Norman Bluhm at Jacobson Howard Gallery

Norman Bluhm, Russian Icon (1991), oil on canvas, 60-1/10″ x 50-1/2″; courtesy Jacobson Howard Gallery

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The sleekly appointed exhibition of works-on-paper by the American painter Norman Bluhm (1921-1999), on display at Jacobson Howard Gallery, reminds us that affectation can be its own reward.

Like Jack Tworkov, subject of a superlative retrospective that recently closed at UBS Art Gallery, Bluhm wasn’t a New York School pioneer, but a talented devotee:  the innovations of Abstract Expressionism were pretty much cemented by the time he took them up. The challenge, then, lay in elaboration. Taking into account how the late work of both Tworkov and Bluhm puts to shame prime Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline, who’s to say the latter isn’t preferable?

Two things become clear after traversing the 50-some-odd years between Bluhm’s figure studies from the late 1940s to the looping, mandala-like pictures with which he finished his days: 1) Bluhm loved, sometimes impolitely, the female form; and 2) his touch—splashy but willful, brusque yet elegant—was pure theater. Bluhm was in thrall to de Kooning’s whiplash line, but less for its ability to embody flesh-and-bone than for its snaky, decorative élan: A given motif was an armature for looping calligraphy rather than a reason for being. Consequently, there’s a notable absence of tone in Bluhm’s work. The zooming abstractions from the mid-1960s transmute non-western aesthetics—the encompassing space of Chinese landscape painting, say—through New York School dramaturgy. The results are overheated but tasteful, exquisite and bland.

Bluhm’s pictorial tics gained in range and fervor once the figure reasserted itself in the mid 1980s. Segmented compositions anchored by contorted limbs and defined through arabesques of perfumed color, the late pictures marry the conventions of religious art (think stained glass and Islamic ornamentation), Matisse’s icy hedonism and Venus of Willendorf-type fetishism. Bluhm isn’t as deep as all that—the work doesn’t dig; it skitters and slides—but as essays in style, the paintings have their attractions.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 3, 2009 edition of City Arts.


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