxies. For a while during the ’50s, his gestural approach seemed to fit in with the Abstract Expressionists, and indeed over the years has often had the dubious distinction of being classified as a “second-generation Abstraction Expressionist.” But during the ’60s, instead of going in a Pop Art direction, or else stubbornly sticking with gestural abstraction, Bluhm moved into his unique kind of semi-figuration, embracing a joyous and sensuous art that increasingly sought to open an inquiry into spirituality. In his last phase, in the ’80s and right up until his death in 1999, Bluhm was working on a truly grand scale, making mural-sized triptychs that combine exuberance and spontaneity of line with grid-like structure and repetition.
Now, two decades after his death, Bluhm is finally getting a museum retrospective that should make clear the extent and power of his oeuvre and carve out his place in the art-historical canon. “Norman Bluhm: Metamorphosis,” at the Newark Museum in Newark, N.J. (February 13–May 3), the first monographic show ever dedicated to the artist, brings together 17 large-scale paintings and 25 works on paper spanning the years 1947–98, loaned from the artist’s estate and from public and private collections. Curated by Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the New Museum’s curator of American art, and guest curator Jay Grimm, the exhibition looks beyond the facile equation of Bluhm with Ab-Ex, drawing attention to the figurative elements beneath the surface in both the earliest and latest bodies of work. It also explores Bluhm’s preoccupations with myth, poetry, and art history, which were always key ingredients in his creative process. The word “metamorphosis” in the show’s title refers not only to the artist’s shape-shifting stylistic changes but also to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the classical poetic source for the Greco-Roman myths that fertilized Bluhm’s imagination, especially in his later years.
Bluhm was born in 1920 in Chicago to a prosperous Jewish family. Though his father, Henry, was an architect, Bluhm described him in later years as more of a civil engineer, devoid of interest in aesthetics. Father and son clashed frequently, to the point where the younger Bluhm left home for good at the age of 16. With his mother, Rosa, he had more in common. Her family came from Lucca, Italy, and during the 1920s, when Henry Bluhm went to the Soviet Union to work on a building project, Rosa took Norman with her to stay with her Italian relatives. This early exposure to European life had a lasting effect on Bluhm. In later years he would live for extended periods of time in Paris, and unlike many American artists, he truly felt at home with the language and the way of life, associating not just with the expat community but with French artists and art-world denizens.
Starting when he was in high school, Bluhm knew he had a vocation as an artist. His parents paid for him to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Armour Institute. But when the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted, eventually becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps. His younger brother, William, also became a pilot and was killed in action. Naturally, the grief from this loss and the trauma of combat left a lasting mark on Bluhm, but unlike many of the artists of his generation, he was reluctant to draw any connection between his war experiences and his artistic endeavors. The war was something to put behind him. When an interviewer, Paul Cummings, asked him about the subject in 1969, Bluhm curtly replied, “Oh, the war. Let’s not talk about the war. We’re talking about art; we’re not talking about military matters.”
After the war, Bluhm briefly returned to architectural school, as it promised a way to earn a living, but he soon decided once and for all that it was not right for him. In 1946, using his income from the G.I. Bill of Rights, he moved to Paris in search of inspiration and community in the cradle of the avant-garde, as artists had been doing for at least 50 years. Bluhm referred to the impulse that brought him there as “romanticism,” but he didn’t mean it in a dismissive or derogatory way. On the contrary, for Bluhm romanticism meant a desire to live for art, to build a life around art, and to immerse oneself in the stream of art history. “I mean, in Europe we were all romantically involved,” he told Cummings. “If we had a certain education we were involved in the idea of Matisse or Picasso, or going back through time, the Renaissance.” Other formative influences included Corot, Courbet, Van Gogh, and Japanese drawing.
Bluhm’s “involvement” with Matisse turned out to be more personal than the others. Through his first wife, Claude Souvrain, whom he met in Paris and married in 1950, he became acquainted with a bohemian circle of writers, dancers, actors, and artists. One of Claude’s best friends was Florence Loeb, whose father, Pierre Loeb, owned a prominent gallery that showed artists including Picasso, Braque, Miró, and Giacometti and that eventually showed Bluhm, too. Another friend of the Bluhms was the art historian Georges Duthuit, who was married to Marguerite Matisse, daughter of Henri. Bluhm met the great painter on at least one occasion. Matisse was one of the deepest and longest-lasting influences on Bluhm’s painting; like Matisse, Bluhm was always a colorist, and he tended toward the brighter hues. His flowing, intuitive, energetic line, which flows through all periods of his work, also owes a great deal to the French master.
