Report from… Philadelphia
Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
November 14, 2014 to April 12, 2015
118 North Broad Street (between Race and Arch streets)
Philadelphia, 215 972 7600
A walk through the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ exhibition of work by Peter Blume (1906 – 1992) is like a tour through 20th century art. Precisionism, Surrealism, abstraction, and Pop art all have their moment in the painting and drawing of this lesser-known American artist, who is now getting his due with the Academy’s retrospective “Nature and Metamorphosis.” The accompanying catalogue, with excellent essays by Sarah Vure, Samantha Baskind and curator Robert Cozzolino, offers engaging insights into Blume’s particular brand of Modernism.
The confidence of Blume’s hand is striking. Whether rendering a stark winter farmhouse, a war catastrophe, or a pile of improvised biomorphic forms, the artist always knows exactly where to end one shape end and begin another. In the painting New England Barn (1926), for example, barn, farmhouse, and shed are joined by the up-down rhythm of repeated triangles. In a classic Cubist ploy, the edge of one background building merges with that of a horse cart in the foreground, confounding the expected spatial reading. Not so classically Cubist is a female figure in the hayloft, who has apparently bared her flesh for the cart driver’s pleasure. Unabashed sexual moments like this one recur frequently in Blume’s work, preventing its reading as pure form.
Blume’s take on the industrial subject matter of the Precisionists also involves unexpected insertions. Parade (1928) depicts the same type of ship ventilators as in Charles Sheeler’s familiar painting Upper Deck (1929), but Blume’s extreme dislocations of space and nonsensical additions (including a suit of armor) resemble the Surrealism of Max Ernst. Such insertions are both the strength and the problem of Blume’s work. He brushed aside associations with all movements, including André Breton’s attempt to identify him as a Surrealist: “They wanted me to join the club. I told them that was hopeless.” Yet in striking out on his own, he never quite found his own voice. Color palettes bounced from muted grays and whites to warm earth tones. Levels of detail varied from the minimal to the chock-full — as in The Eternal City (1934-37), an allegory of fascism that seems to contain every stone in Italy.
Like many artists of the era, Blume was deeply affected by the Second World War, and his confrontation with that conflict’s horrors spurred experimentation. In The Eternal City, his insertion of the bright-green head of Mussolini amid piles of equally bright-red bricks announced a willingness to try out-of-the-tube colors. Drawing also took Blume in new directions. A series of untitled ink doodles from 1946 used the automatic drawing technique favored by Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists, improvising biomorphic forms with pen and brush. Much more diffuse than the paintings, these inventions find their way into later works with compelling results.
A notable example is Flowering Stump (begun in 1945 but completed in 1968). The floral forms that emerge from this stump resemble many things but nothing in particular: fungi, acorn squash, genitals, sting rays. An automatic charcoal study that accompanied this piece clearly helped Blume imbue his work with such free-floating associations. Another pivotal piece, House at Falling Water (begun 1938, completed 1968), is possibly the strangest image ever of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece. The intensely detailed plant forms and tiny, waif-like hounds in the foreground command our attention, rendered as they are with the vibrating tonality of Ivan Albright’s mounds of undulating flesh. Meanwhile, Blume softened the house’s concrete slabs to the consistency of tofu.
The works completed in the 1970s and 1980s bring Blume’s de-familiarized bio-forms to their pinnacle. Piles of rocks in From the Metamorphosis (1979) freely transform themselves to toes, arms, breasts and buttocks. In Autumn (1984), a gaggle of squashes tilt to and fro with more excitement than is customary for vegetables, their ticklish stems resembling the business end of a sex toy. In each of these paintings, full-intensity background hues pop out in front of foreground blacks and grays, flattening the space and adding to the festive delirium of the scene. The elements that began in earlier works — Cubist dislocation of form, Surrealist transformation of scale and substance, the bizarre use of primary and high-contrast colors, and of course sexual innuendo — finally coalesce into a personal statement that, while referring to different types of Modern art, maintain its own integrity.