New York

Norman Bluhm

Fine Arts Center, State University of New York at Stony Brook

Norman Bluhm’s last solo show in the New York area was ten years ago. He is 64, and belongs to the generation of abstract artists born in the ’20s—the decade between Jackson Pollock (1912) and Jasper Johns (1930). Of that generation—Gene Davis, AI Held, Alfred Leslie, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, for example—only Bluhm and Joan Mitchell have not repudiated their origins in Abstract Expressionism. His accomplishments have gone largely unacknowledged, and given the critical rhetoric dominating the ’60s and ’70s, it is easy to see why: Bluhm adamantly refused to follow the formulas prescribed by such influential critics and curators of those years as Michael Fried, Clement Greenberg, Kenworth Moffett, Barbara Rose, Robert Rosenblum, and William Rubin, and this refusal meant banishment from the various herds tended by these critics and their followers. The backlash from the period continues to negatively affect Bluhm’s career; a retrospective is in order.

The paintings in this show were done between 1975 and 1979. Monumental in scale, these vibrantly pullulating, thick, but airy pictorial webs demonstrate Bluhm’s masterful abilities as draftsman and colorist. The huge, twisting gestural splatters and delicate, elliptical calligraphies that dominate many of his paintings of the ’60s have been incorporated into a larger, more daring approach. Refusing to accept the post-Bauhaus notion that paintings must be pared down to essentials, Bluhm places ballooning shapes and dervishlike arabesques and surges in a densely layered space. All this was once considered retrograde.

The paintings confront the viewer with heroic sexual presences. It’s as if the clouds and goddesses of Tiepolo, Rubens, and Watteau have been transformed into highly charged, voluptuous, lushly billowing masses. Bluhm’s connect ion with the Baroque and Rococo is reinforced by his use of creamy yellow ochers, veronese greens, sky and slate blues, hot pinks, and wine reds. He evidently loves the monumental scale and heroic subject matter of these earlier styles, and seeks to make of them a timeless vocabulary for the present. Air and light, mass and atmosphere, movement and gravity all exchange places; the supple boundaries that separate shapes suddenly turn into shapes themselves, figure and ground puncturing each other with ease. Space is simultaneously structured and disassembled. The colors reproduce the kinkier tones of cosmetics, but without being fey; they suggest that the artificial and the fleshly are the same. Imagination and reality merge.

This is what abstraction, with its roots in Cubism and Symbolism, is all about. In order to be convincing it must evolve a fiction that addresses painting as a manufactured space; Bluhm builds his fiction on the morphology of the female figure. His abstract feminine presences and his pictorial space exist in a continual flux—evidence, I think, of his need to reconcile the rational with the irrational, the heroic realm with the earthly.

Bluhm has had to pay a price for his fiercely independent stance, Critics may praise independence, but they often demand conformity. Now that the rhetoric of the ’60s and ’70s has lost its currency, however, we will perhaps be able to gauge Bluhm’s accomplishment with open eyes. If we believe that abstraction is just an episode in the history of painting, an episode drawing to its close, then we are guilty of the same narrow mindedness that ruled an earlier decade.

John Yau