Hyman Bloom: Paintings and Drawings

Introduction to The Exhibition:

by Holland Cotter
© University of New Hampshire.  Reproduced with permission of the University of New Hampshire’s Museum of Art.

This essay was featured as the Introduction for UNH’s 1992 exhibition catalog of “Hyman Bloom: Paintings and Drawings”.    The essay was also included in the Fuller Museum of Art’s  1996 exhibition catalog “The Spirits of Hyman Bloom: Sixty Years of Painting and Drawing.”

“The disciple contemplates this body, from the sole of the foot upwards, and from the top of the hair downwards. There are in this body:

“hairs of the head, hairs of the body, nails, teeth, skin; muscles, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys; heart, liver, serous membranes, sleep, lungs; intestines, mesentery, stomach, excrement, brain; bile, digestive juices, pus, blood, grease, fat; tears, sweat, spittle, snot, fluid of the joints, urine”   (Conze)

Early Buddhist scripture reduced the human body to an anatomical catalogue. In part this stemmed from the religion’s analytical bias; at the same time it was a directive to monks, who were enjoined to frequent cemeteries to observe disintegration—potentially their own—first hand. It was a vision that encouraged leaving things of this mutable world behind, and for that reason it ran against the grain of society, which expended vast amounts of time and energy denying exactly this reality.

In this respect, little has changed in the more than two millema since the Buddha’s passing. We in the West will entertain practically any subject other than mortality, and when we do consider it, it is through diversionary agendas: through science, say, which explains how to avoid it, or politics which is in the business of casting blame for its occurrence. Art itself is rarely any more direct. There are some European examples in which prevarication is suspended— Medieval gisants, Titian’s Flaying of Marsayas, Gericault’s morgue paintings—but twentieth century modernism has seemed anxious to avoid the topic altogether, and in abstraction seemed to have found a means to do so. Perhaps this suppression is one of the reasons Hyman Bloom chose not to pursue an abstract mode of painting at the time he was hailed by Pollock and DeKooning as the “first Abstract Expressionist.” Like Buddhist thought, his work approaches abstraction, but is firmly rooted in a world of material forms and the ceaseless changes they undergo.

Change was the essence of Bloom’s world from the start. Culturally, he was situated at the intersections of several fascinating paths. His birthplace was Latvia, a western country that abuts, however distantly, on the East; his religion was Judaism, with, again, its mix of Eastern and Western components, its rejection of the human form in art and its promise of a perfected body at The Last Judgement. The Boston he arrived in as an immigrant in 1920 was a city of contradictory traditions. As the “Athens of America” and the home of Pragmatism, its history of rationalist scholarship was great, but it was also the place from which Transcendentalism’s ripple effect spread outward through the rest of the land. There was interest in spirituality of all kinds—Emerson had read the Upanishads at Harvard; Mrs. Eddy was buried with every hope of an imminent rising at Mount Auburn; the Spiritualist Church had headquarters on Essex Street; and occultism was in the air.

Also in the air was European painting. Bloom remembers seeing the Monets at the Museum of Fine Arts when he was young, though his exposure to other art (DaVinci and the Pre-Raphaelites) early on was largely through reproductions. These were provided by Harold Zimmerman, his first teacher, whom he met at a Jewish community center in Boston’s West End. Bloom believes in predestination, so the fact that Zimmerman’s first day of teaching and Blooms first day of studying coincided makes absolute sense. Zimmerman appears to have been a preceptor of strong convictions and a searching spirit. Bloom draws him in the mold of the Indian guru, who charged nothing for his teaching, instructed by example, encouraged his pupils to cultivate their own intuition, and viewed artmaking as a discipline which engages equally body and soul. He introduced Bloom to the work of William Blake and, through him, to a concept which seems to have shaped Bloom’s work: that it is possible to paint the metaphysical, to visually embody spiritual truths.

His second teacher, Denman Ross, was of a different stripe—professor emeritus at Harvard, and a strict formalist with his own methodology, he espoused Impressionist techniques (the Boston Impressionists, we may remember— Edmund Tarbell, William Paxton, Philip Leslie Hale, and others—were still local heroes in the early part of this century, and Impressionism itself retained the cachet of being a “gentleman’s” style even after they had retired from the scene). Perhaps it was from him that Bloom learned, as one cannot do from books, that paint has a distinctive physical voice, a body language, you might say, of its own. Even if the calculated airiness and delicacy by which the Impressionists defined themselves were foreign to Bloom’s temperament, their methods were useful: the astonishing richness and sweep of his virtuosic brushwork suggests that he well understood the lessons they offered. Interestingly, though, he did not emulate their surfaces. Although many of Blooms paintings give the impression of having an opulently built-up impasto, this is a carefully engineered illusion; the surfaces are, in fact, smooth and flat.

