Norman Bluhm 1921 —1999

Biography

"Abstract Expressionism was not an authoritarian style like cubism; its appeal to artists lay in the fact that it was virtually pathless. Each artist committed himself to an aesthetic, moral, and spiritual position of his own choosing. Each artist went beyond appearances in his art in order to give form to such critical emotions as despair, fear, fury, release, exultation, and ecstasy - emotions intensified by the uncertainty and psychological torment of World War II and the ensuing nuclear threat."

-Excerpt from "NORMAN BLUHM"  by James Harithas

 

NORMAN BLUHM  American, 1921-1999

"Norman Bluhm made the decision to become an artist in 1947 against the wishes of his family. He was 26 years old. He left his past behind, moved to Paris, and after nine years abroad, he settled in and around New York. More than anything else, his military experience during World War II changed the course of his life.

He was born on March 28, 1921, on Chicago's South Side. Except for the six years that he spent as a child with his mother's family in Lucca, Italy, he lived in the city of his birth until he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941.

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bluhm joined the war effort. He became a B-26 pilot and flew 44 missions over North Africa and Europe before he was wounded and sent home. "Don't make a hero out of me," he told me recently, "the only heroes are those that didn't come back." In my estimation and that of many of his peers, Norman Bluhm was to become a hero as an artist.

Bluhm rejoined his architectural class after the war, but he quickly realized that he could not return to his former life. He had passed through his soul's dark night. Before his decision to become an artist, he had been under the guidance or control of some authority figures, e.g., his father, his teachers, his coach, and his military commander. "When I became an artist, I got a life of my own." The war had not only changed him, but it stayed with him long after he left for Europe to pursue a career as an artist. Referring to the "first generation" artists, Stephen Polcari points out in his book, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, "World War II left an indelible mark on the people of the Abstract Expressionist generation. It permanently altered their patterns of thought and life." Its effect was even more acute on Norman Bluhm who fought in the war and who lost his younger brother, a B-17 pilot, over Germany."

Excerpted from "NORMAN BLUHM"  by James Harithas

"Norman Bluhm is undoubtedly one of the leading figures in the bright epoch of the second generation of American Abstract Expressionism, or Action Painting, another term used for the non-figurative developments in American painting after the Second World War. In the works of Bluhm of the 1950s and 1960s we can see the essential ingredients of this type of artistic expression, such as the use of dripping or that of the spreading of aggressive colors on the canvas with large brushstroke gestures. The paintings from this period, like The Anvil, 1959, Balaclava, 1960, Ingot, 1960, Stoker, 1964, resemble conflicting fireworks that rend the darkness of the sky, bursting in air, freeing myriads of particles of light-color that illuminate the celestial dome.

 

Two factors have always been evident in Bluhm's work, from the late 1940s until his death in February 1999: his love of the landscape, and his love for the sensual, erotic female figures that constantly appear in his works on canvas and the many works on paper. Back in 1973 Thomas B. Hess, presenting an exhibition of Bluhm's works curated by James Harithas at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse (New York), wrote: "The basic forms have changed, too, becoming more Baroque, and engaging in a lucid game of curve and counter-curve, in 8-shaped elements and passages where pink and yellow reinforce an association with anatomy - a highly abstracted glimpse of the belly, buttocks and breasts of an odalisque."

 

The large canvases, composed of juxtaposed elements that remind us of the polyptychs of the 14th and 15th centuries, or the large polychromatic windows of Gothic churches, both abstract and figurative, can be considered the summa of Bluhm's artistic thought. Here the force of the sign, the intensity of the colors, the luminous flashes of reds, yellows, violets, combined with an adroit architectonic structure (from 1937 to 1941 Bluhm studied architecture in Chicago with Mies van der Rohe), join to create works of a very lofty aesthetic level, permeated by energy, passion, seminal flux, making them dynamic documents of the vitality of painting in the contemporary world."

