New York

Oscar Bluemner

The Graham Gallery honors the centennial of the birth of Oscar Bluemner with a provocative and pleasing selection of his oils and watercolors. One-time architect Bluemner is known particularly for his expressionistic and irrational use of color; he was dubbed the “Vermillionaire” due to his use of the startling red in almost every one of his paintings. As a color theorist, his concepts owed as much to Byzantine mosaics, medieval stained glass and illumination, or Oriental painting, as they did to the ideas of Delaunay and the American Synchromists. Unlike these moderns, however, Bluemner chose to reject a color abstraction. He adamantly claimed that sheer abstraction was “loose fancy,” or just so much “sterile intellectual experiment.” Consequently, his working process was to find some symbolic-realistic form for his daring use of color, and this he sought in a geometricized version of landscape. The almost exclusive concentration on landscape did tend to limit Bluemner’s structural repertory, despite a bold use of color in surprising configurations. But this very dense visual fabric also worked to his advantage, providing a closeness and compact alphabet of forms with which he could intensify the color moods. The compositions are usually themes of two or three tones, simple triads like red-blue-green or lemon yellow-grey-black, with the added emotive impact of unconventional illumination, “to emphasize the esoteric sphere of colors,” as the artist stated. What Bluemner did achieve, to a remarkable degree, was a distinction between decorative color and profoundly emotional color. A schematically sinuous tree trunk has no pretenses of being figuratively something else, but set against a gleaming block of vermillion, it takes on an apparitional quality, an imaginative outline that frees the composition to express a mood rather than simply depict a scene. Yet often he could not get beyond the factualness of his realistic starting point, and chromatics were usually deadened as a result. Some of these less successful smaller landscapes suggested what might be Grant Wood’s version of Cubism, and a wider spread of paled tonalities dissipated Bluemner’s usual forceful confinements. When he verged on abstraction, or at least gave freer play to distortions, as in such veiled, visionary watercolor studies as Moonrise (1928), or in the strident horrific waverings of the oil, Red Glare (An American Night), (1929), Bluemner’s color seems to have taken on its most original and luminous effects. As landscape or city scene became subjectively transformed, the hues themselves spoke with a more privately weighty conviction, stirring up exquisitely intense sensations.

Bluemner committed suicide in 1939, despondent with the lack of public interest in his work, and broken by failing eyesight. It is only recently that the solidity of his achievement has been given recognition, with a retrospective at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge this past fall. The strident silhouettes and unearthly glazes have a strange, almost defiant assertion about them, and this showing was a welcome occasion to reexamine an overlooked American painter.

Emily Wasserman