Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Hyman Bloom (1913- 2009)

Photograph of Hyman Bloom by the author, 2008
Photograph of Hyman Bloom by the author, 2008

Hyman Bloom’s name is usually associated with 1940s expressionism. He was discovered in 1942 by Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller, who launched his reputation by including thirteen of his paintings in one of her regular exhibitions of contemporary American art. In 1950, together with Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, Bloom represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. By 1954, he was having a full retrospective at the Whitney Museum. The news of his death a few weeks ago, at the age of 96, must have come as a surprise to many: Hyman Bloom was still around?

I visited him for the first time in 2000. He was 87 years old and I expected he might express some of the bitter feelings not uncommon among older artists who are no longer household names. Quite the contrary. I found a courteous, smart-looking, humorous, and highly intellectual man, who, after I started asking him a few questions about his career, recommended that I try LSD. He was only half-joking. In the mid-fifties he had volunteered to participate in an experiment on the effects of LSD on creativity. He called it “an eye-opener.” The experiment was only one of many avenues Bloom explored in search of spiritual adventures and new sources of inspiration to give pictorial form to his profound need for transcendence. For the same reason he participated in séances (though he admitted never seeing spirits) and immersed himself in Eastern philosophy, theosophy, and other esoteric systems of thought.

From his background in the Eastern European Jewish community, Bloom had inherited a blend of mysticism and harsh realism, reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. (Together with Isaac Babel, Singer was one of Bloom’s favorite writers.)  His best-known paintings, the corpses and autopsy scenes of the forties and fifties in which decaying flesh glows with the iridescent colors of precious stones, forcefully convey his conception of art as a metaphysical quest. “For me paint and thought amount to the same thing,” he declared. “They are an attempt to cope with one’s destiny and become master of it.” His fascination with what he called “the paradox of the harrowing and the beautiful” found visual expression in apocalyptic visions of rats gnawing at human limbs rendered in fluid and sensuous strokes of luscious colors; or in chilling depictions of demonic, insect-like monsters in spectacular charcoal drawings comparable to Odilon Redon’s noirs

Hyman Bloom The Hull 1952.  Oil on canvas, 37-5/8 x 45-1/2 inches. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass.  Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation.
Hyman Bloom, The Hull 1952. Oil on canvas, 37-5/8 x 45-1/2 inches. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation.

One of Bloom’s main sources of spiritual strength was his passion for Middle Eastern and South Asian music. In Jewish cantoral music first, later in Indian, Armenian, and Arabic music, as well as in Flamenco and Tibetan melodies, he found “something old and primal, a majestic feeling of timelessness” which he wanted his paintings to elicit as well. Several of his sitars and other exotic Turkish and Indian instruments can be seen throughout his house. The extraordinary collection of oriental recordings that he began assembling in the 1930s, before many of them were available in the United States, is now at the Archive of World Music at Harvard University.

Bloom’s decision to stop painting in the late 1950s to concentrate on drawing may have contributed to his eclipse from the art scene. When he took up painting again ten years later, his luxuriant landscapes and his still-lifes of shimmering glass vases were the antithesis of the dominant pop and minimalist aesthetic. Undisturbed, Bloom pursued his own direction. He was genuinely uninterested in the art world. In 2002, at the time of his exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York, Robert Storr sent him a note. The two men had known each other and often met for lunch in Cambridge when Storr was a student. Upon seeing the name on the envelop, Bloom said: “I wonder what ever happened to him…”

Because he rarely traveled, didn’t go to openings, disliked parties, and did not readily engage in small talk, Bloom had the reputation of being a recluse. But he enjoyed the friendship of many artists, musicians, composers, scientists, and writers, who regularly made the trip to Nashua, New Hampshire, where Bloom moved in 1983, to spend some time with him. (They were always made most welcome by his wife, Stella, a superb cook.) Bloom’s closest friend was Dr. A. Stone Freedberg, a prominent Harvard cardiologist whom he first met in the fifties. Freedberg, who died on August 18, a week before Bloom, belonged to a small group of ardent admirers and collectors whose generosity enabled Bloom to devote his life to painting.

One of the rare jobs Bloom held was a teaching position at Harvard in the early 1950s. Among his students in his drawing class was John Updike, who remembered him as “far and away the quietest” among his instructors. Soft-spoken and a man of few words, Bloom remained a quiet man until the end, yet he couldn’t fail to make a formidable impression on those who met him.