Excerpted from:  "The Work of Norman Bluhm: From The Physical To The Spiritual"  by Luigi Sansone

 

"A resourceful and awesomely capable painter, when faced with an artistic obstacle Bluhm has always been able to work his way through it, rather than turn aside in another direction.
It's also worth noting, here, that the shifts in Bluhm's painting, always gradual and organic, have never been in response to changing art-world fashions. And yet, for all his independence from trends and his intense engagement with certain earlier moments in the history of Western art, Bluhm clearly lives and works in the present. Indeed, his development offers some interesting parallels with the problems faced in recent decades by many other painters, both of his generation and younger. Beyond the personal scope of his artistic achievement, his career offers an exemplary case of how one painter has been able to move beyond the often stultifying esthetic dialectics that eternally pit mid-century modernism against its multifarious enemies.

Painting in Paris in the first half of the 1950s (he moved to the French capital in 1947), Bluhm found his way from Cézanne-influenced landscape painting, often done in plein air, to allover abstraction. By 1953, his work offered the viewer deep-hued curtains of color built from countless short brushtrokes. The spatial movement of these paintings tends to be downward; they can evoke rain falling in a tropical forest, dropping theater curtains and the descent of some mythic night. Painted light to dark, that is, the bottom-most layers of color are the most brightly hued, the mid 1950s paintings quietly radiate with a kind of filtered light that seeps through the interstices of the marks. Like other abstract painters in the 1950s, Bluhm had studied Monet's late work, but he had also paid attention to medieval stained-glass windows (far more accessible to an artist working in Paris than to one in New York) and was an enthusiast of Corot.


After his relocation to New York in 1956, Bluhm continued, for a little while, to make these dense compositions, as one can see in paintings such as Jaded Silence (1957). But in the second half of the 1950s, the hitherto tightly bound webs of Bluhm's work began to open up. The marks became looser and longer, and the spaces between them widened; the cumulative effect as one studies the paintings in succession is of a piece of wool being gradually pulled apart. By 1959, the year in which Bluhm emerged as a stylistically individual painter, the abbreviated strokes had turned into out-and-out gestures. Allover structure gave way to what has been termed "centrifugal" compositions. In a trio of large, forceful paintings from that year -- The Anvil, Chicago 1920 and Winter Nights -- Bluhm declares his allegiance to gestural abstraction. These are violently achieved paintings strewn with jagged marks that appear to have shattered on impact. Profuse drips and an array of warring, meaty gestures establish a sense of turbulent movement and intense struggle at the same time 1the play of values creates a patchwork pattern of darks and lights.


In the latter two paintings, both of which are triptychs, the horizontal format that Bluhm was already favoring -- hardly surprising, perhaps, in a landscape-conscious painter -- became a little more pronounced (Chicago 1920 measures 7 by 9 feet, Winter Nights 8 by 12 feet). This expanding scale was, no doubt, partly a result of Bluhm's living in New York where the influence of Jackson Pollock and large-scale American painting was stronger than in Paris. But even as he was absorbing New-York influences, Bluhm was already starting to separate his work from that of the Abstract Expressionists. Although not immediately evident, the advent of multi-panel canvases in Bluhm's work marks a break with the pictorial practice of the preceding generation. Influenced by mural painting and Picasso's Guernica in their conception of large-scale canvases, and no doubt disinclined to turn back to devotional Italian painting of the Renaissance, Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and nearly every other "first generation" Abstract Expressionist almost never used more than one stretched canvas per work.


By contrast, in the later 1950s, Bluhm and other younger American artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Alfred Leslie and Robert Rauschenberg embraced the possibilities of multiple panels. While Bluhm recalls that his triptychs were partly the result of necessity -- it was the only way he could paint that large and still manage to get the canvases out of his studio -- this dividing of the painting support, a format which would later be taken up by countless other painters, helped drive a thin wedge (almost literally) in the prevailing assumptions about how to make a painting, and also, perhaps, into modernist assumptions of wholeness. Not that Bluhm was consciously attempting to introduce art-historical allusions into his 1959 paintings -- the triptych format's long pedigree wouldn't become important to Bluhm until his grand polyptychs of the 1980s and 1990s.


