New York

Peter Blume

Terry Dintenfass Gallery

Peter Blume’s style might be healthier for a little change. It’s hard to keep the word “corny” out of a discussion of some of his productions. Perhaps the most difficult thing for an artist to know is when going against the current is brave and useful and when it is only blind. Blume’s work has looked the same since 1940, a phlegmatic, flatfooted realism that manages to make the mural in a 1969 homage to the artists who restored flood-damaged Florence look like a WPA project. Do any artists wear smocks anymore? These do. It’s amazing that they left their berets at home. Recollection of the Flood is an impossibly tidy tableau, as unlikely as the spotless and immaculately pointed brushes sitting—where else—in a pitcher on the windowsill. Like their owner, they’d benefit from rigorous use. This is not a matter of technical incompetence or laziness. The very stiffness and laboriousness of Blume’s execution probably arises out of an excess of conscientiousness. When attempting little more than an exercise in eye-hand coordination, Blume’s style works well, as in Landscape with Poppies, 1939, where he achieves the precision of a Clara Peeters, and, because he aims at nothing else, allows space for interesting unconscious manipulations—this being one of the few examples, for instance, where Blume’s inevitable X composition looks truly inevitable. And when he is willing to distort the bonds of credibility so that an intention of plausibility could never be inferred, he is also successful, as with the elephantiasis and gangrene of Flowering Stump. It’s Blume’s conscious aspirations that are problematic because they are pretentious and heavy-handed. Some people should never drink and some people should never read myths—it clouds their judgment. From the Metamorphoses is a melodramatic illustration of Ovid’s legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha. The protagonists are caught at the moment when some of the stones they tossed behind are already human while others are in various stages of transformation. Unfortunately, the rock pile is no less animate than its progeny who work a flat landscape in which pink-and-lavender carpeting, not earth, sprouts flowers as thick and even as clover, and terrace farming is done on a flight of steps that looks like a done-over Mayan temple. The salient incident is a woman’s upflung arm, dramatically stretched towards the receding mass of roiling black clouds. Not a dry eye in the house, as they say.

There’s nothing wrong with the Pygmalion conceit that artists coax life out of inertness, and Blume manages an effective statement with several versions of the Boulders of Avila, which replaces hysteria with an exposition of facts: a man’s sketching activity reverberates against the huge slabs of rock among which he sits, reminders of another primal, but geologic, fashioning. A salutary humility in the dwarfing of the Hopperesque presence makes palatable its assumption of power. Meanwhile, the surprise of a tactile, pebbly surface on the rock hints at a possible real metamorphosis beyond the limits of two dimensions. Paintings like this prove that a body of work has nothing to fear from being old-fashioned, only from being overwrought and under-observed.

Jeanne Silverthorne