When an artist achieves a level of fame and success it is often considered an injustice if, and when, they experience a fall from the limelight, it is also a fall from grace. But how remarkable in the first place that an artist is recognized, shown with some of the biggest names of their day, represents their country in prestigious shows, and years later can qualify as overlooked. Artists who are resurrected posthumously for a reappraisal give another era a chance to think again upon the legacy and the outrageous churnings of the wheel of fortune.
While I was viewing the recent show of paintings and drawings by Hyman Bloom at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a man walked rapidly through the gallery with some friends. Striding ahead of them, he turned back towards his group, “garish!” he proclaimed. And so Hyman Bloom has been brought forward to be looked upon again, praised again, and perhaps become overlooked a second time. Throughout his career, Bloom’s explicit renderings of the human corpse have been considered, by some, as transgressive, shocking, and morbid. Bloom and his admirers’ view is that the work is a spiritual and transformative inquiry, and the experience of it is transcendent. Comparisons to James Ensor, Chaim Soutine, and Matthias Grünewald put him firmly in a tradition of an unflinching gaze. Bloom’s intent was not to explain his work but to lead the viewer more deeply into the paintings.
It was chiefly through the efforts of Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death came to be. It had been sixty years since Bloom last had a solo show at the MFA. The excellent exhibition catalog is written and compiled by Erica E. Hirshler, and includes an essay by Naomi Slipp. Hirshler expands on the public reaction to Bloom’s most controversial work, and chronicles the rise and eventual eclipse of the Boston art scene by the overwhelming force and publicity of the New York school. She relates countless examples of the bigotry that Bloom’s religious subjects elicited, even from prominent critics. She examines Bloom’s spiritual affinities to Judaism, metaphysics, Vedantic beliefs, and Theosophy. Bloom saw life and death as a continuum, and he stated “Liife is not just what we experience on Earth.” Bloom saw the bigger picture of life, and this was revealed in his art as being intertwined with death.
Bloom (1913–2009) felt “no bitterness” at the falling away of his career, his widow, Stella Bloom, said, a career which began for him at an early age. He was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art, with nine of his paintings, when he was just 28 years old and had been painting seriously for a decade prior to that. He represented the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1948 and again in 1950. Jackson Pollock and Willem and Elaine de Kooning considered Bloom “America’s first Abstract Expressionist.” In 1960, Bloom was paired with Francis Bacon in a show at UCLA. But later he took a ten-year hiatus from painting and throughout his career was not interested in promoting himself. When artistic trends, and time, passed he faded from public view. To say that Bloom deserves another look is to also say that more people should know that Bloom once walked the earth and left us with his incredible vision as proof of his presence. To include Bloom in the arc of history is to help fill out an often too linear and too narrow of an account.
In many ways, Bloom was similar to a naturalist or scientist, on a journey through life cataloging experience with an encyclopedic eye. In the 1950s, he took LSD as a part of a creativity research study, under doctor’s supervision. From the mid-1950s on, he spent summers in the woods in Lubec, Maine, where he took photographs and made numerous drawings and paintings, work that critic Holland Cotter described as “disturbed, ecstatic energy.” His time spent photographing and drawing the forest in Lubec was part of an artistic view that is both macro and micro. He literally saw the forest and the trees. I like to think of him in the forest, a witness to the cycles of growth and decay that one finds there; trees felled by winter storms, old age and disease, new trees growing up from stumps and in the rotting trunks. The carnage and beauty of nature—similar to Bloom’s own canvases— where carpets of last summer’s leaves now become compost, a millefolii pattern becomes a memento mori.
Bloom did not want to be interpreted. He felt his work and subjects should stand on their own merits. He was a meticulous, detailed and masterful draftsman as well as a painter. He examined forests, trees, human corpses, and athletes with the same probing attention to the minute and the specific.
Bloom’s paintings are layered; saturated ranges of colors and paint form dense thickets. His Treasure Map paintings are a guide to this labyrinthine realm. His Chandelier and Christmas Tree paintings are explosions of light, the birth of stars are contained in their branching forms. His Bride paintings are as lavish as a Gustav Klimt painting, but earthier, textured and more ancient. He revealed the inner life of his subjects simultaneously with their outward appearance. In this way, his work is like that of a shaman, like that of his rabbis that he paints, holding their enormous Torahs with ease, holding sacred scrolls that contain the substance of life and the mysteries of a faith.
Image at top: Hyman Bloom in Lubec, Maine, 1960 (photo: courtesy of Nina Bohlen).
Thank you to the estate of Hyman Bloom and Stella Bloom for their assistance and permission to use the images in this article. For more information on Hyman Bloom, you can read Modern Mystic: The Art of Hyman Bloom by Henry Adams and Marcia Brennan or visit: hymanbloominfo.org: Link to Hyman Bloom information and gallery