Another element that distinguishes Bluhm from the Abstract Expressionists, even in his "gestural" period (circa 1959-1967), was noted by Thomas Hess. One of the best writers on Bluhm's painting of the time, Hess observed, from the vantage point of 1973, how the artist's method involved "accretions, constructions of large shapes from small units, and then larger patterns from these shapes."2 This procedure, Hess felt, was so unlike Pollock's and de Kooning's wide sweeps as to be "the opposite of most Abstract Expressionist practice." Indeed, for all his painterly energy and nuanced use of gesture (Hess detected three "basic units" in the gestural paintings), Bluhm has actually spent the greater part of his career working at a significant remove from the kind of painting generally associated with Abstract Expressionism. While many of his generation remained unfailingly committed to the ethos and style of gestural abstraction, Bluhm's most intense involvement with that brand of painting really only lasted 10 years.


The opening-up process that had begun after Bluhm's arrival in New York continued, and by 1961 his art had again transformed itself. Drastically reducing the number of forms per canvas, the artist was able to make the individual shapes larger while also leaving more open space between them. In paintings such as Black Card (1961) and Iron Horse (1964), dark shapes reminiscent of tree trunks or post-and-lintel constructions hug the edges of the painting, almost as if they were shoring up the canvas against some enormous external pressure. In other works such as Caliburn (1963) and Sangamore (1963), these structural forms shoot across the center of the picture, deflecting when they reach its boundaries like a caroming billiard ball. With their dramatic darks and lights and their simplified, beamlike compositions, these paintings are clearly indebted to Franz Kline, an older painter Bluhm admired greatly and learned from, but, as Hess's remarks remind us, Bluhm was not simply repeating a received style.


Indicating how undoctrinaire Bluhm could be even in relation to his own work, one of his most ambitious paintings of the early 1960s, Oz (1961), doesn't have any blocky structural supports. Instead, the massive (8 by 24 feet!) four-panel work is dominated by a dark, upside down horseshoe shape, slightly off-center and angled to the right. The form seems to be moving like a galleon or mythic sea monster across the expanse of the canvas, attended by spouts of water, fireworks and hurled garlands -- very different in feeling from the girderlike thrusts of Kline's paintings. Writing about Bluhm's work in 1962, a year after Oz, poet and critic Frank O'Hara declared:


"Bluhm is the only artist working in the idiom of abstract-expressionism who has a spirit similar to that of Pollock, which is to say that he is out -- beyond beauty, beyond composition, beyond the old-fashioned kind of pictorial ambition."

With a hindsight that, sadly, was not granted to O'Hara, who died in 1966, we know that Bluhm in fact found his way, over the next decades, to nothing less than beauty, composition and "the old-fashioned kind of pictorial ambition." Indeed, the swelling curves of the central shape in Oz already anticipate the sensual elements that enter Bluhm's paintings toward the end of the 1960s and soon come to dominate them. In a 1987 interview, Bluhm himself discounted the Pollock influence, which had also been theorized by critic Lawrence Alloway in the early 1970s

 

 "Later people said that the work I did in the late '50s and early '60s came out of Pollock. . . . My manner of working was much more like Bill's [de Kooning's]."6 Bluhm's work does, indeed, share much with de Kooning's, but the artist's demurral does not negate O'Hara's observation. By locating Bluhm in a jazz-like "out thereness," O'Hara must have already sensed that his friend was on a path that would lead him away from conventions of midcentury abstraction.
Throughout the paintings of the early 1960s one can see what Hess meant when he wrote of Bluhm's "accretion." Appearing, from a distance, as massive gestures, the bulky shapes that frame and span the compositions reveal themselves, on closer inspection, as the result of countless brush loads of paint snapped onto the canvas. The dense flurries of splattered paint spreading from the edges of the shapes are testimony to the force of Bluhm's gestures.
Sharing the "empty" areas with these drips and splatters are skittering brushmarks which describe truncated loops and arcs against the white grounds. Painted with a range of colors -- black, yellow, ocher, purple, crimson, etc. -- these drawn lines are clearly the first marks made on the canvas. We can thus read them as traces of the artist's initial exploration of the blank canvas, a means of feeling his way into the painting, a sketch of the painting's possibilities. Signposts for the painting to come, these high velocity lines also hint at alternative directions, compositional roads not taken, reminding us of the essential freedom of both artist and viewer in the best gestural abstraction."

