NORMAN BLUHM: A Retrospective of Works on Paper, 1948-1998by Craig Olson
Jacobson Howard Gallery
October 29 – December 23, 2009
Norman Bluhm was an artist dedicated to a type of artistic output and way of life that stressed the beauty, mystery, and passion of the human drama. This exhibition, encompassing 50 years of work, is a testament to that drama and a stunning example of Abstract Expressionism’s cultural inheritance.
Bluhm was born on March 28, 1921, on the South Side of Chicago, a racial and cultural nexus in the industrial heartland of a segregated and struggling country. At 16 he became the youngest student then studying with Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). For three years he rigorously applied himself to the Bauhaus’s approach to architecture, with long hours spent drafting meticulously detailed drawings. In his free time he learned to fly an airplane and played semi-pro basketball.
In 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bluhm, along with his younger brother, enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He became a B-26 pilot and flew 44 missions over North Africa and Europe until he was wounded in 1945 and sent home. His brother, a B-17 pilot, lost his life in a mission over Germany. A year after his return to the U.S., Bluhm would leave again for Europe, where he studied art in Italy and Paris on the G.I. Bill. At the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux Arts, he drew continuously from the model, a practice that would have a profound influence on him and that he would retain until the end of his life. After his G.I. Bill term expired, he remained in Paris, living hand-to-mouth from the sale of his paintings, and exploring a wide range of modern and traditional European art. He married Claude Souvrain, came into contact with a number of artists, poets, and writers, including Antonin Artaud and Alberto Giacometti, and appeared in Jean Cocteau’s famous film Orphée. In 1956, the same year as the death of Jackson Pollock, he divorced Souvrain and returned to New York, where he established himself as a regular at the Cedar Tavern and a member of The Club. In 1961 he married Carolyn Ogle, and the couple had two children.
Despite his varied social and cultural associations, Bluhm established a unique artistic approach, and these works on paper offer a potent distillation of the artist’s modus operandi. They’re an intimate look into an active imagination making sense of the physical stuff of the world, and our lives in that world, through thought and touch. Although many of the works are clearly drawings, several are fully developed paintings in their own right, whose delicate immediacy is an arresting testament to uncertainty and self-realization.
“Trois Nus” (1948) is a tumbling amalgamation of colorful brushwork and line fusing into a loose image of three bodies in motion—rotund, dancing figures that are nearly indistinguishable from the unfettered gestures manifesting their form. They are also an early example of the artist’s love of the human body, its sensuous histories and potentials. It’s a theme Bluhm would return to again and again for decades. Several of the artist’s sketchbooks are on display, where we find him wrestling with a singularly difficult vision of the human body as articulated through gesture.
Another work, “Nude” (1977), drips and rolls across the paper in muted secondaries—purple and orange—with interiors of gray and black coagulating into a large, monolithic female nude. It is reminiscent of the massive, illuminated women that populate the canvases of Peter Paul Rubens, and it is of Rubens’ vision of the human being, self-possessed and emotionally direct, that Bluhm seems so clearly the inheritor. It is a vision ripe with love and sympathy, where the flesh of our bodies is understood not simply as matter, but as some mysterious, erotic plasma, animated by emotion and translated as gesture. Matter is public and impersonal, and when human beings are seen as such, the body turns into an object and love becomes merely a biological or economic function. Flesh is personal and individual, and it is this personified material that is the substance of our lives—absolutely particular and unrepeatable. To see the body in this way, as I believe Bluhm, and Rubens before him, was able to do, is to see with what the mystic Henry Corbin called “Eyes of Fire.” It is when the unspeakable beauty hidden in the essence of things is revealed, if only for an instant. It is from the flame of this sympathetic eye that beauty emanates, circulating and binding together a unique vision of the human being and the world, radiating in a state somewhere between transcendence and immanence.
In the later work represented in this show, from the last decades of the artist’s life, we can see Bluhm playing out his human/gestural conjunction into a cosmologically pictorial architecture. In “Study III” (1990), for example, on a single sheet of paper, we are presented with a centrally located, nearly symmetrical, swirling oscillation of gesture and non-objective form. Pulsing between red, yellow, black, and white, the dominant, three-tiered form is poised between complete chaos and careful articulation. Entirely contained within a rectangular border, the form is flanked on either side by three separate, smaller, vertically stacked rectangles, each with its own gestural articulation, and below this group are two sets of six squares, one set above the other, running horizontally across the page. Within each square is a variation on a form that plays on the image of a Chinese character, a scribble, or a female totem figure. These lower forms seem to protect or guard the upper chaos, reflecting and imitating its obtuse grammar.
There is a hierarchic system at play in this painting, but one that is marked not by a clearly defined system of power but by ambiguity and beauty. It is a hierarchy that is not ascended through upwardly mobile aspirations; its movement is instead inward and outward simultaneously, a totality of imaginal movement. Its liberating architecture opens the mind’s eye to the potential powers of sympathy and compassion—states in which we can experience more clearly the unselfish impulse that connects us to the world and the world to ourselves, a world pregnant with lives and energies.
Bluhm passed on February 3, 1999. He worked continually and robustly until his death, leaving a body of work full of passion and mystery. To my mind it invites us to the plentitude of being as our birthright. It’s work that insists that the world is beautiful and terrible and desperate—it calls us to live.