PRINT April 1999


Norman Bluhm

NORMAN BLUHM WAS AN EXTREME example of the many Americans, mostly World War II veterans, who went to Italy and France after the war to learn about art history and in doing so simultaneously taught the typically despairing and poverty-stricken European artist something about American energy, expansiveness, and optimism. Like Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell, Bluhm was one of the most powerful so-called second-generation Abstract Expressionists (more accurately second-decade) and, also like them, among the few who remained consistently faithful to this aesthetic.

After four years as a bomber pilot—a visual and psychological experience that had a lasting effect on the artist and his work—Bluhm returned briefly in 1945 to Chicago, his birthplace, to resume studies with Mies van der Rohe. Seeking greater artistic freedom, he left the same year to enroll at the Academie de Belle Arte in Florence and two years later went on to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a city he loved and would return to frequently. There, in 1953, he shared a studio with Sam Francis. This relationship, on top of Bluhm’s having seen an exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s dripped paintings two years before, led to such works as Bleeding Rain, 1956, a perfectly titled painting inspired by the styles of both artists. But during the previous summer in New York, Bluhm had met de Kooning and Kline, and under their influence the direction of his work soon changed from allover abstraction to the use of broad brushstrokes, sometimes with figurative associations.

When Bluhm returned to Paris before settling permanently in New York in 1956, he met Joan Mitchell, who reinforced his change of direction. At that time Jean-Paul Riopelle, whom he had known since 1949, gave Bluhm his studio. In this large space Bluhm’s work became both greater in scale and increasingly gestural, encouraging him to use his entire body rather than only his hand and arm. In New York he established a close relationship with the critic Thomas B. Hess and one, closer still and more important to his career, with the poet, sometime critic, and MoMA associate curator Frank O’Hara.

It was in 1959 that Bluhm’s career first peaked. He had his second one-person show at Leo Castelli Gallery and his first at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan; was included in Documenta II in Kassel as well as in various other important group shows; and completed a series of twenty-six collaborative poem-paintings with O’Hara. In these drawings, as in, for example, the Whitney Museum’s The Anvil, 1959, having completely assimilated the work of his predecessors, his style was his own. In many other paintings of 1959 (Chicago, 1920 and Winter Nights) and of 1960 (Balaclava and Sculpture’s Landscape), Bluhm’s slashing, dripping brushstrokes, aggressive power, and sensitive palette became his “signature,” one no more mistakable for those of Kline or de Kooning than his drips were for Pollock’s. In 1961 Fred McDarrah took his famous photograph of Bluhm balancing acrobatically on a ladder as he completed a sweeping brush stroke. The shot, as full of energy and information as any of Hans Namuth’s photographs of Pollock, deservedly became the cover image of McDarrah’s The Artist’s World in Pictures.

For the catalogue of the Milan show O’Hara wrote that Bluhm’s “paintings—passionate, precise, impulsive, classical—embrace the elements of actuality as they are sensed rather than seen, and if there is reference to nature it is to those pure Empedoclean qualities which we had thought lost: earth, fire, water, air.” More specifically in “Art Chronicle I” (Kulchur, Spring 1962), he observed, “A great deal has been written about the influence of Pollock, but that is all about the look, the technique which is best known (Pollock had several). 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.” Besides the poem-paintings, there are O’Hara’s poems related to Bluhm and their shared circle, such as “Three Airs,” dedicated to Bluhm. In the second air “a little bird . . . must grasp things! tear them/out of the slime and then, alas! it mischievously/drops them into the cauldron of hideousness.” And in the third air, the only one in fact written after O’Hara met Bluhm:

Oh to be an angel (if there were any!), and go
straight up into the sky and look around and then come down

not to be covered with steel and aluminum
glaringly ugly in the pure distances and clattering and
buckling, wheezing

but to be part of the treetops and the blueness, invisible,
the iridescent darknesses beyond
silent, listening to
the air becoming no air becoming air again

Frank O’Hara died at forty in 1966. Beyond the loss of a great friend, the loss of the artist’s most committed and articulate champion had an enormous effect on his career. O’Hara understood the conflicts in Bluhm, as man and artist, between the ugly and the beautiful, the aggressive and the gentle, the love and the hate that, as in Empedocles’ philosophy, motivated the basic elements. Not only did O’Hara recognize Bluhm’s dichotomies but, when with Bluhm, he brought out the best in him. If in a literary sense his career was somewhat bound by the words O’Hara wrote between the late ’50s and mid-’60s, he would still continue to create increasingly larger and more lyrical paintings—many, particularly from the ’70s on, inspired by the female form, handled freely and sensuously in a range of flesh tones. These culminated in his 1994 exhibition at the Ace Gallery of monumental paintings, at once erotic and iconic. This phantasmagoria of goddesses and goddess-parts never received the attention it deserved, to some degree because of Bluhm’s increasingly belligerent disenchantment with the art world, expressed in boomeranging attacks. These late works, along with the earlier ones for which Bluhm is best known, are receiving a belated if ironically timely retrospective viewing at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. One hopes that the boomerang is turning again.

B.H. Friedman is a novelist and art writer living in New York.