Norman Bluhm: The '70s

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Norman Bluhm The 70s March 14–April 13, 2019 Essay by John Yau

HOLLI S TAG GART 521 W 26th Street  1st Floor  New York, NY 10001

Norman Bluhm and John Yau, Middletown Springs, Vermont, 1987. Photo: Terry Yank. Courtesy of the Estate of Norman Bluhm


Much has been written about Norman Bluhm over the years but his work is so complex and appealing that there always remains more to examine and explore. The continuing interest in Bluhm’s oeuvre stems from his inventiveness and his evolution as a painter throughout the decades of his career. This exhibition concentrates on works from the 1970s, highlighting powerful compositions that have an engaging palette and visual lyricism which reveal the artist’s distinctive voice from that moment in time. Bluhm’s unique style of abstraction from this period combines figural elements with a singular calligraphy that references the sensual and the mythological. His reverence and broad knowledge of art history also subtly informed the art that he produced, yet his paintings never appear the least bit derivative. The works reveal originality and passion and combine that rare state of intense immediacy with a disciplined and masterful concentration. There is a palpable exuberance in these paintings that exude energy and contain primordial allusions. With Norman Bluhm: The 70s, we are delighted to announce the gallery’s representation of the Estate of Norman Bluhm. It is our goal to continue to preserve the legacy of this artist and to present future shows on various aspects of his work—work which is instantly recognizable and that which deserves rediscovery. Heartfelt appreciation goes to Cary Bluhm and Nina Bluhm for allowing us this privilege and for their continued support and collaboration. Our thanks is extended as well to the incomparable John Yau. His long personal relationship with the artist, his inquisitive mind, and his always perceptive interpretation of the works allowed him to write a highly original and informative contribution to the scholarship on the artist. We would also like to thank the entire gallery staff and in particular Kara Spellman who has been integral in all facets of this exhibition. Norman Bluhm surely lived a life. His rich biography includes being a veteran of World War II, a pilot, an intrepid traveler, a frequent visitor to the Cedar Tavern, and Mies van der Rohe’s student. He collaborated with Frank O’Hara, showed with Leo Castelli and Martha Jackson, and had countless exhibitions in this country and abroad. What remains clearly evident is that he was an extraordinary artist who lived and breathed his art.

Hollis C. Taggart

Debra Pesci


Norman Bluhm, 1973. Photo: Kerby C. Smith / Lü News Services. Courtesy of the Estate of Norman Bluhm


Norman Bluhm’s Heavenly Encounters

by John Yau

In the late 1960s, when many critics considered Abstract Expressionism a washed-up style—superseded by Pop Art, Color Field painting, Minimalism, and Op—Norman Bluhm was just beginning his struggle to fit everything he loved about modern and classical art into his gestural paintings. Not one to shut doors on the past in order to move into the future, Bluhm’s desire was in direct opposition to the prevailing reductionist belief that abstract painting should leave out everything except what had been deemed crucial. Helen Frankenthaler and Jasper Johns, according to Barbara Rose, had arrived at what was essential because they “[favored] a simplified conceptual abstraction stressing flatness and large areas of color.” 1 And yet, looking back on this period, pronouncements such as these now seem dated, allowing no room for artists such as Lee Krasner, Ed Clark, Joan Mitchell, Norman Lewis, and Bluhm—painters who took aspects of gestural Abstract Expressionism into unexpected territory. In an interview with William Salzillo included in Hamilton College’s 1987 exhibition catalogue, Norman Bluhm: Works on Paper 1947–1987 (for which I wrote the main essay), Bluhm speaks of the crucial change that takes place in his work between the late 1960s and early ’70s: Those paintings came out of Matisse. They’re derived from The Dance—I readily admit that. By ’67, I began to do a lot of nude drawings. By the time we moved to Millbrook, I began to insert the nude form into the pictures. It became obvious in a painting I did in 1967 called Theodora. I was interested in closed and open forms and the way one form defeated another. The gesture around the closed form—I first saw it at the Cloisters in tapestries. Groups of figures were connected by directional marks, such as the crossing lances. 2


