Oscar Bluemner was an innovative modernist painter who, along with Arthur Dove (American, 1880 - 1946), John Marin (American, 1870 - 1953), Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986), and other artists of the Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946) circle, used a European-inspired vocabulary to infuse the American landscape with feeling, energy, and spirituality. However, Bluemner’s paintings fit less neatly into narratives of early modernism than those of his peers. He focused neither on the vitality of the American urban experience nor on the restorative qualities of the rural landscape but on an evocative combination of the two, as in this haunting painting of 1932, Imagination. His work’s resistance to easy categorization, the artist’s eccentric personality, and the copious theoretical and technical notes that he kept in his painting diaries lent an air of mystery to Bluemner’s career and legacy that was not dispelled until long after his death.
German thought and art were important sources for Bluemner’s expressive use of color in paintings like Imagination. Following the lead of 18th-century author, philosopher, and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and 20th-century expressionist painters Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 - 1944) and Franz Marc (German, 1880 - 1916), Bluemner endowed color with the ability to express aspects of his inner consciousness and to communicate moods and emotions. When he returned to the United States after a seven-month trip to Europe in 1912, five of his works were included in the historic International Exhibition of Modern Art (the Armory Show) in 1913. In 1916 Bluemner was one of 17 American painters chosen by Willard Huntington Wright, Robert Henri (American, 1865 - 1929), and Stieglitz to represent the American avant-garde at the Anderson Gallery’s Forum Exhibition, also in New York. The organizers of the show wanted to redirect attention to American modernism in the wake of the Armory Show, which had generated commercial interest primarily in European artists.
In the 1920s Bluemner’s work continued to garner support and encouragement from the art establishment, but the artist also encountered challenges, including the death of his wife in 1926, which precipitated his move to Braintree, Massachusetts. Roberta Smith Favis has suggested that his early paintings have more political meaning than might be obvious at first sight and that anti-German sentiment in the war and interwar years may have had a negative impact on the reception and sale of his work.
Bluemner’s later works, including his series Compositions for Color Themes (of which Imagination is part) exhibited at the Marie Harriman Gallery in 1935, increasingly veered toward the mystical and abstract. (Bluemner created the colorful and whimsical cover of the Harriman Gallery exhibition catalog, depicting silhouetted patrons and their printed exclamations and featuring Imagination at the upper right [fig. 1]).The artist’s continued obsession with red derived less from the color’s socialist symbolism than from a wide range of idiosyncratic associations. Bluemner linked red to masculinity, vitality, life, struggle, imagination, and the self. He considered it the noblest color, identifying it as his alter ego and adopting the pseudonym “the Vermillionaire” in 1929.
In Imagination, the red hues of the house and sky stand out so intensely against the green foliage and inky night that they assault the viewer’s senses, as if the pigment were burning from within. The artist likened his use of color in this series to music’s ability to elicit emotional states: “Look at my work in a way as you listen to music—look at the space filled with colors and try to feel; do not insist on understanding what seems strange.”
The dreamlike quality of Imagination invites the subjective interpretation that the artist advocated. Jeffrey Hayes has noted that Bluemner’s late works best embody the artist’s mature theories about art’s purpose. The startling juxtaposition of complementary colors and the tension between architectural and natural forms in Imagination illustrate ideas Bluemner put forth in a 1929 publication, What and When Is Painting? Today:
Without imagination painting fails of its greatest power and beauty: intensity—the maximum inner tension of divergent experiences, emotions, conflicting moods as expressed by dramatic contrast of color and tone and lines. . . . Without intensity, there is no true painting, because painting does not, as poetry and music do, conduct us slowly towards a climax. It rather is the reality of a single isolated, emotional, ecstatic moment, into which it catapults us with an instantaneous and immediate bounce.
That Bluemner writes about his painting in terms of movement —“catapult” and “bounce”—also speaks to the spatial tensions created by the artist’s use of color. The heat of the central red form projects forward, while the cooler green and blue recede. This painting, thanks in part to Bluemner’s tireless research into the permanence of different techniques and materials, has the same capacity to jolt viewers toward “a single . . . ecstatic moment” today as when it was first exhibited in 1935.
Bluemner’s 1935 Harriman Gallery exhibition was an overwhelming critical success. The art critic Emily Genauer wrote that, for Bluemner, “a landscape is . . . only a springboard from which he dives into a sea of color. Nor does he sink there. He emerges a veritable Neptune, king of the brilliant hues into which he has dipped.” Despite the positive press, however, and the fact that the critic Henry McBride called the paintings “eminently buyable,” the gallery did not sell a single picture, and Bluemner continued to struggle to make ends meet. In 1938, after two years of increasingly serious illness and deterioration of his eyesight, the artist took his life. It was nearly half a century before Bluemner’s vital role in early American modernism was rediscovered and his passion for color appreciated anew.
September 29, 2016