New York

Hyman Bloom, Torso and Limbs, 1952, oil on canvas, 34 1⁄4 × 52".

Hyman Bloom, Torso and Limbs, 1952, oil on canvas, 34 1⁄4 × 52".

Hyman Bloom

Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning thought that Hyman Bloom (1913–2009) was “the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America.” In 1950, Bloom was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, alongside those two artists and Arshile Gorky. In Artnews that same year, Elaine de Kooning noted that Bloom’s paintings were almost totally abstract and declared that “the whole impact [of his art] is carried in the boiling action of the pigment.” Such freneticism, an immersion in nature at its most elemental and intense—or, perhaps more accurately, an impassioned identification with it—suffused “American Master,” an exhibition of the artist’s canvases and works on paper at Alexandre Gallery.

Bloom was born in a shtetl in what is now called Latvia, and came from an Orthodox Jewish family. Some of his paintings featured rabbis (none of these, unfortunately, were included in this presentation). An avowed mystic, he tripped out on LSD, Eastern music, and Hinduism. He played the sitar and the oud, among other instruments, before doing so became fashionable. He was also interested in divination, as we might gather from Séance, ca. 1950, one of a series of works he painted that picture a female psychic. In this particular piece, the titular subject is also joined by a black goat’s head, haloed in crimson and looming in the foreground—not a kind omen, certainly. He regarded the artist as a medium, able to ecstatically channel the unknown. But to confuse Bloom’s sense of spirit and mystery with the unconscious of Abstract Expressionism is to cheapen his vision: After all, the artist eventually dismissed that movement as “emotional catharsis, with no intellectual basis.”

Yet he became a powerful figurative expressionist, as his cadaver paintings—likely influenced by Ensor, Grünewald, and especially Soutine, among other maestros of the morbid—make clear. Examples in the show—which only hint at the power and majesty of the best of them—were Torso and Limbs, 1952, a still life from the abattoir, drenched in lurid pinks, reds, and a greasy yellow; and a moldering tableau titled A Leg with Skull, 1979. According to critics, these images were informed by his experience of the Latvian pogroms and his awareness of the horrors that took place during the Holocaust. They convey a sense of being permanently exiled from life—indelibly marked by excruciating suffering. Hung near A Leg with Skull was Christmas Tree, 1983, a sort of masticated, visceral take on the holiday spruce: like a Currier and Ives sent from the butcher shop. It was a bizarre addition that nonetheless served as an antidote to the decaying flesh. Eerily, however, both of these works share a similar palette of “iridescent and pearly” colors, to use Bloom’s words, which he initially employed to describe the dead bodies at Kenmore Hospital in Boston. He visited the morgue there in 1943. 

The artist remained creatively vital to the end of his long life, but he never again achieved the critical recognition he had at the beginning of his career. His Abstract Expressionist paintings were judged to be inferior to those of Pollock because they were not as utterly nonobjective. And Bloom wasn’t a member of the so-called New York School because he didn’t live there and therefore never had his art reified into money. Is his story that of a career gone wrong because his art fell out of vogue, or is it the tale of an artist who continued to develop, but in a direction that no one deemed significant? It is likely a combination of both—and his singular oeuvre deserves better.