Lee Krasner, Blue and Black, 1951–53, oil on canvas, 57 ¾ x 82 ½ inches. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, Museum purchase funded by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation (80.42). Image courtesy Bridgeman Images, © 2019 The Pollack-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Elsewhere in the interview, Bluhm mentions Franz Kline, Peter Paul Rubens, and Giotto as being important to his thinking. When he cites the “nude form” and the “gesture around the closed form,” let alone the significance of Matisse, Kline, Rubens, and Giotto, Bluhm is sketching out the scope of his ambition, which was to “[see] what [he] could do with great art.” To the group of artists informing Bluhm’s work, I would add Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. In the paintings of Matisse, Rubens, and Tiepolo, Bluhm recognized a joyous and robust eloquence. His aspiration to infuse a similar eloquence into his work is one of the many things that set him apart from other postwar abstract artists. He was not interested in developing conceptually simple compositions, or emphasizing flatness, or taking the hand out of painting. He wanted the immediacy that could come only from working with brushes directly on a large surface. He wanted to make paintings that were big, bold, and sexy—something he shared with Cy Twombly, another American who embraced classical art. His deep engagement with modern and classical masters enabled Bluhm to transform his dripping surfaces and ragged, violent, twisting brushstrokes into entwined forms undulating in a complexly layered space. This transformation brought with it a complete change in his use color, so that by 1970 Bluhm was moving in a new and unexpected direction that puzzled all but his most ardent fans. Bluhm lived for extended periods in Italy3 and France, 4 and was fluent in Italian and French. A true cosmopolitan who was equally at ease in Paris, Venice, and New York, he did not find it necessary to separate American art from European art, nor did he feel that being an abstract artist demanded a rejection of the past. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, he


was expansive rather than reductive. His inclusive approach to painting contributed to his singularity; it may also explain why Bluhm did not have a show in a New York gallery between 1964 and 1970. The other factor to consider is that in the 1950s, when he began his first mature abstract paintings, which were inspired by stained glass windows and flowering landscapes, he concluded that the Abstract Expressionists, particularly those committed to gesture and drawing in paint, had already attained classic status. This meant that, before he could make such gestures his own, he had to work his way through the pictorial assumptions he found in the paintings of Kline, just as he did with those of Matisse, Rubens, and Tiepolo. His was a grand ambition, which was further distinguished by what the poet James Schuyler called his “subtlety and brilliance of color.” 5 Before writing about what Bluhm did in the 1970s, I want to briefly discuss his paintings of the 1950s and ’60s. In each decade, he developed a particular improvisational approach and vocabulary, aspects of which he would expand upon when he moved into a fresh area of exploration. During the 1950s, Bluhm explored the relationship between all-over composition and layered space. He used thin washes of oil paint that often dripped down the canvas’s surface. In the late 1950s, he began adding gestural brushstrokes and radiating splashes to his vocabulary, resulting in a bristling turbulence. Except for his interest in layered space—which he would investigate throughout his career—Bluhm largely aligned himself with the directness of Abstract Expressionism, what critic and author Harold Rosenberg called “Action painting.” Starting in the early 1960s and lasting until the early ’70s, Bluhm shifted his focus away from all-over compositions in favor of interlocking, angular structures that mirror each other as they circle around the painting’s center. These sharply angled forms evoke the swords referenced in titles such as Excalibur (1960; Smithsonian American Art Museum) and Arondite (1963; former collection of Bennington College). In the paintings Flight 114 (1961; Estate of Norman Bluhm) and Chariot (1965; Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Torino), Bluhm conveys a martial world of slanted, clashing linear forms and sprays of paint flying in all directions. In these compositions, the painting’s field is defined as a struggle between exuberance and restraint—a pictorial tension that continued to pulse throughout his work for the rest of his life.


