Artistic development often contains a large degree of unpredictability. While there are some artists who for decades remain entrenched in a single mode (Josef Albers, Giorgio Morandi), many more end up in creative situations that would have been hard or even impossible to imagine based on their earlier work.
An excellent, even emblematic, instance of such artistic unpredictability can be seen in the development of American painter Norman Bluhm (1921-1999). Who, looking at Bluhm’s slashing gestural abstractions of the late 1950s—the work that first brought him attention—would be able to foresee the paintings he created in the 1980s and 1990s: architectonic, intensely symmetrical compositions that owe as much to the art and architecture of Medieval and Renaissance Europe as to the Abstract Expressionist milieu in which Bluhm’s style was initially forged.
Despite the striking differences between the early and later decades of Bluhm’s oeuvre, the changes in his work always came gradually; there’s never a dramatic break. This means that it’s possible to track year by year, canvas by canvas, how he brought into his work new ideas, new motifs, new content, new approaches to paint handling.
Surveying his career, we have the advantage of knowing how the story ends. (I must admit that this “we” is more aspirational than factual: as yet, too few viewers are familiar with Bluhm’s entire career—only one of his large-scale late paintings has been shown in New York since 1994.) It’s sometimes hard not to imagine that Bluhm, too, knew all along how the story would end, knew that he would finally arrive at an approach that combined his early architectural training, his debt to Abstract Expressionism, and his passion for old masters. But if he knew where he was going, he also knew that there were no shortcuts, at least not for someone who respected the integrity and craft of painting, who never wanted to reject his own past, whose work was always about reconciliation, even when the only thing he was reconciling was the painting he was working on and the painting he’d just completed.
As long as Bluhm’s late work remains marginalized (if people do know of him, it’s usually only via his work of the 1950s and early ‘60s), the history of painting during the last 25 years of the 20th century will remain seriously incomplete. In the 1970s, his introduction of serpentine forms and opulent color pioneered a new sensuality for abstract painting. In the 1980s, his embrace of bilateral symmetry and a range of historically and culturally diverse decorative traditions allowed him to embrace the abstract and the figural. In the 1990s, Bluhm’s multi-panel, mural-scale paintings offered a compelling summation of his own career (he never turned away from gestural painting, but daringly assimilated it into geometric structures) and, even more importantly, an audacious project to reconcile some five centuries of painting history, stretching from the Lorenzetti brothers in 14th-century Siena and passing through Botticelli, Rubens, Tiepolo, Cézanne, Matisse and de Kooning. I can’t help but wonder what a new generation of painters might make of this work . . . if they got the chance to actually see it.