Zoe, 1968 oil on canvas, 84 x 80 inches
NORMAN BLUHM PAINTINGS 1967-1974
covers: Tages (detail), 1971 oil on canvas, 48 x 108 inches Norman Bluhm in Milbrook studio, 1973 photo by Kerby Smith artworks photographed by Don Ross © 2011 Loretta Howard Gallery ISBN: 978-0-9842804-4-5
APRIL 7 – MAY 27 2011
525 West 26th Street New York NY 10001 212.695.0164 www.lorettahoward.com
Paint as a Form of Erotic Engagement by John Yau When I am feeling depressed anxious sullen all you have to do is take your clothes off and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness that we are flesh and breathe and are near us Frank O’Hara
As I see it, there are two obvious reasons why Bluhm’s paintings from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, the period of his first major breakthrough, are only starting to receive the attention they deserve, largely because of the determined efforts of younger critics such as Raphael Rubinstein and Barry Schwabsky. The first is because he never allied his work with, nor even accommodated it to, Formalist condemnations of drawing and spatiality. At a time when the primary, authorized task of painters was to emphasize painting’s two-dimensional surface, Bluhm deliberately isolated himself from this repressive mainstream discourse in order to figure out new ways to organize the relationship between form and space. Moreover, he wanted to achieve his spatial reorganizations without opting for any of the four most obvious resolutions—perspective, geometric stasis, optical, or literal. Instead of joining the ranks of those who agreed to jettison space and the past, Bluhm did exactly the opposite. He sought ways to embrace classical tradition all the way back to the red-figure Greek vases and cups (ca. 500 B.C.E.) decorated with drawings of heterosexual and homosexual couplings. Under the influence of the church, the classical tradition bifurcated into two different currents, the joyful and the tragic, the celebration of love and the commemoration of suffering. Bluhm embraced the former, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, who connected to the latter. As his paintings reveal, he recognized that the celebration of love often explored the bonds between voyeurism and erotic content, something which had preoccupied Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Romantic painters, as much as it did Peter Paul Rubens, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and
Henri Matisse, could be made fresh in every sense of the word. The second reason is that the indecorous elements integral to Bluhm’s paintings are apt to ruffle some viewers’ sensibilities. By using formalism as a cover, it is possible to ignore the reality that paintings such as Artemis (1968), Aphrodite (1969) Iole (1972), Tertia Aemilia (1972), and Manto (1974) are based on the grand tradition of the nude and the celebration of physical pleasure, despite their rounded, sinuous forms and sugary palettes of pink, lavender, blue, and red. As Edouard Manet’s scandalous Olympia (1863) revealed, society wants antiseptic human bodies, not flesh. Contemporary society’s current interest in cyborgs, holograms, and replicants (perfect bodiless bodies) suggests that this preference is still true, and obtaining artifacts from glamour’s regulated realm are what count most. Being clothed signifies at least a passing nod to society’s laws and taboos, while being nude is to exist outside the law, and to be a threat. By naming many of his paintings after women in Greek mythology, Bluhm reinhabited the erotic tradition that began in the Renaissance. For it was to circumvent the Church’s severe constraints on content that Renaissance painters began depicting a pre-Christian, alternative world populated by mythological figures ranging from gods to beasts. Like his forebears, Bluhm realized that he too had to articulate a self-sufficient realm (alternative world) where erotic encounters could take place.