Franz Kline, Hazelton, 1957, oil on canvas, 41 ½ x 78 inches. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (87.6) © 2019 The Franz Kline Estate/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the works of the 1950s and ’60s, Bluhm rejected flatness and worked alla prima, or wet-on-wet paint application. He had learned from Abstract Expressionists, but he had also departed from them in a significant way. If Pollock and de Kooning were inspirations for younger artists in the 1950s, Kline was clearly an inspiration for Bluhm and many others in the 1960s. Even de Kooning took cues from Kline in such masterful paintings as Montauk Highway (1958; Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Door to the River (1960; Whitney Museum of American Art). I think we have yet to fully explore the intense exchange of possibilities that took place during the 1960s, with artists learning as well as taking from each other. For many associated with Abstract Expressionism, authenticity was of more importance than originality. In 1970, at the beginning of a new decade, Bluhm made two radical changes: he and his family moved away from New York City, settling ninety miles north in Millbrook, New York, and he began to bring his love of Matisse and the others I have mentioned into his work, while remaining true to his roots in Abstract Expressionism. Whereas many critics believed that the reductive impulse in Abstract Expressionism was its most important feature—and it was by establishment standards— Bluhm did not accept this view and did the opposite. He expanded as well as transformed Abstract Expressionism’s use of gesture into something more fluid and flexible and turned his turbulent brushstrokes into smooth, agile, acrobatic forms without denying their essential identity as paint. Simply put, Bluhm transformed Kline’s stark contrasts of sharply angled black structures against a white ground into something softer and rounder, but with the firmness of flesh and the malleability of syrup. The other thing he did—and for which he has yet to receive his due—was to introduce differing calibrations of speed into his work; he slowed down parts of his compositions while accelerating others, which added another level of complexity into our experience of them. This is what separates his work from Kline’s as well as the paintings of his own contemporaries—Sam Francis, Joan


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Allegory of the Planets and Continents, 1752,
oil on canvas, 73 x 54 ⅞ inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977 (1977.1.3). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Mitchell, Michael Goldberg, and Jean-Paul Riopelle—whose marks convey the same rate of speed or stillness. In a Bluhm painting of the 1970s, there are the slowly undulating forms twisting in space, the quick linear arabesques dancing across the surface, the sudden splatters appearing beneath a form, the comet tails of tiny dots, and the long, juicy drips. By the start of the decade, Bluhm—who shared a love of music with his friend, the poet and curator Frank O’Hara—had begun masterfully choreographing his paintings. He had absorbed and analyzed all of Abstract Expressionism to the point that he was able to codify each of its methods of applying paint into a specific tool in his tool box; he could deftly move from articulating the roundness of a form, to drawing a quick line, to slapping his brush against the surface to produce a spray of stringy dots. He favored no method, as all were available to him. Rather than privileging Pollock’s drips or Kline’s wide brush, Bluhm deliberately set out to have as many possibilities as he could at his fingertips. In paintings such as Opis, Juno, and Niobe (all dated 1970 and named after women in Greek and Roman mythology; pls. 2, 3, and 4), it is clear that Bluhm has developed his own abstract pictorial language. It is a language consisting of layered space occupied by open, irregular ellipses; looping, dryly painted lines; flat areas with ragged, curving edges; and innumerable drips and splashes. These paintings evoked a domain in which the spurts and sprays hint at unseen actions taking place behind the various forms. By naming the paintings after mythical goddesses, Bluhm suggests that these actions are unfolding somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Olympus, where gravity has loosened its grip. That Bluhm turned to the heavens for his subject matter is not altogether surprising. Along with his love for Rubens and Tiepolo, he had been a B-26 pilot during World War II, and his younger brother, also a pilot, had died in combat. Flying more than forty missions before he was wounded and sent back to the U.S., the sky was a place with which he


