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In the late 1970s, I began hearing a number of artists talk about Albert Pinkham Ryder and Marsden Hartley. Guided by the testimonies of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, they looked back to these early American modernists for inspiration. What I find interesting is that none of the artists who cited Ryder, Hartley, or Arthur Dove ever mentioned Hyman Bloom (1913 – 2009), who was also admired and praised by Pollock and de Kooning. In 1954, in an interview with Bernard Chaet, de Kooning said that he and Pollock considered Bloom to be “America’s first abstract expressionist,” a label, it should be pointed out, that the artist himself rejected.
You would think an endorsement by de Kooning and Pollock would cause these very same artists to search out Bloom, but, if they did, they never said anything publicly about him. Early on, I wondered if it was because Bloom, who was born in Brunoviski, Latvia, one year after Pollock, never lived in New York, whereas Ryder, Hartley, and Dove did at some point, but this thought quickly passed. The reasons they might not have mentioned him go deeper than geography.
I think the reason that Bloom became an outlier admired by a small but ardent group has to do with his merging of paint handling and subject matter. I also think this is as it should be. If you live in New York and want to see where the paint took him, you should go to the exhibition, Hyman Bloom: American Master, at Alexandre Gallery (June 27 – September 28, 2019).
In addition, there is also – finally – a comprehensive exhibition, Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (July 13, 2019 – February 23, 2020), which I have yet to see, but will. I have not yet had a chance to see that show’s exhibition catalogue, also called Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death (2019), by Erica E. Hirshler, with an essay by Naomi Slipp. Finally, there is the publication, Modern Mystic: The Art of Hyman Bloom (2019), with a foreword by Debra Bricker Balken, contributions by Robert Alimi, who is working on the artist’s catalogue raisonné, and essays by Henry Adams and Marcia Brennan. I recommend that you take advantage of at least two of these four opportunities, preferably pairing an exhibition with a monograph.
Bloom’s drawings and paintings are challenging, fascinating, disturbing, opulent, and scabrous – paradoxes of sensuality and repulsion, matter and immateriality, particularly in his depictions of cadavers and body parts. If context is all, then the backdrop of the Holocaust and the dilemma of what to paint after the Shoah are important to consider when looking at and thinking about the work of Bloom, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Philip Guston – five Jewish men born between 1903 and 1913. Their solutions are not the only possibilities, of course, but to ignore their ethnicity in favor of purely formal concerns is to be willfully ignorant.
There are 12 paintings and three drawings in the Alexandre exhibition. They are dated between 1950 and 1990, a span of time that saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Painterly Realism, Earthworks, and Neo-Expressionism, just to name a few.
The paintings are fairly large, but they are not the post-easel scale championed by Clement Greenberg, while, as I suggested earlier, the other, bigger stumbling block for critics championing Abstract Expressionism, as well as theorizing about the next development that art should take, was Bloom’s subject matter. He was essentially a genre painter who depicted still-lifes, landscapes, and seascapes. What sets these works apart is his devotion to exploring the continuum between life and death, matter and light. When does one become the other?
Bloom’s fascination with the transition between life and death is evident in his most notorious subject – depictions of cadavers and limbs in opulent colors. This is where many viewers find Bloom’s work difficult to look at. For one thing, his sensual brushwork and jewel-like colors sets us into an uneasy relationship with his painting, where we are simultaneously fascinated and repelled.
In “Torso and Limbs” (1952), Bloom depicts legs, a torso, and other body parts piled on a table. Bright reds and sickly greens dominate the body parts. The background – which we read as sky – consists of brilliant hues of pale blue descending into yellow. The outer edges of a foot and ankle, rising above the pile, are surrounded by a glowing orange, which encases the gray-green foot.
The skin of the headless torso, which horizontally traverses the table on the far right and hangs off the edge, is a mass of pink, red, celadon, and yellow. The paint runs from dry to brushy, and from thin layers to impasto, especially around what we read as the viscera dangling from torso’s neck.
It is apparent that Mark Rothko and Bloom, while being very different artists who pursued their own paths, shared a preoccupation with death and tragedy. Rothko spurned overt subject matter and painted diaphanous veils of muted color, while Bloom embraced subject matter and applied paint every which way.
The various brushstrokes in “Seascape IV (First Series)” (1975) are a marvel to behold. Done largely in different tones of blue, with orange highlights, the paint depicts a tumult of fish and skeletal remains that fill the painting from edge to edge. Through his use of linear, abstract brushstrokes, the artist evokes scales, bones, lips, and teeth. I kept shifting between the abstract brushstrokes and the discernible images without favoring either one. Bloom is attentive to every part of the surface because the subject demands it. And those demands are reflected formally as well, with the subject and brushstroke locked a constant struggle, with neither gaining the upper hand.
Bloom’s drawings are equally powerful. His “Landscape” (ca. 1963) and “Tree Study” (ca. 1970) are masterworks in which volume, shading, light, and line are unrivaled. He’s talking more to Albrecht Altdorfer and Matthias Grunewald than to any of his peers. He seems not to have cared one whit about the innovations of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and in that he shares something with Chaim Soutine, another artist he looked at. At times, one could say Bloom’s symbolism becomes too much, but that seems to me a quibble rather than a fault.
Bloom may not have fit in with any of the prevailing styles of his day, but he was as in tune with the times as any of his peers, including Rothko, de Kooning, and Guston. He engaged in deep, spirited conversations with artists such as Rembrandt, Soutine, and Odilon Redon, taking inspiration from them and making something all his own. Look at Bloom’s conflict of warm and cool colors and you get a deeper sense of how distinct his vision is. I doubt that his work will ever be in vogue, but I have no doubt of his greatness, no matter how unsettling his work may be. There should be a place in this world where disquieting visions are more fully honored, where depictions of decaying matter are not thought of as exceptions. The fact that Bloom has been rediscovered after years of neglect is a step in the right direction.
Hyman Bloom: American Master continues at Alexandre Gallery (724 5th Avenue, 4th Floor, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 26.