All the paintings in this exhibition were done between 1967 and 1974, at a time when the second generation of Formalist critics were refining and advancing their various agendas. According to received wisdom, reiterating painting’s flatness was the
only way forward, with three acknowledged directions to choose from: Pop Art, Minimalism, or Color Field painting. By second-generation formalist critics, I mean the generation of writers and historians who, taking their cue from Clement Greenberg, confined Helen Frankenthaler’s accomplishment to a single innovative technique, that of stain painting. This simplistic view reinforced Morris Louis’ description of Frankenthaler as “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” And for those who were convinced that art history could be reduced to a linear narrative, it was useful to peg Jasper Johns as the missing link between Abstract Expressionism and both Pop Art and Minimalism. Both of these widely accepted views are based on the idea that every art historical
above: Norman Bluhm in Millbrook studio, 1973 photo by Kerby Smith
below: Norman Bluhm and Joan Mitchell in Millbrook studio, 1971
period is the logical consequence of what preceded it, and that all art should be assessed in terms of the originality of its technique. By stressing technique, particularly one that can be used to underscore painting’s two-dimensionality, critics not only contributed to the further wringing out of space from painting, but they also did something similar with meaning. Holding pure painting in highest regard, they claimed that art’s loftiest purpose was to be about art and nothing else. For Greenberg and many of his adherents, this meant the disembodied color of Kenneth Noland, where the purely optical banishes all traces associ-
above: Millbrook studio, 1973 photo by Kerby Smith
right: Norman and Cary Bluhm at The Museum of Modern Art
ated with the body, was the apogee of postwar painting. Add to these viewpoints and beliefs the Formalist proscriptions against drawing, spatiality, and composition, coupled with a privileging of process and mechanical means— forms of disengagement—and one gets a sense of the kinds of misunderstandings that Bluhm faced in the late 1960s, when he was in his late forties. However, to construe his defiance of these orthodoxies, or his commitment to certain aspects of Abstract Expressionism, as a solely Romantic gesture, is to trade a narrow reading for an equally narrow one. Here, it is useful to recall that in 1967, the year of the earliest dated painting in this exhibition, Al Held purposefully severed his connection to all things that could be associated with Abstract Expressionism. Nearly
a decade younger than Bluhm, and also considered a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Held began using a black and white palette to delineate hard-edged, geometric structures whose changing perspectives conveyed irresolvable spatial riddles within a stable, continuous ground. Once the structures were defined, the artist had the paintings’ surfaces sanded smooth, effacing any trace of human touch. And yet, despite the obvious differences between their sixties and seventies paintings, Held and Bluhm are preoccupied with what is essentially a classical problem, the defining and locating of a form in space, the figure-ground issue. Unbeknownst to each other, and at around the same time, they both began defining alternative worlds in which their forms could reside. By the late 1960s Bluhm was confidently defining complex spatial relationships substantially different from the ones synonymous with the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, with whom he has often been linked. It is literally when he moved on from his own Abstract Expressionist background and entered a territory all his own—an alternative world. Whereas de Kooning set his women within a shallow, post-cubist space and Kline stabilized his “painted space,” as he called it, on the canvas surface, Bluhm used a hothouse palette of light and dark colors—mostly reds, pinks, peaches, blues, and lavenders, along with black and white, and almost no green— to evoke depthless spaces for his rounded, layered, entwined, interpenetrating forms and rubbery shapes to float within, open onto, and press against. It is a world undergoing constant change while in continual motion. By disassembling the direct brushstrokes first formulated by the Abstract Expressionists, and combining their improvisational candor with deliberate actions, including the placement of silhouette-like forms and carefully controlled splatters, Bluhm defined and populated a fresh ter-
ritory. In tandem with these combinations, his coiled, tapering forms bled with the residue associated with impulsive brushstrokes, and his undulant forms seemed to exist somewhere between the unmonitored and the monitored. (Imagine de Kooning’s raw, loaded brushstroke synthesized with Roy Lichtenstein’s refined image of a brushtroke, and you get a sense of the hybrid form that Bluhm developed in his paintings.) By orchestrating the various interactions of the silhouettes, controlled gestures, splatters, and distinct spaces destabilizing the composition, Bluhm was able to transform his paintings into realms of constantly shifting relationships. Starting with the earliest painting in this exhibition, Theodora (1967), he applied layers of paint, often changing the color scheme of each layer, shifted or partially covered previously articulated forms, and applied carefully controlled splatters and drips, as he looked for the combination of interlocking, penetrating, and open elements that satisfied his longing. The layered forms, and the sense of something emerging from beneath them, evoked a world in motion. The viewer both looks at and into the paintings without ever being able to discover a vantage point where everything coalesces into a reassuring stasis.
