Alternative Space: Hyman Bloom

Alternative Space:  Hyman Bloom

by Lois Tarlow

Originally printed in Art New England, Volume 4, Number 4 (March 1983)
© Lois Tarlow.   Reproduced with permission.


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“Fish Skeletons”, 1956, dissolved conte crayon with brush and pen, 13″ x 20″

In the late forties and early fifties the art community of Boston was small, like a neighborhood where everyone — artist, dealer, and collector — knew everyone else.  As in most neighborhoods, however, there was one member who, everyone else acknowledged, was different.  Hyman Bloom was unique among us.  He did not attend one of the accepted art schools but rather studied in a tutorial situation under two outstanding teachers, Harold Zimmerman and Denman Ross.  He guarded his privacy and his time.  He seldom went to openings, even his own, or hung around with other artists for mutual support and admiration.  We knew he had a tap into the spirit world and was interested in Eastern philosophy, mysticism, occultism, and music.

When a few of us would summon the courage to make a pilgrimage to Bloom’s Boylston Street studio in the hope of catching a glimpse of his exotic world and his mysterious, even macabre paintings, we would knock and then wait with uneasiness in front of a closed door for what seemed like half an hour (Bloom claims never more than ten minutes).   After he had turned every painting to the wall, he would finally open the door and admit us, not with an enthusiastic welcome but rather with good-humored patience.  He really was not the forbidding, unapproachable legend we tried to conjure up.

Once inside, we had to content ourselves with the backs of paintings and Bloom’s studio clutter: opalescent abalone shells, pieces of iridescent pottery, the feather of a foreign bird, reproductions of Persian paintings and Renaissance drawings.  Still, it was a heady experience.

Dropping the name of Hyman Bloom in many a local art school today is like ordering sanbusak at Burger King — this in spite of the fact that Bloom has single-mindedly pursued his art and exhibited with regularity but perhaps not with the frequency and freneticism of well-publicized artists who bend to the winds of fashion.

Bloom made his first stab at exhibiting his work in Boston when he brought a painting to the Goodman-Walker Gallery, which was at the corner of Dartmouth and Boylston Streets.  Goodman said, “I can’t tell from just one painting,” Bloom recalls.  “I got on my high dudgeon and said, ‘If you can’t tell from one, you won’t be able to tell from many.’  I took my painting and left.”

Next, Bloom approached the Stuart Gallery.  Jean Deering and Theodore Shaw took him on and gave him a monthly stipend of eighty dollars in exchange for half his work.  When he joined the Swetzoff Gallery, it was again with a stipend.  For the most part, Hyman Swetzoff handled Bloom’s drawings.  He did, however, buy a landscape painting from Bloom for three hundred dollars, which he later sold to Wellesley College for three thousand.  He gave Bloom a percentage of the sale, which was a novelty in those days.

For a time, Bloom was with the Mirski Gallery.  And like all artists who were with Boris Mirski, he has his Mirski stories.  This dealer, a colorful figure who played an important and daring role in bringing young avant-garde artists to the Boston public, was also a disarming and lovable rogue.  For two hundred dollars he bought a Bloom Rabbi painting, which he said he would keep and hang in his own house.  In reality, it it was soon hanging in the house of George Kennedy, a Harvard professor, who had paid Mirski $1,400 for it.  Mirski told Bloom that whenever he wanted to sell a Rabbi, he’d take it off his hands for two hundred.  Through Jerry Goldberg, a collector, friend, and “a prince of a patron,” Bloom became a member of the Tragos Gallery.

In New York, he was with Durlacher from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties, when it closed, and from 1968 to the present with the Dintenfass Gallery, where he will have a show in April.

Bloom’s art education began in earnest at the age of thirteen, when he got a scholarship to the high school art classes at the Boston Museum, where for three years he drew from plaster casts.  In addition, when he was fourteen, he studied at the Jewish West End Settlement House with Harold Zimmerman who was himself only in his early twenties.  Zimmerman taught picture making.  “His students worked from life and from imagination and learned how to turn an idea into a picture.”   Many of Bloom’s precocious figure drawings were memories of wrestling matches.  They reflect his admiration for Michelangelo.

