New York

Norman Bluhm

Norman Bluhm is undoubtedly one of the most underrated artists of his generation. Shortly before this exhibition opened—Bluhm’s first solo show in New York in more than a decade—an exhibition of Kenneth Noland’s work closed. It was one of those timely coincidences worth pointing out. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that a large part of the art world was busy celebrating the rigidly formalist (formulaic?) work of Noland (born 1924) for being radical, innovative, and chic, while deriding or ignoring Bluhm (born 1920) for being derivative. Now, more than 25 years after Noland first exhibited his targets and chevrons (which at best codified the compositions of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella) and Bluhm was evolving out of Abstract Expressionism, it is obvious that the former never developed, while the latter has found a way to both extend and transform his origins. Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and The Hare” would seem to be an appropriate paradigm for this generation, particularly if one also takes into account Andy Warhol (born 1930), yet another artist content to parody his earlier efforts. Given the different status each of these artists has been accorded, a number of questions need to be asked. Doesn’t the decade-long creative failure of many so-called major artists suggest a pressing need to reexamine our received opinions and accredited critical modes? Aren’t the art-history texts one reads in college full of misinformation? In fact, might not all the “correct” canonical interpretations of our recent past be dead wrong?

The exhibition was divided into two parts, with works on paper in the gallery’s uptown space and paintings in the downtown one. The strongest of the works shown were the largest paintings. Bluhm has always needed a really big format, and to my mind he is one of the few artists who can work on a mural-sized scale without slipping into vacuous design. Using titles such as Princess Cuervo, 1985, and The Dutchess of Cayenne, 1986, to wittily evoke a distinctly sexual feminine presence, the artist employs a vocabulary of biomorphic forms, delicate linear arabesques, a swirling rococo space, and a hothouse palette that seems to have been purchased at a cosmetics counter. By making a connection between the artist’s paint and the performer’s make-up, Bluhm underlines the fictive impulse of painting (and, perhaps unintentionally the current trend in painting toward pure theatrics).

Bluhm has transformed Abstract Expressionism into a very different possibility. In contrast to the work of, say Franz Kline or Mark Rothko, Bluhm’s paintings are neither the result of cause and effect nor existential propositions. In these highly mediated compositions, gestures become shapes, which in turn evoke the interpenetration of space, light, and form. This irresolvable interplay becomes even more dramatic through the counterpoint of hot and cool colors within a swirling spatial vortex. Consequently, the viewer becomes extremely conscious of the way the artist has manipulated a wide range of means to construct a fictional space where imagination and sensation are interchangeable. Bluhm’s self-consciousness vis-à-vis his Ab Ex inheritance has led to innovation rather than regression. His accomplishment not only challenges much of our current critical thinking but also proves that history is not simply a sequence of fashionable styles.

In this context, the comparison of Bluhm and Warhol is not as farfetched as it might first appear. While the former celebrates Eros the latter celebrates Thanatos. However much today’s art world (imitating its wrongheaded predecessors) might think otherwise, the conflict is far from being resolved. Until we realize this, we will continue to look at what’s in front of us with at least one eye closed.

John Yau