As was always the case, while studying art, Bloom was also investigating a wide variety of spiritual disciplines. As a young man he used to attend meetings at the Psychical Research Society in Boston and was a member of the Order of the Portal, a tributary of Rosicrucionism—organizations which, with a predominantly elderly membership, were riding on the last vestiges of fin de siecle energy that lingered like a faint perfume in the Boston of the inter-war years. He attended lectures, participated in seances (though he claims no psychic skills himself nor has he ever experienced a materialization), studied astrology, began a lifelong interest in the music and dance of India, and above all read everything that came his way. Bloom credits books with providing most of his knowledge and the briefest exchange with him reveals a breadth and depth of knowledge that only the charmed term “self-taught” can encompass.

In the late ’30s and early ’40s he produced what he considers his first mature paintings. He was employed on the WPA in Boston, periodically saving enough money to get off the Project and do his own work before having to go back on again. It was at this time that he had begun to choose subjects that brought many of his central concerns together: his fascination with the spiritual, with material disintegration, with an expressionist dynamism. These elements are the active ingredients of a series of paintings based on the lamps hanging in the synagogues of his childhood (Chandelier # l of 1945 is an example). Immense and dripping with light, they are magnified to a size that excludes everything around them, just as they might appear to the eye of a small child. Since in the same year Bloom did paintings of Christmas trees which have exactly the same properties as the lamps, we can assume that the specific identity of the object was less important than the radiance it emits. The results have both the concentrated gravity of Russian icons and suggest physical objects shattered by their own brilliance. It may well have been on the basis of these and similar works—including the gorgeous Treasure Map—that Bloom’s reputation as an “abstract” painter was first deduced by his New York colleagues.

Within a few years Bloom turned his attention to a subject in which the fragmentation and shattering began to assume mortal implications. From observing dissections in the morgues of Boston hospitals he produced a series of paintings of cadavers which comprise some of the most shocking images to emerge from American painting of their day. The Cauldron (1952) is one of them. The composition is arranged as a complex, multi-layered visual puzzle which only gradually introduces us to the subject itself: a human corpse lying on a table, its viscera exposed, while white-sleeved arms pass into the picture as they continue their post-mortem surgery. Our view is from above, an impossible aerial perspective at once dizzying, distancing, by implication unearthly.

Other paintings from the same period—The Anatomist and Corpse of an Elderly Male—depict the dead body with the same forth-rightness, yet despite the fact that these paintings are surely a response to the Second World War, when hell on earth reigned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Bloom refuses to reduce his subjects to emblems of irony or pity or anger. Almost unimaginably (in the context of our own highly polemical and directive contemporary art) he offers death and beauty as morally neutral and inextricably linked. In each tableau flesh is both awful yet alludes to luxurious substances. The skin and muscle pulled away from the body in The Anatomist for example, furls out as delicately as paper scrolls or banners; the viscera of the Elderly Male has the clotted coloration of massed jewels; the interior of the corpse in The Cauldron glows with an inward warmth that recalls the paintings of lamps, while two hands at the top of the composition—one the corpse’s, the other a technician’s pushing away a blood-filled tray—recall the hands raised in religious exultation in some of Bloom’s early depictions of synagogue worship. We must turn again to the past—to the art of Soutine, say, or the Gandharan images of the starving Siddhartha—for comparable images of flesh abused into transcendance.

