In works of the late forties and early fifties, Levine established a national reputation for preaching a Social-Realist agenda with the agitated formal eloquence of expressionism. Benediction (1951, fig. 22) is a typical example.11 Here, three stylized and somewhat stunted caricatures enact a morally and politically didactic narrative: two wealthy politicos dance attendance on an inhered prince of the Church. Levine’s nervous formal vocabulary of rich colors, staccato brushwork, and fractured planes is particularly apt for this critique of the supposed separation of church and state— the painting’s surface looks like a smashed, and then reconstituted, stained-glass window.
Although Levine had decamped permanently to New York, he was still held up as an exemplar, a legend, a local-boy-made-good for a generation of younger Boston artists. Hyman Bloom, who stayed in Boston, found that his influence was even greater. Painter Lois Tarlow recalled:
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 two 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.12
This mystical bent proved to be much more than just a beguiling aspect of Bloom’s persona. In 1939, the artist experienced a moment of deep spiritual insight: “I had a conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful, and I had a sense of love for life that was greater than any I had ever had before.”13 Recapturing this shattering yet illuminating experience became the core of Bloom’s life work and study.
During the forties and fifties, Bloom chose bizarre, sometimes grotesque subject matter: corpses, autopsies, severed limbs, blazing Christmas trees and chandeliers, elderly nudes, mediums, séances, and roiling seascapes. He painted these images with bravura brushstrokes and saturated, opalescent colors in attempts to metaphorically turn matter into light, the dead into the living, and the material into the spiritual. At the heart of his enterprise was the quest of all mystics, to resolve and transcend the dualities that enslave the human spirit in the bonds of limited perceptual reality. in part a tribute to the butchered carcasses painted by Rembrandt and Soutine, is an animal unmistakably dead. Yet its vivid colors, slashing brushstrokes, dynamic, thrusting Baroque composition, and unblinking confrontational eye make this being somehow, powerfully alive. Bloom’s carcasses of the early fifties proceeded directly from his cadavers and autopsies of the mid-forties, works based on his observations of real dead bodies in the morgue at Boston’s Kenmore Hospital. The artist’s reminiscence of this experience helps explain his unique take on mortality, expressed visually in the cadaver and carcass paintings: “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.”14
Bloom began painting seascapes later in the fifties. In works like Seascape I, first series (1955-1956, repainted 1980), the artist depicts a slice of a much larger, and terrifying ocean where thrashing quasi-skeletal fish devour one another and dissolve into the surrounding waters. These paintings continue Bloom’s explorations of life and death and eliding states of matter, while addressing a somewhat darker theme. According to the artist, the seascapes are about “Eating, pursuit, and dying. It’s a euphemism for free enterprise, a predatory competition. Life is a contest.”15
Although Bloom turned increasingly to drawing as his primary medium in the sixties, and moved to nearby Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1978, his work continued to fire the imaginations of the emerging group of Boston Expressionist painters.16 And ultimately it was Bloom’s metaphysical and spiritual approach that was of far greater consequence locally than Jack Levine’s societal critiques.
Nowhere was Bloom and Levine’s influence more profound than among the faculty and students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. David Aronson, a student and teacher at the Museum School—and also the artist who introduced Bloom to the Kenmore Hospital morgue—recalled that “Bloom and Levine were the key to the development of Figurative Expressionism at the Museum School. They inspired our interest in Soutine, Kokoschka, and Beckmann—in all the German Expressionists.”17 Indeed, Bloom and Levine did revere their European Expressionist forebears, and their work revealed this influence. But it was Karl Zerbe, who came to the Museum School in 1937 to lead its Department of Drawing and Painting, who almost single-handedly established expressionism as the basis of pedagogy in the visual arts in Boston for over two decades (fig. 23).