At sixteen, he began his studies with Denman Ross at the Fogg Museum.  Since no article on Bloom is complete without mention of Jack Levine, it must be noted that it was under Ross’s tutelage that the two met.  Levine, a year and a half younger than Bloom, was already studying with Ross.  They shared a studio for three years and then diverged: Levine looked to Degas and eventually settled in New York; Bloom chose Rouault and later Soutine and stayed close to Boston.

Denman Ross not only instructed the boys free of charge but bestowed on each a weekly stipend of twelve dollars to enable them to devote themselves to their art. It  is unfortunate that the custom of stipends has vanished.

The WPA was also sustaining to many artists.  Bloom among them.  “It filled the gap when at twenty I stopped studying.  It is still needed to give kids coming out of  school a buffer period.”

In 1942, Dorothy Miller of the Museum of Modern Art included Bloom in her annual New Talent show. along with seventeen other artists, most of whom had worked under the WPA.   Bloom was represented by thirteen paintings, two of which were purchased for the museum’s permanent collection.   “The work was expressionistic moving toward abstraction,” he says.   Among the paintings by Bloom were at least two Christmas Trees, the Chandelier, some Skeletons, The Bride, and The Synagogue.

While on exhibit at the MOMA, Bloom’s work attracted the admiration of Hyman Brown, the producer of the radio mystery program Inner Sanctum.   He offered Bloom a stipend of eighty dollars a month in exchange for an agreed-upon number of paintings.   When Brown became tardy in the payments and demanded a greater share of the work, Bloom managed with the help of sales and the stipend from the Stuart Gallery in Boston to repay every cent to Brown, along with a scathing letter — another example of youthful high dudgeon.

Kirk Askew, a friend of Dorothy Miller, was the owner-director of the prestigious Durlacher Gallery.   Greatly impressed with Bloom’s paintings, Askew took him on, arranged a stipend, and showed his work for twenty years.

In Boston in 1945, Bloom first showed his cadavers at the Stuart Gallery.  He came to this subject through a chance meeting with David Aronson, who was on his way to a hospital on Commonwealth Avenue to study cadavers for his own painting.  He invited Bloom to join him. Seeing a dead body was a deep experience for Bloom.  “On the one hand, it was harrowing; on the other it was beautiful — iridescent and pearly. It opened up avenues for feelings not yet gelled.  It had a liberating effect.  I felt something inside that I could express through color.  As a subject, it could synthesize things for me.  The paradox of the harrowing and the beautiful could be brought into unity.”  One of the most exquisite, jewel-like paintings is Bloom’s vision of an amputated leg painted in 1944.

While corpses may not be everyone’s subject, Bloom, a believer in reincarnation, imbues physical mortality with the feeling, richness, and luminosity that reminds us that a spirit resided here.   “Life is not just what we experience on earth. You don’t just die and rot away. That would tell us that life is trivial, and that wouldn’t make sense.”

Bloom has experienced states of disembodied ecstasy and rapture which he feels are fairly common, especially for artists.  He had these experiences before LSD and with the aid of LSD and realized they were the same.  He believes that if you cannot assimilate the ecstatic experience into your life, it is useless.  He knows it has affected his outlook, of which his work is a product.  He strives to express the non-material through the material, the spiritual through the physical.  When he succeeds, his paintings have a moving quality that transcends the paint.

The drawings and paintings of rabbis have that spirituality.  While not a religious Jew, Bloom has always considered the rituals of the synagogue and the singing of the cantor to be stirring experiences. Bloom wished to capture the mysticism of Hassidic rabbis.  He tells of being introduced to one.  “His skin was yellow and waxlike.  He Kept his eyes closed, and he was led around by his elbow.  He had that otherworldly quality that I try to get.  I believe I only succeeded in one drawing.  Someday, I may go back to that subject.”

For Bloom, who is often called a Jewish painter, there is no such thing.  There are, however, Jewish paintings, which can only be done, as far as he knows, by someone brought up as a Jew and who attended synagogue.  The rest of the work by Jewish artists is not Jewish painting.  From the mysticism of Judaism, Bloom looked farther eastward to India and the Orient, where the philosophy and music have enriched his painting. Indian and Armenian music are formative elements.  “The music arouses feelings I would like to communicate in painting — an aesthetic experience through one sense expressed through another.”