In Paris, showing at Loeb, Bluhm began to see success. In 1952 the American collector Walter P. Chrysler Jr. (son of the automobile magnate) met Bluhm through Loeb and ended up buying 37 paintings directly from the artist. In the next few years, Bluhm’s career flourished, and he began to be grouped by the critics with fellow American artists living there, such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell. In 1956 his marriage broke up, and he decided to try for a career in New York, by then definitively established as the new world capital of contemporary art.
Things looked promising. Right away Bluhm connected with Leo Castelli, whose gallery was instrumental in the New York art world’s transformation. After participating in some group shows there, Bluhm got a solo, his first anywhere. However, he soon quarreled with Castelli over a relatively minor matter, but due to Bluhm’s pugnacious nature, the quarrel led to a permanent rift. And although Bluhm found representation from several other dealers throughout his career, none of those relationships became truly well established and permanent. Bluhm seemed fated to always be the outsider. His fights with critics (he almost came to physical blows with Clement Greenberg on one occasion) didn’t help, either.
After about a decade in New York, Bluhm became peripatetic. First, in 1965, he moved back to Paris with his second wife, Cary, but that lasted only two years, after he discovered that the Parisian art world had changed dramatically, and not for the better. After returning to the New York, in 1969 he decided to move upstate, to Millbrook. For a lifelong urbanite, it was a major change, but Bluhm was in search of contemplative solitude, a pattern he would follow for the rest of his life. After a stint in East Hampton, in 1987 he moved to a small town in Vermont, East Wallingford, the final stop on his wandering journey.
The work that Bluhm made after leaving New York City is now being recognized as his greatest and most characteristic. Figuration had been part of his work early on; in the 1940s, when he first lived in Paris, he did Cubist-like landscapes and Matissean nude studies. But even after he decisively defined himself as an abstract painter, figuration kept finding its way back in, in various and subtle ways. For example, Bluhm was entranced by the stained-glass windows he saw in the cathedrals of Paris, and some of his paintings from the mid-’50s use a technique in which the paint is laid down in such a way that rich, dark surface colors seem to be illuminated from behind, like stained-glass windows—but without, of course, any reference to the typical Christian iconography.
Bluhm’s use of line, also, allowed for an indirect return of figuration. His supple, always moving lines, applied quickly with a wet brush, hint at human forms in motion, dancing, almost flying. Sometimes they seem to lounge languidly, like classical nudes. During the ’70s, Bluhm started making heavy use of what some might consider typically “feminine” or “pretty” colors such as pink, yellow, orange—a strange choice, perhaps, for a painter known for a fairly macho approach to life. His embrace of the feminine was almost an archetypal process, an approach to the substance of myth, as attested by the titles he gave his canvases—Philomela, Persephone, Pygmalion.
The Bluhmian line also took on a calligraphic quality, something akin to Asian brush writing. The Asian influence on Bluhm’s late work can be seen clearly in his enormous triptychs, whose forms recall Japanese and Chinese folding screens. Not only does the tripartite scheme impose a sort of rigidity of structure on the painting—something that previously did not appear in Bluhm’s work—but even within each panel, the artist would repeat graphic elements, sometimes in mirror image, as if they were Rorschach blots. Some of the paintings remind one of Tibetan or Indian mandalas; it is as if Bluhm has defined his own spirituality through his own symbols, his long search over at last. In these works from the 1990s, his final phase, Bluhm deploys all his freedom and exuberance within a carefully plotted armature or grid, and the resulting tension is satisfying in a way similar to jazz, in which the freedom of the syncopated melody only gels when heard against the regular beat of the rhythm section.
One could also see it in terms of Bluhm’s old adversary, architecture. As Tricia Laughlin Bloom points out in a catalogue essay, Bluhm’s use of the phrase “ruining a drawing” in the anecdote about Mies suggests that for Bluhm, there was an underlying correctness to the structure of a drawing that could be ruined. He was not indifferent to rules at all. And even if he never became a Bauhaus disciple, one of his early favorites among modern artists was Mondrian. Perhaps, for Bluhm, it took a whole lifetime of effort and searching before he could impose an explicit structure on his painting without any need to fear that it would limit him.
By John Dorfman