Peter Paul Rubens, Music Making Angels, circa 1628, oil on oak, 25 ½ x 32 11⁄16 inches. Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg, Potsdam, Germany. Photographed by Daniel Lindler

was deeply intimate and, in some ways, felt at home in. It was a realm of beauty, terror, and grief. We might want to consider that the saturated colors we see in his paintings were inspired by the otherworldly hues he saw as a pilot. In his paintings of the 1970s, Bluhm locates the drips, splashes, and fine sprays in particular areas of the composition, activating the space around them. A ragged line in another color often edges the curving shapes, suggesting a corona. A looping line peeks out from under the elliptical structures. Wanting his forms and marks to be evocative while remaining paint, the compositional tightrope that Bluhm walked synthesized choreography and improvisation. By the mid-1970s, Bluhm’s heavenly domain consisted of vividly colored, undulating forms slipping over, under, and around each other. In Untitled (1974; pl. 11), an acrylic and pastel on canvas, a violet form winds around the edge of the canvas, with various protuberances extending toward the center. We have no idea what we are looking at, but whatever it is comes across as animated and sensual. In his delineation of curvaceous forms, Bluhm dissolved the border between figuration and abstraction. His palette brimmed with bubble gum pink, all sorts of violets, blues ranging from robin’s egg to midnight, fuchsia, maroon, deep and pale yellows, many varieties of hot red, and warm deep blacks. Are his forms rubber-limbed torsos, clouds, or both? They certainly are limber and acrobatic, capable of any contortion one can imagine. Slithering around each other, their shapely forms are humorous and unrestrained. They convey a sense of lightness, even though they do not seem weightless. The forms are erotic and feminine, yet there are no figures to be seen. These are just some the visual paradoxes that animate these paintings. Bluhm didn’t work only in paint. He often used pastel and ink to loosely define a form’s edges. However, he also made these lines loop elsewhere, often curling and twisting along their own paths. He wanted different viscosities and speeds to be present in the same work. His looping lines become their own dance, echoing the ones enacted by his entwined


forms, but at a faster pace. There are splashes and drips, as if something has been squeezed or crushed, with its juice running out. At other times, the drops are suggestive of sparks and embers rising into the air. Are we looking at palpable matter or immaterial light or both? Bluhm’s paintings stir up a wide range of historical associations, from the ceiling paintings of Tiepolo to the skyinhabiting figures of Rubens, while the colors bring to mind a cosmetics counter; Matisse’s richly hued palette; and JeanHonoré Fragonard’s soft pinks, pale blues, and warm yellows. And yet, despite these associations, they are recognizably Bluhm’s inventions: a mythic abstract world made of paint. He synthesized dissimilar historical precedents into something all his own. Working in narrow panoramic formats—another way he departed from his contemporaries—he celebrated paint’s resilience in texture and pigment. The border between abstraction and figuration became moot. Fluidity and firmness became interchangeable. The seamless merging of these divergent strains is central to Bluhm’s work: it is what separates as well as elevates him from his peers. As I see it, Bluhm’s engagement with Abstract Expressionism and classical art came to its first fruition in the 1970s, and continued to expand and deepen throughout the decade. He took gestural painting—which many considered a moribund activity—and infused it with a wide range of allusive references, including the figure, landscape, sky, and clouds. To this he added a Dionysian atmosphere and ebullient colors never before seen in Abstract Expressionism, much less American art. In an age dominated for the most part by what Friedrich Nietzsche would have called Apollonian art, Bluhm took the euphoria he saw in Matisse’s The Dance (1909; The Museum of Modern Art) and brought it fully into the realm of abstraction—a new place, at once voluptuous and ecstatic. Notes 1. Barbara Rose, “The Second Generation,” Artforum 4, no. 1 (September 1965): 62. 2. “Conversation with the Artist” in Norman Bluhm: Works on Paper 1947–1987 (Clinton, NY: Hamilton College, 1987), 11. 3. Bluhm (1921–1999), who was born in Chicago, Illinois, spent six years of his childhood in Florence, Italy. 4. Bluhm lived in Paris from 1947 to 1956. 5. J[ames] S[chuyler] “Norman Bluhm at Castelli” Art News 56, no. 6 (October 1957): 17.