We find the same elements of physical dissolution and spiritual vivacity in the landscapes which Bloom began in the ‘6os and continued to produce through the ’70s. He was inspired by, among other things, the etchings of the great 19th century French printmaker Rodolphe Bresdin, whose work he saw in a Boston gallery during the Second World War. Bresdin, pupil of Moreau, teacher of Redon, was considered an eccentric in his day. His specialty was the invention of fantastic landscapes which accumulated minute details in such density that they assumed the organic charge of a single living thing. Bresdin peopled his forests with minute figures and used titles indicating specific sites or biblical themes, perhaps as devices to make his unsettling work acceptable to public taste. Blooms landscapes banish the human figure altogether. In Fog Coming In (1973), blasted, disintegrating trees tilt sharply as if blocking our entrance; at the same time, they scintillate with light, as if the lichen which covers them were a precious substance and the drops of mist prismatic. If the human form is not present, human consciousness—or some consciousness—certainly is. This is the natural world as a heightened state of mind, and one at least as dangerous as it is beautiful.

We find the same psychic intensity in the “seascapes” from the ’70s and through the ’80s. These are not, properly speaking, landscapes at all, but close-up images of dead fish, some whole, others skeletal, which Bloom sets swimming in a churning painterly sea. In Green Seascape (1987), he invests them with an aggressive electricity that makes the designation “still life” entirely inapplicable. The image suggests the feeding frenzy of piranha, and the all over, calligraphic filigree of white bones and thrashed water is an image of nature as a self-devouring machine, which has no single center and which extends its turbulence outward, well beyond the confines of the canvas itself. It is interesting to note that although Bloom, unlike many of his American colleagues in the ’30s and ’40s, chose not to address specific political topics in his art, a sense of strong moral commentary rises from certain of his paintings. These paintings of fish are among them: he has spoken of them as referring to the rapacious world of competition and free enterprise in which the strongest and greediest always dominate.

Other works like Still Life on a Butcher Block Table (1980) and Still Life with Ironing Board (1982—83) more closely adhere to their titular genre, though even here one has the impression of energy spilling out of the paintings. Color is in part responsible for this effect. Blooms palette here is peacock-like—Moreau-like, if you prefer—with aquamarines, teals and hot pink-crimson mixed with yellow set against a lime green ground. But the still-life forms of art nouveau vases which are the subjects of these paintings also play a dramatic role. Some of them are flower-shaped, many are grotesque; some are covered with complex abstract patterns, others with floral motifs which cover their sides like a creeping mold. The details of each vessel, from a distinctive lip, to an odd bulge, to intricate faceting, to iridescent glazes, to passages of relief on their surface are rendered with an adamant, almost hyper-real intensity. At the same time, everything—the vases, the cloth they sit on, the table, the background which dissolves into swirls of abstract paint— are bathed in light emanating from somewhere within the picture itself. The result is, again, an image of life raised to a high expressive pitch, beyond nature yet not entirely otherworldly, where objects and space float and palpitate within a dream-physics of their own.

It is the kind of ardent spirit-saturated vision we associate with few Western painters in our century, and we might turn to the art of other cultures for comparable models. One thinks of the saturated colors and spiritual concentration that still characterize Western Indian paintings of the Bhagavata Purana, or of the fabulous images found in Tibetan thankas produced within the last hundred years. Indeed, the Asian connection is a particularly interesting aspect of Bloom’s work. Although he has never visited Europe, he has spent time in India, and his knowledge of its thought is profound. It is conceptually rather than stylistically, however, that it permeates his work. Blooms images of ravening fish are derived from a Vedic metaphor denoting human depredation. The painting titled Dissolving (1974)—which is as close to abstraction as any Bloom has done—depicts a cosmological catastrophe in which the earth quakes and splits apart under a lurid pink sky, but at the same time it alludes to the Apocalypse one finds by merely lifting a woodland rock and seeing dark insects, panicked by light, scurrying away from a creature they have been devouring. The same processes, we may infer, affect all life, great and small.

And it is exactly “process” that is Blooms most important theme. It is our most important theme too—existentially speaking—if we only let ourselves know it. Like him, we need to learn that there is no such thing as a god without a devil or life without death and that the “opposites” are not always mutually exclusive things. Like him, we need to learn that history—the history of art, the history of anything—is fundamentally illusionary. Nothing is fixed, neither documents, nor objects, nor people, nor attitudes. Although Blooms magisterial work is cast in a Western oil-on-canvas tradition, with all its associations of preciousness and material preservation, his attitude toward it more closely resembles that of another kind of artist—the Tibetan monk, say, who will create a manaala of almost inconceivable intricacy from grains of colored sand, knowing that the final touch will be to sweep the whole thing into a pile, throw it away and—perhaps—begin again, in a ritual of dissolution that is shot through with light.

–Holland Cotter