New York

Norman Bluhm

Washburn Gallery

This exhibition, entitled “Norman Bluhm Paintings 1960–65,” not only examines a distinct period in the artist’s career, it affords a fresh view of a moment in post-war American art history, which has been so codified as to render many artists working then almost invisible. As these large canvases attest, Bluhm remains (along with Joan Mitchell) one of the few artists of his generation to have continually grappled with the Abstract Expressionist legacy. Influenced by both Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock (he saw a show of Pollock’s in 1951 ), Bluhm made his first mature abstractions—allover fields of transparent washes—in the early ’50s, while living in Paris. Over the course of his nearly five-decade-long career, Bluhm transformed this early method, one that parallels Sam Francis’ (they shared a studio in Paris), into a vocabulary all his own.

These paintings are both dense and airy. Strong linear gestures architectonically deployed, calligraphic arabesques, and thin trails of paint running down the surface or exploding away from the wide splatter where the brush was slapped against the canvas, evidence, not simply an Abstract Expressionist vocabulary, but a belief in the physical and sensual pleasures of painting, which, in many ways, directly contradicts the rhetoric of that movement. As dependent as Abstract Expressionist gesturalism is upon the primacy of the body—the trace of the action on the canvas—the rhetoric has emphasized transcendence.

Bluhm’s paintings of the ’60s mark the beginnings of his reinvention of Abstract Expressionism; indeed, a wide array of marks and gestures reveals a clear sense of composition that separates his work from that of his precursors. The combination of curving and linear gestures suggests a knowing synthesis of Pollock and Franz Kline—Bluhm’s sense of abstract space simultaneously insists upon the surface (the paintings were realized on unprimed canvas) and creates an experience of limitlessness—while the palette (white and black set against such colors as brownish-orange, deep reds, and earth yellows) is clearly his own.

In the past quarter of a century, Bluhm has developed, extended, and transformed his practice. In recent paintings, his background palette has consisted of deep reds, violets, dark blues, and bright yellows, and the blacks are as sensual as chocolate. Absent is the obvious angst we associate with Abstract Expressionism, as well as the emphasis on the formal espoused by a subsequent generation of abstractionists. Like Pierre Bonnard—an artist who adopted a vocabulary that many considered moribund and extended it in an altogether unforeseen direction—Bluhm filters the unabashedly erotic through a vision of intense revery.

John Yau