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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hyman Bloom

Rabbi with Torah, 1945, Hyman Bloom
Hyman Bloom
In 1940, Hyman Bloom was dubbed the "Greatest Artist in America." Of course, that's easy to say, but hard to prove. It might help to know who said it. That would be none other than art critic Clement Greenberg. Still not convinced? How about we add the names Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning? Okay, that's a bit more impressive, even though at that early date, before the war, none of these would-be stars of modern art were exactly what you'd call household names. And while we're dropping names, add to the list Ashile Gorky and John Marin, who, along with Bloom, Pollock, and De Kooning, were among only seven artists receiving Guggenheim Fellowships to represent America at the 1950 Venice Biennale (the world's most prestigious international art competition). Pollock and De Kooning considered Bloom "the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America." And since American artists, in effect, gave birth to Abstract Expressionism, that might be considered quite a distinction. Yet, even though the same year, the Whitney Museum of American Art gave Bloom a highly regarded retrospective, why is it, given all these other instantly recognizable artist icons, we find ourselves wracking our brains, not recognizing the name Hyman Bloom?
Seascape II, 1974, Hyman Bloom
Hyman Bloom was born a hundred years ago, 1913, within a decade of most of the others we've mentioned. He was Jewish (as was Greenberg), born in what is now Latvia, but then a part of the Russian Empire. Thus his work was influenced by his Jewish heritage, but also a long list of others, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Grunewald, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, William Blake, Rudolph Bresdin, J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, Chaim Soutine, and Denman Ross. That's quite an artistic pedigree, especially for an abstract expressionist. In truth, in studying Blooms work, it's not hard to see elements of each of these historic artists. The only reasonable reason to account for Bloom's relative obscurity as compared to these other stars of the famed New York School would seem to be that his career peaked too soon.
Nightfall (detail), 1981, Hyman Bloom
Jackson Pollock hit pay dirt with a four-page spread in Life magazine in August 1949. De Kooning rose to fame in 1953. Gorky's fame came mostly after he hanged himself (at the age of 44) in 1948. Marin's reputation came to life somewhat earlier, in the 1930s, but he was by far the oldest of the lot (born in 1870). And then there was Greenberg, who was in fact, more a writer than painter, and has the distinction of having been one of the first to embrace Abstract Expressionism and thus the entire "faculty" of the New York School. Though it might be going a bit far to say Greenberg made it all happen, he certainly played a part in elevating himself and the others to stardom. It would seem that Bloom simply fell through the net. We might suggest, in fact, that Abstract Expressionism came and went leaving Bloom in is colorful dust. Not so fast. Hyman Bloom had one important advantage. Pollock, De Kooning, Gorky, and all the others lived and died in the previous century. Bloom lived well into the 21st Century, until 2009, in fact, when he died at the age of 96. Longevity has its advantages. Only as they commenced writing his obituary did critics begin to ask, whether, quite possibly, and despite all the others, Hyman Bloom might actually have remained the first, perhaps even the greatest abstract expressionist in America.

Wrestlers, ca. 1930, Hyman Bloom, Harvard student drawing created from memory.


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