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PASSION FOR COLOR
by N.F. Karlins
 
"Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color," Oct. 7, 2005-Feb. 12, 2006, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

Jewels of color blaze in Oscar Bluemner’s oils and watercolors of small-town streets, factories and landscapes. Who knew that a New Jersey mill town, like Paterson in his Expression of a Silktown, New Jersey (1915), could be so radiant?

Bluemner’s first retrospective, "Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color," organized by Barbara Haskell and her team at the Whitney Museum, restores one of America’s early modernists to his rightful place alongside Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and the rest of the artists in the Alfred Stieglitz circle.

Oscar Bluemner (1863-1938) needs this helping hand thanks to both bad luck and a certain emotional instability. Originally an architect, Bluemner came to the U.S. from Germany at age 25, and worked on a variety of architectural projects -- he even designed the Bronx County Courthouse. Defrauded out of his commission and recognition for the courthouse, he sued and eventually won his case.

Still, Bluemner was so embittered by his seven-year-long legal battle that he gave up architecture and devoted himself to painting. He took part of his settlement money and went to Europe in 1912, studying Old Masters and also attending exhibitions of every major "ism" in modern art during his travels.

Bluemner knew and was appreciated by Alfred Stieglitz, who got his paintings in shows and published his writings in Camera Work. Bluemner’s work appeared in the Armory Show and on the walls of the Whitney Studio Club. He knew more about European modernism than most American artists.

Bluemner’s work, however, though it was at times praised and at times condemned, rarely sold. What’s more, Bluemner managed to alienate almost every dealer he worked with, including Stieglitz, and practically everyone else he knew for very long.

Swinging between ecstasy and despair, confidence and paranoia, Bluemner remained utterly devoted to his art, a believer in Nietzsche’s idea of the misunderstood artist. However, he lived in poverty, conditions so dire that they are believed to have contributed to the early death of his wife. His watercolor, Death (1926), made shortly after her passing, is a heart-rending acknowledgement of the tragedy.

After her death, Bluemner created his "Sun and Moon" series of watercolors, in which he sought and found consolation for his grief and his guilt. He was probably inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s use of these themes, just as Arthur Dove would use them in turn in the late ‘30s.

Eye of Fate (1927), one of the series, is dominated by the color red, which Bluemner considered as his alter ego. He called himself the "Vermillionaire." It’s a symbolic title, yes, but also a knowingly, scathingly ironic one, considering his constant teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Blue was a feminine force for him, while violet -- remember his violet-hued Death -- was eerie.

Bluemner’s stunning late works increasingly adopted a symbolism that is suggestive of the works of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). In his papers, Bluemner writes that a house represents ego, a tree non-ego and blue sky or a canal the un-ego or eternity. While Bluemner’s schema was more intellectually sophisticated than Burchfield’s, both were attuned to the spiritual in nature and repeated abstract forms in their realistic works again and again.

Bluemner’s only Self-Portrait (1933) -– made specifically for an exhibition of self-portraits -- exposes all his intensity, pride and pain. Perhaps he exposed too much of himself in Self-Portrait, as he missed the deadline for the show and the painting was not exhibited.

In the ‘30s, Bluemner was producing some of his best work. His Azure (1933) has a purity of color that makes the eyes widen. Situation in Yellow is powerful; still, yet full of subtle motion. Bluemner aimed to combine opposites -- the real and ideal, the everyday and the eternal, movement and stability -- and achieved it in these paintings.

Bluemner’s use of black is especially magical. It conveys a velvety depth. It also underlines and solidifies forms. I think curator Barbara Haskell was onto something when she mentioned during the press opening that Bluemner had seen lots of churches in Germany with his architect-father. In many works, black is used like the lead calmes in stained glass.

Bluemner’s bad luck returned when, in 1935, he was hit by a car while leaving a gallery in which his work was being shown. Other medical problems ensued, producing insomnia, constant pain and ruined eyesight. Left unable to paint and again in dire financial straits, he killed himself in 1938.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.