In Aphrodite (1969), where Bluhm demonstrates his sensitivities to scale, he defined a large, pink, boomerang-like form in the upper half of the painting, where it is about to embrace a curved black space that seems to be slipping beneath it. The space, which does seem to open onto a vast, limitless realm, is activated by a series of splatters of different densities, drawing the viewer into their fluctuating internal relationships. In the lower half of Aphrodite, Bluhm used a different tone of pink to define a slightly tapering, spiral-like form, signifying a quick gestural movement. And yet, the spiraling form has been built up, and wasn’t made quickly or impulsively. Each of these overlapping forms moves across and through space at a different speed, from languid to liquid. Thus, between 1967 and 1974, Bluhm’s flexible vocabulary of undulant forms (or tactile silhouettes); gestural forms that were, in effect, built up over time; splatters and drips; and a meandering, looping line of varying thicknesses incorporated the means and methods integral to Abstract Expressionism into a larger, equally open-ended approach. The baby, it seems, did not have to be thrown out with the bathwater, as his friend Frank O’Hara and other poets central to the “New York School” also knew. In his paintings from this period Bluhm defines reality as consisting of three distinct but inseparable realms: the one inhabited by the viewer (or, perhaps more correctly, voyeurwitness) who peers at and into the painting; the layered one defined and populated by the limb- and body-like forms; and a depthless space which the artist often activates with splatters of drops and tiny rivulets. In the case of the latter two realms, the pictorial tension between surface and depth is palpable, and continually changes along the edges of the interlocking and isolated forms. Because many of the forms are cropped by the painting’s physical edges or by another form, we feel as if we are getting only a glimpse of what is going on. At the same time, we are also somehow part of this intimate
interaction of forms. The hints of limitless space that they frame become the realm they inhabit, as if defying gravity. On a biographical note, it is useful to recall that Bluhm was a bomber pilot in World War II, and repeatedly experienced negotiating his orientation to, and movement through, a limitless space. A mischievous playfulness, at once carnal and comic, shameless and sensual, animates his paintings and works on paper. Imagine a domain overseen by plump putti, where a figure, speaking in a deadpan, confectionary tone, recounting to polite company an explicitly sexual memory (or is it the speaker’s imagination?) that grows increasingly outrageous, and you get something of the flavor of these paintings. Amid the triumph of Pop Art and Minimalism, which were prized for being cool and aloof, Bluhm did something both offensive and challenging. He defined, occupied and explored a realm, at once coarse and gracious, that was all his own.
The alternative world that Bluhm explores is ribald and comic, roguish and tumultuous, calm and agitated, malleable and solid. In this highly charged, sensual domain, tapering forms curl and twist, like a swan’s neck or a snake; rounded forms suggest buttocks, which the artist further hints at with lines echoing their curves; undulating, rubbery forms evocative of movement and clothes in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s paintings The Swing and The Lock; and the outer edges of solid, sinuous silhouettes spread like a viscous fluid. Forms open up, embrace, penetrate, and nest inside other forms; negative and positive spaces exchange roles. In Zoe (1968), a downwardly pointing, dark blue, dripping, hybrid form divides a lavender plane into two rounded shapes. Splatters spew from the hybrid’s tip, and even along its edges. And, much like lovers in a deep, intimate embrace, Bluhm offers no vantage point from which any form can be seen in its entirety. Every form is partial, cropped by the painting’s
physical edges or defined and blocked by other forms, setting the whole space into gently pulsating expansions and contractions. In fact, it is even difficult to distinguish between what is categorically masculine from that which is feminine. It is a world inhabited by shapeshifters, recalling Greek gods and goddesses who possessed the power to turn into animals. Transformation and change are central to this world. And by making his forms morph from one possibility into another, Bluhm reminds us that the erotic tradition in classical art did not separate the spiritual from earthly pleasures. As intense as his subject matter is, Bluhm never becomes ponderous or didactic. He could be erotic, funny, and serious all at once, an ability that he and his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, shared. There is a supple gracefulness to Bluhm’s paintings that feels as choreographed and inevitable as Fred Astaire’s defiance of gravity. His hybrid forms often evoke bodies, landscapes, or clouds, but they resist any literal interpretation. And yet for all the masking and deliberate ambiguity that the artist achieves in his painting, the underlying subject, which is to say the perception that you cannot ever get away from, is ecstasy. I would go further and say that it isn’t male ecstasy that preoccupies the artist, but the sublime pleasures that can be experienced by both men and women. Finally, if we examine what the forms and lines are doing and the way they are made, we realize that Bluhm is conveying affinities between the act of painting and physical intimacy. A line that traces the edge of a curved form, touching it here and there, is also defining a loop, which can be read as male or female. It is a good-humored line that this viewer, at least, can imagine was made by a finger tracing itself along a body. We are witnessing a world that is passionate and playful, serious and comic, declarative and introspective. Isn’t it about time we see what is going on in front of our eyes? Or are denial and suppression the only ways we allow ourselves to participate in our culture? n
Aphrodite, 1969 oil on canvas, 90 x 86 inches 5
Niobe, 1970 oil on canvas, 82 x 74 inches 6
Oenotria, 1971 oil on canvas, 89 x 76 inches 7
Tertia Aemilia, 1972 oil on canvas, 81 x 114 inches 8
Manto, 1974 oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches 9
Published on Mar 24, 2011
Published on Mar 24, 2011
Loretta Howard Gallery is pleased to present a comprehensive exhibition of paintings by Norman Bluhm from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. A...