New York

Norman Bluhm

Ace Gallery

One of the most curious things about the “second generation” Abstract Expressionists is the need so many of them felt to renounce the very tradition from which they emerged. One could imagine the mature work of Al Held or Alfred Leslie having been made by artists who had never seen or heard of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. There are exceptions to be sure—Joan Mitchell upheld the tradition, and so has Norman Bluhm. Indeed, though Bluhm’s most recent paintings are as impossible to extrapolate from his works of the ’50s as Held’s or Leslie’s, Bluhm, unlike those artists, has renounced nothing. His art has simply become so much more inclusive, so much more historically informed, that it easily subsumes everything it has ever been within a grander, more ambitious pattern.

Bluhm’s most recent exhibition presented a selection of paintings dating from 1986 (the year of his last New York show of new work) to the present, which served to clarify the recent development of his art. In earlier paintings like Pinkerton’s Lady, 1986, a single centralized image incorporates an explosive dynamism and a solidity of symmetrical composition, synthesizing various levels of scale—from huge muscular gestures that define large passages to delicate sprays of paint that spread light among those areas. By 1989, with works such as Venetian Altarpiece, Bluhm had begun to amplify such effects through repetition and an implicit multiplication of spaces within the painting. Soon, through the use of internal borders to define distinct zones, this multiplication would become more emphatic, but also more fluid, as the borders seemed to give way before the energetic gestures. For example, The Ascent of the Spheres, 1991, a single canvas, is more explicitly subdivided than the six-paneled Venetian Altarpiece.

Since then, Bluhm has essentially been teaching himself to place the biomorphic gestural forms he was using previously within intricate patterns that recall those of Tibetan and Indian art. Bluhm has long been immersed in the art of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque; more recently, he has spoken of having looked to Tibetan art for new ways to use numbers and pattern—to create “structural power.” In so doing, he has sidestepped the sometimes naive “orientalism” of much Pattern painting. Built from gritty textures and unrestrained gesturalism, his recent compositions recall Tibetan tangkas or Italian Baroque ceilings without directly quoting them—Bloom’s subject is not art history, but, rather, the aspiration to ecstasy that the religious art of Europe and Asia shares. With a palette of sumptuous purples and lavenders, juicy reds, and resonant blues, Bluhm can juxtapose subtle tonal differences with brash, jumpy color contrasts without losing control of the total effect, which is complex yet astonishingly clear. Such color, rich almost to the point of fulsomeness, is matched by delirious composition: bursting with energy and beatific excess, each form claims its place like some god or angel, whether soaring in exaltation, reclining in luxury, or bowing in blissful obeisance. And if all this excess starts to feel sinister rather than joyous, don’t think Bluhm hasn’t noticed. Recent titles like Kingdom of Darkness or Satan’s Conquest (both 1994) remind us that heavenly hosts and witches’ sabbats are remarkably alike.

Barry Schwabsky