For the five decades that Norman Bluhm painted, his work became increasingly spiritual, sensuous and personal. He is now among the most admired and collected American artists of the 20th century. Bluhm’s work emanated from a powerful intellect as well as a physique that used painting to express his inner conflicts as well as what inspired him. Frank O’Hara, the critic and poet who collaborated with Bluhm, wrote in 1962, “Bluhm is the only artist working in the idiom of abstract-expressionism who has a spirit similar to that of Pollock, which is to say that he is out – beyond beauty, beyond composition, beyond the old-fashioned kind of pictorial ambition.”
Bluhm grew up in Chicago as well as in his mother’s home town in Lucca, Italy. At the age of 16, he studied architecture with Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago and earned his pilot’s license. With America’s entry into World War II, Bluhm joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. Flying life-threatening bombing missions as well as losing his brother in combat had a profound effect on Bluhm’s understanding of nature and mortality.
He lived and studied on the GI Bill in Paris from 1947 to 1956 where he became close friends with Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis and easily mixed with the Parisian avant-garde. His works from the 1950s are distinguished by an innate understanding of color as well as materials. With layer on top of paint layer, Bluhm created jewel-toned diaphanous and energetic abstractions.
Bluhm moved to New York in 1956 and became an active member of The Club, spending time with de Kooning, Kline and Motherwell at the Cedar Tavern. These associations were of interest to Bluhm in so far as discussing the future of Modernism, but his painting’s composition, brush work and imagery were more informed by his interest in architecture, Braque, and his physicality. The confidence and power evoked in these works brought critical attention to Bluhm. Leo Castelli gave Bluhm solo exhibitions in 1957 and 1960. In 1969 he had a one person exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Leaving New York in 1970, Bluhm settled in Millbrook, NY. With this move came a transformation in his work seen in larger format canvases and a more vivid palette. Allusions to the female form are apparent. These spontaneous, brightly colored and curvaceous works herald an evolution from his Expressionist work to a less aggressive, more buoyant style of painting.
In the last decades of his career, Bluhm explored a wide range of pictorial ideas, integrating his signature gestures with motifs drawn from medieval imagery he remembered from his youth in Italy, as well as with patterns from Eastern and Russian art. Perhaps his most exciting work happened as his palette lightened and his forms grew. As curator James Harithas wrote about Bluhm in 2007, “Each body of work represents a new stage in his spiritual growth, beginning in his search for himself and his own style and ending in a profoundly personal realization of unity of all things in his mature paintings.”
Selected museum collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.