The following text by Debra Bricker Balken is excerpted from Modern Mystic: The Art of Hyman Bloom, a book by Henry Adams and Marcia Brennan, recently published by D.A.P.
If ever there was an outlier in midcentury American art, it was Hyman Bloom. A painter who never left Boston but whose quasi-abstract compositions appeared in tandem with the burgeoning New York school, Bloom was not only a radical artist, but also a decidedly unconventional figure. As of the late 1930s, he had begun to make intrepid pictorial strides in works such as Christmas Tree (1939), The Bride (1941), and Chandelier I (1944), all of which dissolve into either radiant swathes or jewel-like patterns of incandescent light. However, unlike Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who forged similar aesthetic paths, Bloom would resist association with nascent labels such as Abstract Expressionism, knowing they could never explain the core meanings of his work. Whatever his own brazen gestures, he felt no like-mindedness or connection with the community of artists who were in the process of defining New York as an international art center.
Bloom’s defiance of the art world was evident from the beginning. When thirteen of his paintings, including The Bride, appeared in "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States" at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), he purposely withheld a statement from the accompanying catalogue, underscoring his early opposition to institutional culture. His work did not require the intermediary of language, he implied. Words did not matter. His consuming interest in transcendent experience, the ongoing trope of his work, was enough to engage the viewer, he thought. Moreover, a statement might unwittingly tie him to a movement or group, and the notion of unity—the mindset of academics, critics, and curators—was artifice to Bloom.
The introduction of Bloom’s painting to a national audience through Americans 1942—a coup for any young artist—did cause a stir, however. Pollock and de Kooning saw the exhibition, and so did numerous dealers. Within a few years of the MoMA project, Bloom had secured Durlacher Bros. to rep-resent his work in New York. The relationship was ostensibly a good fit: Kirk Askew, who directed the gallery, not only had trained in art history at Harvard, and hence knew Boston, but also had a keen interest in modernist art. He was known for his lively parties that drew on a cross section of avant-garde writers, composers, artists, and collectors. Askew urged Bloom to move to Manhattan to enlarge both his intellectual and social networks, to become a fixture or player. But Bloom balked at the request, refusing to be uprooted and integrated into a scene with which he felt no kinship. He would not gravitate toward the spotlight at any point in his career: “I didn’t like openings, I didn’t like the crowds of people,” he later said. “I avoided all of that stuff.” The studio, rather than the New York scene, was the only place where he wanted to be—other than his sprawling library of books, which included not only monographs on Old Master and modern artists such as Odilon Redon, Georges Rouault, and Chaim Soutine, but also philosophical tracts by Plato, Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant, in addition to a huge range of esoteric literature on astrology, mysticism, and the occult. (Bloom began attending meetings at the Theosophical Society and Vedanta Center in Boston in the late 1930s, just as he began to pursue his rapturous images of light.) Moreover, as he became acquainted with Pollock’s painting, he contended that its thrust lacked “emotional control,” that Pollock’s febrile compositions of lines, splatters, and drips issued from solipsism rather than an interior life that wrestled with big questions relating to mortality and fate, the subjects that Bloom felt befit the midcentury.
Askew had made a false step when he first exhibited Bloom’s work in 1946. While he featured paintings such as Archaeological Treasure (1945), which directly linked Bloom to Pollock and others through its abstract, diagrammatic approach to an archaeological map, Askew had stowed a large canvas of a nude male corpse in the back room, fearing fallout from an American public still adjusting to modernism’s transgressive subjects. The corpse was new territory for Bloom—he had begun visiting a Boston morgue in 1943—and he wanted it shown. While acknowledging “the public penchant for overlooking everything once they can find an excuse to give way to cheap sensation,” Bloom considered Askew’s act “a concession to vulgarity,” shadowing his work that was foregrounded in the gallery. The exhibition did include other anatomical works, and a few critics responded to Askew’s provocation. Robert Coates in the New Yorker, for instance, thought that Bloom was at a crossroads where the poetry of his chandeliers contrasted too sharply with the “horrors” of his cadavers. He admitted that a painting such as A Leg (1945), depicting a dismembered limb speckled with cancerous lesions, retained the same crystalline patterning of Bloom’s more metaphysical pictures. But the gruesome origins of the work rattled Coates, who wanted more abstract treatment—a prim response, to be sure, to Bloom’s disquieting metaphor of evanescence, the moment when flesh loses its vitality and disintegrates.
By contrast, Clement Greenberg, the primary architect of Abstract Expressionism, who also reviewed Bloom’s show for The Nation, objected to paintings such as Older Jew with Torah (1945), which was suffused in gold iridescent paint, a clear spiritual marker. As Greenberg had it, the work was too literal a religious statement, the ecstasy displaced; if Bloom was to contend with contemporary expressionist artists, his figures had to disappear into the texture of his animated brushwork and become mute. Bloom’s declaration of his Judaism was ultimately too distracting for Greenberg, a feature he could not reconcile with a conception of modernism overwhelmingly concerned with the secular and, for Greenberg, the dominion of formal experimentation. But this was the bias of a critic for whom subject matter was always an intrusion. Bloom claimed he “never cared what they said,” although he did write to Askew that he found the reviews by Coates, Greenberg, and a few others “beyond contempt.” It did not deter him, however, from painting the body. In fact, as his career progressed, the corpse remained a mainstay, a potent vehicle to convey, like the decomposing foliage in Rocks and Autumn Leaves (1949), the mutability of life. Besides, it was not death that Bloom portrayed, but the moment when matter transits to the ineffable world of the spirit: ergo, the rapture characteristic of all of his painting, whatever imagery he employed.
Despite Coates’s and Greenberg’s rejoinders, Bloom’s independent stance was recognized early on by numerous writers and museums beyond MoMA. His painting was selected to represent the United States at the 1950 Venice Biennale, where he appeared alongside John Marin, Pollock, de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and others—a feat that added to his increased visibility. The following year, Thomas B. Hess highlighted the “moral” content of Bloom’s work in "Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase"—one of the first stabs at categorizing the expressionist directions that emerged in the 1940s. This trait, Hess construed, grew out of Bloom’s grappling with both mortality and a distinct “aesthetic position.” The writer knew Bloom’s aesthetics involved a commitment to the tradition of figurative painting, even though Hess was more predisposed toward abstract pieces such as Archaeological Treasureand The Stone (1947). It was Bloom’s ethics that set him apart. Hess concluded Bloom was not an artist who could be easily assimilated into any movement or trend.
Later, in 1954, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston mounted a solo show of Bloom’s work, which traveled nationally, ending at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In his catalogue essay, the exhibition’s curator, Frederick S. Wight, took up this issue of morality again, more forthrightly linking Bloom’s preoccupation with mortality to a “universal Buchenwald,” a comparison that vivified the relevance of his themes post–World War II. Wight subsequently paired Bloom with the British artist Francis Bacon in a 1960 exhibition at the Art Galleries of the University of California at Los Angeles, where he extended his somber conceit through enlightened juxtaposition. Both artists wrestled with horror and despair; but whereas Bacon’s bleary portraits of popes and friends scream in existential terror behind caged armatures, Bloom’s flayed torsos are the corporeal residue of a life that has become otherworldly. About this string of successes, Bloom aloofly stated, “Yes, I was famous but what is that to enjoy?” The art world, with its fast pace, ongoing turnover of interests, and voguish audiences, never held him. He always knew he was an anomaly. His only satisfaction was to mine the possibility for an art that could transcend temporal boundaries by alluding to a world beyond the material.