New York

Oscar Bluemner

New York Cultural Center

Oscar Bluemner is now, some thirty years after his death, coming into a modest share of the esteem which is his due, considering his role in the history of modern American art. German born and trained as an architect (source of the agricultural and industrial architecture which is the fundamental motif of his later painting), Bluemner had traveled extensively and gained access to the most revolutionary ideas about modern art prior to most anyone else except those progressive painters actually on the spot in Paris. The worst indictment that can be made of Bluemner is that he was able only to extract a sense of period from his painting rather than one of genius. The problem was not one of hand, as we shall see, but of the kinds of ideas to which Bluemner was attracted. His fusion of Cubist structure, emotionalized color symbolism and his sense of mystical community with the Eastern American landscape remains a model of fruitful commitment to modernist sensibility which looms even larger when seen against a background of incomprehension and hostility. He had understood a great deal of Cubism even before 1912, through his travels in the south of Europe and his knowledge of Cézanne. By 1912 he was working in a high-keyed version of Cézanne-like Cubism, replete with ray lines and transparent overlappings (a Futurist note). Five of his works were selected to be shown at the Armory Show of 1913.

From this date on, the birth so to speak of Modern American Art, until his death, his painting grew clearer and more simple. The scale always tended to be modest, an arm’s breadth. He delighted in broad, directly laid-on surfaces of fattish primary colors. Rectangles of red or yellow came to represent barns and houses; intense blues were the sky; black, brown and green, the shimmerings and urgings of plant growth. At moments the landscape could be so motivally concentrated that little more existed than an horizon and the ball of the sun. By the late twenties a Burchfieldish note was struck in the buckling surfaces and nervous edges of the architectural shapes—an attempt to render the anima that dwelled within. His attitude toward landscape was shared—like a common pool—with Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella, Feininger and Marsden Hartley to name but a few. And comparing individual work to individual work, Bluemner need not always come off second best.

Robert Pincus-Witten