Norman Bluhm’s Sensual Spiritualism

Norman Bluhm transformed the vocabulary we associate with the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism into something that others of the so-called Second Generation did not pursue, much less attain.

May 9, 2020

Norman Bluhm, “Opis” (1970), oil on canvas, 85 x 76 inches (all images © the Estate of Norman Bluhm)

In this moment, when time seems both suspended and hurtling forward, and museum exhibitions are over before they are seen, or never opened, I want to draw a connection between two exhibitions I was able to see before they were closed due to COVID-19: Norman Bluhm: Metamorphosis at the Newark Museum of Art and Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape at the Museum of Modern Art (closed April 12).

While both shows are technically closed, it is not certain that they are. There has been no official announcement, most likely because the museum itself does not know. Certainly this is the case with the Bluhm show: when I asked Jay Grim, the co-curator, he told me that he did not know the museum’s plans:

It’s a big building and good air circulation, I think, so if they keep the numbers way down, I could conceive of there being some sort of access at some point this summer but alternatively, if it turned out that it never reopened, that would also not surprise me. That would be just Norman’s luck.

When I contacted Tricia Bloom, curator of American art at the Newark Museum, she wrote, “After we reopen, the date of which hasn’t been decided, we plan to extend the exhibition through August 16.”

I thought I should try and change that luck and write about the serendipitous overlap that I saw between the paintings that Bluhm started making in the early 1970s and Sillman’s focus on the role of shape in the paintings of artists as diverse as Arshile Gorky, Helen Frankenthaler, Serge Poliakof, Philip Guston, Jennie C. Jones, Thomas Nozkowski, and Julian Schnabel.

Norman Bluhm, “Flight 114” (1961), oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches (the Estate of Norman Bluhm)

This is what I believe Bluhm has never gotten credit for: he transformed the vocabulary we associate with the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism into something that others of the so-called Second Generation did not pursue, much less attain. Between 1967 and ’71, when gestural painting — long regarded as derivative of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline — had been superseded by Pop Art, Color Field painting, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, Bluhm transformed line and gesture into sinuous shape and frozen liquidity.

Already an outlier, Bluhm completed the transformation of gesture into shape shortly after the death of his New York art dealer, Martha Jackson (1907–69). He would not have a solo show again in a New York gallery until the exhibition Norman Bluhm: Recent Paintings at Washburn Gallery (April 19–June 14, 1986), which I reviewed in Artforum (September 1986). (In 1985 his work was included in the exhibition Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955-60, organized by Paul Schimmel, which traveled to the Grey Art Gallery, January 16, 1985–February 23, 1985.)

Long regarded as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist — a dismissive embrace — Bluhm took the vocabulary of Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning as a foundation that could be built upon, not as an ethos from which to reject or escape. In this, he shares something with Gorky, who took the vocabulary of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro as a foundation to build upon and make his own.

Norman Bluhm, “Romulus and Remus” (1979), oil on canvas, 102 x 114 inches (the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, Gift of the Estate of Norman Bluhm, 2001)

Bluhm was able to reconstitute gestural abstraction into lithe, color-saturated, erotic shapes that evoke a wide range of associations, from Peter Paul Rubens’s fleshy nudes to Giovanni Battista’s sun-drenched clouds. For this, he has never received due credit, partly because, contrary to many in his generation, Bluhm neither took the hand out of painting nor rejected the past: he believed all of the past was available for him to respond to, and spent many hours in the Metropolitan Museum looking at art whenever he came to New York from East Wallingford, Vermont (where he lived from 1987 to 1999).

It is also worth pointing out that Bluhm, his wife, Cary, and their two young children moved out of New York in 1970 because they felt it would be too much of a strain to maintain a studio and raise two children in the city.

Imagine Gorky and de Kooning being inspired by the tight, precise contours of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and you’ll get a sense of Bluhm’s ambitious embrace of the past. Guston, we might remember, also embraced the past, particularly the work of Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico. What we find in the late work of Gorky, Bluhm, and Guston is the reappearance of certain shapes.

