Norman Bluhm: Large Scale Works on Paper
James Graham & Sons
32 East 67th Street
New York City
212 535 5767
March 14 – April 19, 2008
Norman Bluhm threw down a gauntlet. He collided the gale force wind of action painting into the figural contortions of de Kooning and plied the result into a baroque schema of High Abstract Expressionism. But unlike de Kooning, who in the end unfurled his lasso-like line into the airy sublime, Bluhm recalibrated and condensed the energy into an undulating volcanic swell.
The five large scale works on paper from 1984 currently at the James Graham Gallery remind us how Bluhm forged new territory and distinguished himself from the second wave of New York School abstraction. Bluhm landed in France through the GI bill and, like Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, lived there in the 50’s and 60’s absorbing local color.
One large 1958 canvas is also on view and typifies Bluhm’s violent gestural slashes from this earlier period. The force of impact as the brush splays against the canvas creates a spraying splatter similar to those of Alfred Leslie. By the 1970’s Bluhm moved from all-over composition to associative-relational design. Suddenly, swelling, cartoonoid, bulbous shapes, reminiscent of Gorky’s drawing, emerge and nestle in overtly sexualized female anatomical configurations. Bluhm’s penchant for building a wall of curling female anatomy side-to-side and top-to-bottom is reminiscent of Ingres’ Turkish Bath, a connection acknowledged by the poet and critic Raphael Rubinstein, who linked a Bluhm title to the work. In Bluhm’s hands it’s as if Gorky and de Kooning, also admirers of Ingres, collaborated on a new version of Turkish Bath – via Disney.
Squirmy, steadfast, and biologic in their surging rhythmic climax, Bluhm’s forms bulge and push up against the edges of his support, creating an explosive pressure. His use of bilateral symmetry heightens this effect. Untitled Drawing # 3frames a quivering, gelatinous mass of stacked parts that ascend toward a central dark void silhouetting two ejaculatory sprays of white paint. In the lower third of the painting, salmon-pink lines carve arabesques into an undulating field of pale orange. A lemon yellow middle section is likewise incised by a curling pastel blue line. Above, Bluhm lays down a stratum of Matissian pink followed by orange. Given the compact, stacking of intestinal forms articulated by incised, looping lines, one might guess Bluhm must have also admired Mayan paintings and stelae.
In Untitled 1984, floating yellow biomorphs resembling angels co-mingle with other fleshy manifestations. The central focus however is a dark cave-like opening at the bottom, reminiscent of Christ’s decent into limbo by Mantenga or Becafumi. Lyrical as Bluhm often is, he can blow dark and moody, at times even evoking Munch’s and Rothko’s melancholic palettes, as in Drawing 1 and Drawing 7. Despite the purgatorial plunge, Untitled 1984 remains decidedly upbeat; Bluhm generously drips whites, pale greens and yellows that pop like light filled beads against the dark recess of the open cave.
Bluhm’s instinct to retain his drip, splatter and bash in a measured but vital way gently dethrones the figural forms by seasoning them with the threat of obliteration. By tweaking these forms through a back-and-forth process of give-and-take revision, Bluhm dances between specificity and indeterminate chaos. Just as he verges on painterly overflow and obliteration, he pivots and reaffirms the innards of his design. His hand is in and out, on top and behind, applying counterpoint to each move and indexing his instinct to ride between affirmative application and gestural negation.
Each painting revels in the gestational dance between sex and death. It is a bacchanalian revelry and Bluhm came to own it. He reinvoked the gods of the ages and restaged their dramas. From the heights of Tiepoloian excess and vertigo to the erotic posturing in Hindu temple statuary, the cup of Bluhm’s inspiration runneth over. His painterly embrace of a mannered, floridly colored, biomorphic-cartoon form may yet be an untapped way forward from the illustrative, surreal-graphic style that has recently devolved from the great Philip Guston and Peter Saul.