NORMAN BLUHM by James Harithas In a half century when artists and critics have repeatedly predicted the death of painting, Norman Bluhm continues to create monumental paintings of intense emotion and beauty. He has not only kept the Abstract Expressionist approach to painting alive for nearly fifty years, but he has also carried it to a new level by expanding its spiritual meaning and cultural potential. Norman Bluhm made the decision to become an artist in 1947 against the wishes of his family. He was 26 years old. He left his past behind, moved to Paris, and after nine years abroad, he settled in and around New York. More than anything else, his military experience during World War II changed the course of his life. He was born on March 28, 1921, on Chicago’s South Side. Except for the six years that he spent as a child with his mother’s family in Lucca, Italy, he lived in the city of his birth until he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. Bustling, blue-collar, pre-World War II Chicago was the industrial giant of the Midwest and boasted the world’s most celebrated skyscrapers. Tough immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and intrepid blacks from the South swelled its Northern European population and fueled its economy with sweat and ingenuity. Chicagoans were bold, confident, ambitious, and hurried about their business with an unmistakably jaunty air. The explosive energy of Chicago’s populace and its tough immigrant work ethic left its mark on Bluhm’s personality and work habits. An equally important influence was his education. At the age of 16, having completed high school with distinction, he became Mies van der Rohe’s youngest student at the Armour Institute of Technology. For the next three years, he was rigorously trained in the Bauhaus approach to modern architecture, and he spent long hours at the drafting table making meticulously detailed architectural drawings. In his free time, he learned to fly an airplane and played semi-pro basketball, both of which stress speed, timing, and endurance. The exacting discipline of his studies together with his knowledge of flying and the intense physical regimen of basketball would hold him in good stead as a soldier and as an artist. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bluhm joined the war effort. He became a B-26 pilot and flew 44 missions over North Africa and Europe before he was wounded and sent home. “Don’t make a hero out of me,” he told me recently, “the only heroes are those that didn’t come back.” In my estimation and that of many of his peers, Norman Bluhm was to become a hero as an artist. Bluhm rejoined his architectural class after the war, but he quickly realized that he could not return to his former life. He had passed through his soul’s dark night. Before his decision to become an artist, he had been under the guidance or control of some authority figures, e.g., his father, his teachers, his coach, and his military commander. “When I became an artist, I got a life of my own.” The war had not only changed him, but it stayed with him long after he left for Europe to pursue a career as an artist. Referring to the “first generation” artists, Stephen Polcari points out in his book, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, “World War II left an indelible mark on the people of the Abstract Expressionist generation. It permanently altered their patterns of thought and life.” Its effect was even more acute on Norman Bluhm who fought in the war and who lost his younger brother, a B-17 pilot, over Germany. In Paris, Bluhm attended classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he drew incessantly from the model and quickly developed an incisive drawing style. He interacted with the American exiles who met regularly in Montparnasse, and after his G.I. Bill ran out, he remained in Paris, living precariously from the sale of his paintings. He appeared in Jean Cocteau’s famous film, Orphée; he met Antonin Artaud, Alberto Giacometti and other luminaries of European culture; and he was exposed to a wide range of modern and traditional European art. However, neither the existentialist orientation of the French avant-garde nor School of Paris painting influenced him. He progressed rapidly as an artist through his own hard effort. From 1950 to 1954, his abstract landscapes evolved into fully Abstract Expressionist paintings. He left Paris in 1956 and joined the New York School the same year. At the time, many artists were imitating Willem de Kooning’s aesthetically complex but more accessible, easel approach to Abstract Expressionism. Bluhm became a member of The Club, and a habitué of the Cedar Tavern, but he was never a follower of anyone. Neither was he an easel painter. His format, technique, and intensity were distinctly his own. Nevertheless, he was identified as a “second generation” Abstract Expressionist, a designation that would become a kiss of death in the art world with the advent of pop art. It took more than talent to stick to a form of art that demanded a total commitment to one’s own vision in order to wrest meaning from the loneliness of one’s soul. Abstract Expressionism was not an authoritarian style like cubism; its appeal to artists lay in the fact that it was virtually pathless. Each artist committed himself to an aesthetic, moral, and spiritual position of his own choosing. Each artist went beyond appearances in his art in order to give form to such critical emotions as despair, fear, fury, release, exultation, and ecstasy - emotions intensified by the uncertainty and psychological torment of World War II and the ensuing nuclear threat. The