Bloom’s work is a confluence of East and West.  Along with the graphic elements of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, there is the overall illumination found in early Middle Eastern painting, in which everything is saturated with color.  Oriental interpretations of space and modes of design occur in his huge charcoal landscapes and white ink drawings of fish skeletons, done in the fifties.  For many summers Bloom spent some time in Lubec, Maine, where he observed and photographed the intertwining roots and trees.  The drawings came later.  Their thickly woven patterns and all-over design convey a mystery and a magic that is far from objective reality.  On the one hand, these fantastic landscapes evoke the dense engravings of Bresdin and the paintings of the Sung Dynasty; on the other, the complex elements of design and the shallow depth of field found in Persian rug design and painting.

In the fish drawings, while on dark backgrounds, the currents of the cosmic sea combine with undulating spines to create a never-ending flow not unlike the flame-like forms of Tibetan paintings.  The fish, though skeletal, have all the monstrous vitality, mythic spirituality, and even humor that Oriental artists impart to their animals.  Bloom speaks of the moral implications of depicting life in the sea.  “Eating, pursuit, and dying.  It’s a euphemism for free enterprise, a predatory competition.  Life is a contest.  Well, I thought I’d get that off my chest.”

Although it was many years ago, I can speak at firsthand about Bloom’s teaching methods. He was my teacher in 1950 at the Boston Museum School summer session at Tanglewood.  He interjects himself as little as possible into the student’s work, delaying comment until the student is in trouble.  All decisions must be made with the whole composition in mind.  This means that sometimes one must obliterate one inspired section in the hope of coming up with another even more inspired.  Here is a simple and indispensible piece of advice which no subsequent teacher ever suggested, and which for the last thirty-three years has hovered over my easel like a disembodied winged eye:  “You know you are finished when there is nothing left to change for the better.”

Bloom works all the time.   “People who don’t paint all the time are not painters. They are dreamers who dream about painting. You have to paint all the time for it to be a natural act.”   Bloom has many paintings going at once and over long periods of time.  He puts things away to get some distance and a new point of view.  “That means before you work on it again you must do battle with your tendency toward inertia.   You have to use all sorts of tricks to overcome it.”   Before making big changes, Bloom takes Polaroids.  “I like to have a record of how it was, because the painting could have gone a different way.”

Terry Dintenfass, his New York dealer, can attest to the fact that Bloom works and reworks his paintings for years.  “After I took him on, I had to wait eight years for a show.”

There are indeed difficult periods for an artist with Bloom’s commitment.   As a means of commiseration he likes to read biographies of artists.  He remarked that Ingres wept over problems with his work, such as the agonizing difficulties he had drawing the hand of one of his sitters.

In writing this article, I gained admittance again, after thirty-odd years, to Bloom’s studio.  Even though it is now in Inman Square, Cambridge, the ambiance is much the same.  Once again I did not get so much as a peek at a painting.  Bloom believes that people respond to unfinished work with “destructive stupidity.”

"Nightfall", 1981, oil on canvas, 32" x 70"

“Nightfall”, 1981, oil on canvas, 32″ x 70″

In New York at the Dintenfass Gallery, however, I did see three recent paintings.  Each took up the threads of earlier work: a landscape of trees, remembered and imagined, and reminiscent of the landscape drawings of the sixties; a still-life filled with favorite vases and bottles fully illuminated with color in the eastern manner; and an ominous but richly glowing painting of a leg and a skull on a slab.  When I mentioned to Bloom that this last painting, which is entitled Nightfall, seems to suggest a hovering plague or the end of the world, he said, “The world could end but life in some form would go on.  Nature has a way of carrying on.  Man is not in control of anything as far as I can make out.” Somehow, that thought is comforting.  In fact, during these recent visits, I’ve come to realize that Bloom — in spite of the subject of corpses and death, or rather in view of these subjects and their place in his scheme of things — that Bloom is an optimist.  He also has a delightfully understated sense of humor which I either overlooked thirty years ago or which developed along with a mellowness.  At one point Bloom, who will be seventy on March 29, said, “I’m lucky.  My main interest is painting.  Other things have come and gone.  I’ve managed to survive and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing.”

– Lois Tarlow