Culture

Three Postwar American Painters Who Were Too European for New York

Norman Bluhm, “Untitled” (1967), acrylic on paper, 29 7/8 by 22 3/8 inches

Between 1947 and 1956 — the decade that began with Jackson Pollock “breaking the ice” and culminating with his death at the age of 44 — the American painters Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis, and Paul Jenkins spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, where they were first recognized. They knew each other and were part of a circle that included the brilliant Georges Duthuit, who was Henri Matisse’s son-in-law and most insightful critic. Duthuit was friends with Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Bram van Velde, Nicolas de Stael, Zao Wou-ki, and many of the Surrealists, particularly Andre Masson. The three Americans met many of them. Long before globalism became a buzzword, artists, writers, and intellectuals from different countries were getting together in postwar Paris.

A bomber pilot who was badly wounded in World War II, Bluhm was the first of the three to journey to Paris, in 1947. By 1949, he was part of the Parisian art and literary world and acted in Jean Cocteau’s film, Orphée (1950), which starred the dashing heartthrob, Jean Marais. Francis arrived in 1950, and Jenkins in 1953. Although they could not have known it at the time, all three of them would eventually be considered too European, which is to say too tasteful in their work to be taken seriously in America.

Paul Jenkins, “Sent From” (1955), watercolor on paper, 30 ½ x 22 ½ inches

As Francis told a French journalist: “I have two serious faults: to have lived in Paris in the 1950s and to be a Californian.” Over the years, more than one person has gone out of their way to tell me that Bluhm’s palette was “too French.” It seems that they were offended by his use of violet and venetian red. When I met him in the early 1980s, it had been nearly a decade since he had a show in New York, where the art world, enamored of rupture and provocation, and convinced of the formal inevitability of Conceptual art, had little room for a painter pursuing visual elation. In 1978, Paul Jenkins’s painting “Rain Palace” could be glimpsed being lowered from a fifth-floor window to the sidewalk below in Paul Mazursky’s film An Unmarried Woman (1978) starring Alan Bates and Jill Clayburgh. Otherwise, the New York art world had no use for him.

These are just some of the memories the exhibition Between Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism: Bluhm, Francis, Jenkins at Hollis Taggart Galleries (October 5–November 10, 2017) stirred up. I know the work of Bluhm and Francis well and have written about both of them before. I have seen Jenkins’s work here and there, but it never made me want to see more. This exhibition did not change my view of Jenkins who, unlike Bluhm and Francis, became enthralled with a particular technique, that of pouring paint and tilting the canvas to guide its flow. This led to beautiful bleeds and some interesting effects, but the lack of composition and structure weakens the work (which is not the case with Morris Louis, say). Not so with the other two, who developed a more complex vocabulary as well as absorbed lessons from a wide range of artists, including Camille Corot, Claude Monet (particularly his late panoramic views of the gardens at Giverny), Henri Matisse and his attention to a painting’s entire surface, and the gestural painters associated with Abstract Expressionism. While some critics have focused on who influenced who in the case of Bluhm and Francis, since they shared a studio, I believe they affected each other on an equal footing.

Norman Bluhm, “Untitled” (1957), watercolor on paper, 29 ¾ x 36 ¾ inches

Between the early and late 1950s, all three used a medium that shared qualities we associate with watercolor, the way it bleeds and runs down the surface, for example. Bluhm worked with thinned oil or acrylic: Francis used gouache, acrylic, or watercolor; Jenkins preferred acrylic and watercolor. In terms of dates, Bluhm’s paintings were done within a brief span of time, from 1953 to 1967: Francis’s were made between 1962 and 1994: and Jenkins’s go from 1955 to 1989.

Although done within a shorter period, Bluhm’s work undergoes the biggest change, from layered fields of interwoven gestures and shapes, with drips running down the surface, to angular gestures in thicker paint. If the earlier group seems to anticipate the late paintings of Cy Twombly, the difference is that Bluhm’s works are more frenetic, with the splashes and drips conveying a violent encounter between the surface and the artist’s loaded brush; the drips become a steady stream of tears.

At the same time, the luminous greens that occupy most of Bluhm’s “Unknown Nature” (1956), with lozenges of reds and blues along the bottom edge, suggest a field with flowers. In other works from this period, he activates the field with swirling and twisting linear gestures in contrasting colors: it is a turbulent vision in which everything threatens to come loose, explode. Bluhm’s younger brother, who had also been an airman during World War II, was shot down over Germany; his own state of survival must have aroused conflicted feelings in him. I believe he pursued visual ecstasy out of emotional necessity but realized that he had to meld it to formal issues.

Sam Francis, “Untitled” (1965), gouache on paper, 71 ¾ x 36 ¾ inches

By the early 1960s, after he had moved from Paris to New York, Bluhm was already into the second phase of his career. Angular and circular gestures pressing against the painting’s physical edges suggest a desire to break constraints. Small drips and splatters pepper the unpainted ground.

My one regret is that there are no paintings done after 1974 included in the exhibition; this is where, I believe, he put everything together. The paintings he did between the mid-70s and late ‘80s constitute a powerful body of work that has yet to receive the recognition it is due.

In those paintings, the gestures undulate in liquid shapes across the surface, while the color becomes wilder and more saturated. He took the erotic implications of Henri Matisse, the orifices of late Arshile Gorky, ad Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s luscious sun-struck clouds, and transformed them into fleshy abstract limbs and twisting torsos entwined across a canvas punctuated by drips and splatters. He found his greatest freedom in returning to the sky and the feeling of floating unencumbered by gravity. They are among the most erotic paintings ever done by an American artist.

There are a number of strong works by Francis in the exhibition. In a large untitled vertical gouache dated 1965, all the marks have been made along the work’s edges, leaving the interior empty. While Francis has been celebrated, mostly in California and not in New York, the art world still does not how to address Bluhm’s career.

Between Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism: Bluhm, Francis, Jenkins continues at Hollis Taggart Galleries (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 10.




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