Plates All works are from the Estate of Norman Bluhm

1 Golden Flaxen Maiden, 1978 Oil on canvas, 89 x 76 inches Signed and dated lower left: “bluhm ‘78”


2 Opis, 1970 Oil on canvas, 85 x 76 inches Signed, dated, and titled verso: “bluhm / 70 / OPIS”


3 Juno, 1970 Oil on canvas, 85 x 76 inches Signed, dated, and titled verso: “bluhm / ‘70 / ‘JUNO’”


4 Niobe, 1970 Oil on canvas, 82 x 74 inches Signed, dated, and titled verso: “bluhm / 70 / ‘NIOBE’”


5 Untitled, 1973 Ink on paper, 18 x 24 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm 73”

6 Untitled, 1973 Ink on paper, 23 x 35 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / 73” Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / 73”

7 Untitled, 1973 Ink on paper, 23 x 35 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / 73” Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / 73”


8 Sibyls #3, 1971 Acrylic on paper, 22 ½ x 90 ¾ inches (triptych) Signed and dated lower left: “bluhm / ‘71” (left sheet) Titled, signed, dated, and inscribed verso: “’Sibyls #3’ bluhm / ‘71 / A” (left sheet) Titled, signed, dated, and inscribed verso: “’Sibyls #3’ bluhm / ‘71 / B” (center sheet) Titled, signed, dated, and inscribed verso: “’Sibyls #3’ bluhm / ‘71 / C” (right sheet)



9 Untitled, 1974 Acrylic, ink, and pastel on paper, 22 x 89 ¼ inches (triptych) Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘74” (right sheet) Inscribed, signed, and dated verso: “#A / bluhm / ‘74 / #2” (left sheet) Inscribed, signed, and dated verso: “#B / bluhm / ‘74 / #2” (center sheet) Inscribed, signed, and dated verso: “#C / bluhm / ‘74 / #2” (right sheet)



10 Untitled, 1974 Acrylic and pastel on canvas mounted to canvas, 48 x 38 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘74” Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / ‘74”


11 Untitled, 1974 Acrylic and pastel on canvas, 38 x 48 inches Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / ‘74”


12 Untitled, 1976 Acrylic and pastel on canvas mounted to canvas, 38 x 48 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘76”


13 Untitled, 1976 Acrylic and pastel on canvas mounted to canvas, 38 x 48 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘76” Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / ‘76”


14 Untitled, 1976 Acrylic and pastel on canvas mounted to canvas, 48 x 38 inches Signed and dated lower left: “bluhm / ‘76” Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / ‘76”


15 Untitled, 1976 Acrylic and pastel on canvas mounted to canvas, 38 x 48 inches Signed and dated lower left: “bluhm / ‘76” Signed and dated verso: “bluhm / ‘76”


16 Untitled, 1978 Acrylic, ink, and pastel on paper, 22 x 61 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘78”



17 Untitled, 1978 Acrylic, ink, and pastel on paper, 12 ¾ x 62 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘78”


18 Untitled, 1978 Acrylic, ink, and pastel on paper, 12 ¾ x 62 inches Signed and dated lower right: “bluhm / ‘78”


This catalogue has been published on the occasion of the exhibition “Norman Bluhm: The 70s,” organized by Hollis Taggart, New York, and presented from March 14–April 13, 2019. Jacket: Untitled, 1978, detail (see pl. 16) Jacket flap: Norman Bluhm. Photo: Suzanne Paul. Courtesy of the Estate of Norman Bluhm ISBN: 978-0-9985000-6-5 Publication Copyright © 2019 Hollis Taggart All rights reserved. Reproduction of contents prohibited. Hollis Taggart 521 West 26th Street 1st Floor New York, NY 10001 Tel 212 628 4000 Fax 212 570 5786 Catalogue production: Kara Spellman Design: Russell Hassell, New York Printing: Meridian Printing, Rhode Island Photography: Joshua Nefsky, unless otherwise noted

HOLLI S TAG GART 521 W 26th Street  1st Floor  New York, NY 10001  212 628 4000