This is from Sillman’s curatorial statement, on the MoMA web page for The Shape of Shape:

As a painter, I’ve always had an eye for shapes. Shape defines every outline, mass, and negative space. And everyone has a personal shape: namely, a shadow, that strange, flat, constantly shifting form that goes wherever you go, attached to both body and psyche. But even though shape is everywhere, we don’t talk about it much; it’s not a hot topic in art, like color or systems. I wonder if, in fact, shape got left behind when modern art turned to systems, series, grids, and all things calculable in the 20th century. Was shape too personal, too subjective, to be considered rigorously modern? Or is it just too indefinite, too big, to systematize?

Later, Sillman states:

During my search, I realized that shape-makers were also often outliers in modern art. Some of these artists were overlooked, or out of sync with their time. Perhaps this is because shape-artists tend to work with uncertainty and vulnerability instead of the self-assurance and dependability of systems.

It is not a leap to see Bluhm’s paintings from the early 1970s up to his death in 1999 through the lens of Sillman’s statement. The shapes in his paintings are “personal” and indicate that he worked with “uncertainty and vulnerability.”

Bluhm is also distinguished from his contemporaries, such as Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell, by his use of saturated color, and the layers of shapes (or what Sillman calls mass and negative space) he deftly compresses in his paintings. He recognizes that painting is a two-dimensional surface, but he does not adhere to formalist dos and don’ts about it. No matter the depth of Bluhm’s illusionistic space, he always calls attention to the painting’s surface, sometimes through means as blunt and suggestive as drips and splatters that recall pollen, milk, or semen, bursting out of rounded forms.

Norman Bluhm, “Ode to Apollo” (1997), oil on canvas, 156 x 100 inches (the Estate of Norman Bluhm)

Bluhm’s curved shapes, often marked by sinuous lines looping back on themselves, synthesize the dynamic and the languid, fleshy and fluid forms moving across the painting’s surface. Those in the late paintings seem to be rising and spreading out — something like the constantly changing masses in a lava lamp. By outlining the contour of his shapes with another color, he created a pulsing effect similar to halation.

Look at the three interconnected, pinkish forms in “Pygmalion” (1979), and how they occupy the painting’s panoramic orientation that measures 108 by 306 inches, or the cropping in “Untitled, Studies in Blue, White, Gray” (1975) of forms that extend beyond the edges of the four abutted panels measuring 48 by 240 inches, in a format that recalls a frieze.

Bluhm, who studied architecture with Mies van der Rohe from 1936 to ’41, and again briefly after World War II, was deeply aware of the relationship of paintings to their architectural surroundings. In both his formats and compositions, he alludes to sacred spaces, to altars and ceilings, and to the desire to lift our mortal forms skywards (see “Ode to Apollo,” 1997, with its use of a border and decorative repetition). He was a sensualist in search of the spiritual, and his paintings extend the prelapsarian joy found in Henri Matisse’s “Bonheur de Vivre” (“Joy of Life”) (1905–6).

His work anticipates the waterfall paintings of Pat Steir, the flower paintings of Cy Twombly, Judy Ledgerwood’s use of blacks and pinks, purples and magentas, the dense concatenations of Philip Taaffe, and his embrace of the occult.

Look at the arch formed by the trees, and the deep space it frames, in Matisse’s painting, and then look at Bloom’s “Aegean Angel” (1988) and what he has done with arch-like forms. This shows what is most contrarian about Bluhm, who was a bomber pilot in World War II and visited destruction upon those below: he did not reject the past in order to arrive in the future. He believed that it was possible to make it your own and carry it with you into your art. The richly colored shapes he developed in his paintings and works on paper were all his own.

Norman Bluhm: Metamorphosis is scheduled to continue at the Newark Museum of Art (49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey) through August 16.

Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Please check the museum website for business hours and further information in the coming weeks.

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