Excerpted from: "Ecstatic Meditations: Norman

 

Bluhm's Painting Over Five Decades" by Raphael Rubinstein

An important source for modern and contemporary American & European Art in East Hampton, New York & worldwide, Vered Gallery's spectacular wide-ranging inventory consists of unique paintings, drawings, large & small scale sculpture, monotypes, prints and photographs  by Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Fernando Botero, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Chagall, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, David Hockney, Winslow Homer, Wolf Kahn, Jeff Koons, Fernand Leger, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Thomas Moran, Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Charles Sheeler, Bert Stern, Alfred Stieglitz, Andy Warhol, Carleton E Watkins, Tom Wesselmann and Andrew Wyeth.

An important source for modern and contemporary American & European Art in East Hampton, New York & worldwide, Janet Lehr Fine Arts' spectacular wide-ranging inventory consists of unique paintings, drawings, large & small scale sculpture, monotypes, prints and photographs  by Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Fernando Botero, Cartier-Bresson, Marc Chagall, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, David Hockney, Winslow Homer, Wolf Kahn, Jeff Koons, Fernand Leger, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Thomas Moran, Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Charles Sheeler, Bert Stern, Alfred Stieglitz, Andy Warhol, Carleton E Watkins, Tom Wesselmann and Andrew Wyeth.

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EXHIBITIONS
2014
Jerald Melberg Gallery at The Armory Show 2014
Hollis Taggart Galleries at Art Wynwood 2014

2013
Norman Bluhm and The Female Form in Sculpture, Abby M. Taylor Fine Art LLC, Greenwich, CT

2012
Vincent Vallarino Fine Art at The Armory Show 2012

2009
Abstract Expressionism: Further Evidence, Painting & Sculpture. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.
Circa 1959. Roni Feinstein. New York: Jacobson Howard Gallery.
Norman Bluhm: Gestural Structures 1960-65. Bremen/Berlin: Kunsthandel Wolfgang Werner
Norman Bluhm, A Retrospective of Works on Paper 1948-1998. Text by John Yau (Opere su
carta 1948-1999. James Harithas and John Yau. Milan: Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea,
Edizioni Mazzotta). New York: Jacobson Howard Gallery

2008
New York Cool, Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection. Edited by Pepe Karmel.
Essays by Lynn Gumpert, Pepe Karmel, Alexandra Lange, and Lytle Shaw. New York:
Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Action Painting. Pepe Karmel, Robert Fleck, Jason Kaufman, Gottfried Boehm, Ulf Kuster.
Riehen/Basel: Fondation Beyeler.

2007
Norman Bluhm, Selected Works. New York; James Graham & Sons.
Norman Bluhm, Selected Works from 1976-1989. Los Angeles; Manny Silverman Gallery
The Late Paintings of Norman Bluhm. James Harithas. Houston: Station Museum of Contemporary Art

2006
Blanton Museum of Art, American Art Since 1900. Edited by Annete DiMeo Carlozzi and Kelly Baum.
Raphael Rubinstein, "Virtuosity in Crisis: Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis, and Joan Mitchell circa 1960".
Austin, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas.

2005
Norman Bluhm, Works on Paper from the 70s, 80s, and 90s from the Estate of Norman Bluhm.
New York; James Graham & Sons.

2004
An American Odyssey 1945/1980 [Debating Modernism]. Stephen C. Foster, Daniel A. Siedell, Estera Milman, John Yau, Janis Mink.
"Chronicles of the Creative Act". Madrid: Circulo de Bellas Artes
On Paper, Masterworks from the Addison Collection. Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy

 


Norman Bluhm's works are in many museums in the United States including:

Arizona State University Art Museum; The University of Arizona Museum of Art; Ball State University Museum of Art; ; Butler Institute of American Art; Chrysler Museum of Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dallas Museum of Art; Everson Museum Of Art; High Museum of Art; National Gallery of Victoria; Neuberger Museum of Art; Grey Art Gallery, New York University; Phoenix Art Museum; Smithsonian American Art Museum; The Columbus Museum-Georgia; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Phillips Collection, Washington DC and Whitney Museum of American Art.

 

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