same emotions feed the artist’s inner experiences. They are flash points on the path of selfrealization and lead to mystical experiences beyond the understanding of the self. The gesture is the crux of Abstract Expressionism. Georg Lucas in his essay on Søren Kierkegaard in Soul and Form defined a gesture as “nothing more than a movement that expresses something unambiguous,” and regarding form, he went on to say that “the gesture is that unique leap by which the absolute is transformed, in life, into the possible.” In other words, the gesture links the artist’s inner feelings to the transcendent idea expressed in a finished work of art. The first generation abstract expressionists, notably, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, regarded themselves as modern primitives engaged in finding and reinventing themselves and the world. Through the originality of an approach based on the immediacy of gesture, they overcame the provincialism of U.S. painting and presented the world with a spiritually charged art that was distinctly American. Moreover, they were among the first artists in the country to recognize the relevance of Native American art and religious practices to the fundamental task of creating an independent culture. The 1950s and 1960s gave rise to a powerful new generation of abstract expressionists. It consisted of artists such as Norman Bluhm, John Chamberlain, Al Leslie, Joan Mitchell, and Mark Di Suvero who approached the style with a profound commitment to take it to the next level. A sophisticated and sympathetic grasp of their European cultural roots and a greater emphasis on basics composition, drawing, color, surface quality and structure - distinguish their approach. Their goals were as profoundly spiritual as those of the first generation, but their contribution to Abstract Expressionism has never been fully acknowledged by the New York art establishment. Two decades of angry alienation replaced the camaraderie and spiritual enthusiasm that accompanied the birth of the abstract expressionist style. Further, the hundreds of artists working more or less academically in the abstract expressionist mode obscured the contribution of the significant members of the second generation. Nevertheless, each of them, in his own way, was able to deepen Abstract Expressionism through the force of his talent and originality. By creating an independent style, each one expanded the range of Abstract Expressionism. The Abstract Expressionist informal approach to art and its commitment to process influenced such international movements as Gutai in Japan, Fluxus in the United States and Europe, Arte Povera in Italy as well as a host of artists like Josef Beuys, Salvatore Scarpitta, Jannis Kounnellis, Herman Nitsch, and Richard Serra. Other “second generation” artists accessed the Abstract Expressionism directly through first generation artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Newman. For example, Morris Louis based his painting on Pollock’s stain technique. Donald Judd transformed Newman’s reductionism into minimalism, a classical approach to modern sculpture consistent with modern European architecture and design. Robert Rauschenberg hedged his bets between de Kooning’s gesture and Marcel Duchamp’s found object approach to making art. In contrast, Bluhm established his own aesthetic priorities and intensified the spiritual content of his painting by perfecting his own gesture and living a life as an artist that tolerated no compromise. Norman Bluhm has created four distinct bodies of work over the nearly fifty years of his career. His purpose has been consistent throughout his career, namely to create paintings that express his spiritual vision in the most profoundly human way possible, that is, truthfully, with style and high drama. His paintings demonstrate the intimate connection between the erotic and the spiritual by virtue of their orgiastic intensity, that is, the passion and skill invested in their execution, and the extraordinary quality of light that emanates from the finished work of art. Each body of work represents a new stage in his spiritual growth, beginning in his search for himself and his own style and ending in a profoundly personal realization of the unity of all things in his mature paintings. An artist’s fundamental task is to create form and infuse it with meaning and emotion. Significant artists not only create beautiful works of art for their own and future generations, but the best of them also communicate a profound spirituality through their art. Especially in this time of rampant materialism, it takes great intensity and imagination to pursue a transcendent art and a willingness to accept the solitary existence fundamental to this quest. Norman Bluhm is such an artist. Bluhm’s paintings and drawings exhibit few obvious or direct influences. Unlike many of his immediate contemporaries, he was never a regional artist except for his earliest painting, the graveyard scene of 1948. It is painted in realist style, but its all-over effect predicts his abstract expressionist paintings. On another level, it the painting in which he attempts to put the war behind him. Bluhm’s military experience as a pilot is relevant not simply because of its implication of speed and an expanded sense of space, but also because it involved facing imminent death on every mission and prepared him in advance for the immediacy and risk of abstract expressionist painting. In fact, Bluhm’s influences are usually piecemeal, involving structure primarily, i.e., how a form or a color holds a space. They come from the artist’s observation of nature and from a variety of artistic sources, including Rubens, Matisse, Pollock, and Kline as well as from medieval and oriental art. Bluhm’s initial involvement in architecture and his ongoing interest in traditional religious art have made him keenly aware of the paramount role of structure in communicating the spiritual intensity of a painting. The paintings of the 1950s that were shown at Leo Castelli in 1958 may owe something to the example of Pollock’s “dead heat” approach to painting. They also reveal Bluhm’s innate color sense and his openness to accident. With characteristic incisiveness Bluhm stated that “sometimes the art is in the mistake.” In these paintings, he achieves a personal style based on his explosive brush and his intensive use of the paint drip. The paintings of this period are lyrical and their color is original. This is Bluhm’s moment of perfecting his metier and setting the highest standards for himself and his painting. Bluhm’s working method has become almost classical. He draws and makes studies continuously until the moment he is inspired to paint on a monumental scale. He accesses his own inner consciousness while painting through an ecstatic state that he calls “entering the dream.” The field paintings of the 1960s that were shown in Paris and New York throughout that decade communicate raw energy with great sophistication and optimism. It takes great physical strength to move the thick swaths of paint rapidly with full force across the spaces of his monumental canvases. The effect is of tremendous immediacy and power. I am reminded of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s statement that “beauty is fury.” Unlike Kline’s paintings where broad strokes of black paint engage and energize the white ground of the canvas, Bluhm’s paintings of this period are a fusion of structure, color, flatness, and a fierce sense of acceleration. The paintings express emotional release and exude the sense of confidence that derives from his mastery over himself and his metier. Bluhm’s first individual museum exhibition, a limited retrospective at The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., in 1969, included colorful new paintings that no longer used the primed white ground of the canvas as part of the composition. A disturbing but extremely sophisticated still life of 1949 predicts this development. Whereas, the previous paintings were direct and unabashedly masculine, the new paintings in this period are subtle and contain female images. On one level, these images are simply large nudes; on another level they are goddesses. Perhaps, they are metaphorical projections of Bluhm’s anima and a reflection of his pantheistic beliefs of the time. With few exceptions, he named these paintings and those that followed after ancient goddesses. The paintings of the seventies, exhibited at the Everson Museum in 1973 and at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1977, are sweeping erotic creations in such colors as pink, yellow, and purple in unique juxtapositions. The fierce linear gestures are dynamic structural motifs. Like medieval icons, the paintings convey the intensity of the artist’s spirituality. By 1983 Bluhm’s drawings and paintings begin to reflect another major change taking place within his style. These works of art and those that follow embody all of his artistic techniques without being a summation of his previous paintings. The paintings are symmetrical, icon-like, and monumental in scale. The characteristic central image is bordered by an elaborate architecture, consisting of female images and the full range of Bluhm’s compositional devices. The female images not only intensify the erotic content of the paintings but also serve as guardian figures. Each painting is a kind of shrine dedicated to the ritual act of gestural painting; it is also an extraordinary, personal representation of the unity of all things. In the increasingly monumental paintings of the 1990s, Bluhm has taken his art to a new level. Each painting acts as a powerful inducement to the viewer to drop all pretence in order to experience the spiritual unity, the release and exultation that the artist communicates in his paintings. Bluhm recently remarked that he “has been working in the culture for nearly half a century,” a reference to his own work as an artist and also to his longstanding interest in modern and classical literature, poetry, and music, “in a country without a culture of its own.” Culture is living tradition. Its products and propositions communicate a people’s aesthetic expressions, moral codes, and spiritual aspirations. Culture is community-based and has a significant unifying effect on society, one that involves cultivating and sharing one’s creative talents as well as one’s intellectual and spiritual insights. The commercialized and politicized culture in the United States, however, is inimical to profound issues of creativity, morality, and spirituality. The result is that culture in the United States often functions as mere entertainment or as propaganda for the economic and political system. Commercial television and film, illustration, fashion, pop art and music, media spectacles, and fast foods have become the country’s fundamental visual, aural, and culinary art forms. Few artists are able to survive the commercialism of the current art world. Fewer are able to endure the loneliness of the outsider. Bluhm is the exception, not the only one, but certainly one of the few artists who has resolutely nurtured his vision and created great works of art that will have lasting importance for generations to come.
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