“The violence in my ‘60s paintings was there because the violence existed in the man himself. At that period in my life I was always causing trouble. The gesture was part of that violence. I mean, if you hit a canvas with a big brush with a lot of paint on it, you’re going to create an atmosphere of violence, and that’s what I did then. I do not have that outlook now.” *
Born in 1921, Norman Bluhm grew up on Chicago’s South Side and in Lucca, Italy, where his mother’s family lived. An advanced student, Bluhm completed high school with honors when he was sixteen, and from 1936 to 1941, he studied architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology (later Illinois Institute of Technology) with Mies van der Rohe. When the United States entered World War II, Bluhm enlisted and became a B-26 pilot. The war had a profound effect on Bluhm’s life and psyche—he had been injured, and his younger brother, also a pilot, was killed. Although afterward Bluhm attempted to resume his studies at the Armour Institute, he had lost interest in architecture and found it difficult to fall back into his old life. In 1947, against the wishes of his family, Bluhm decided to become an artist. He moved to Paris and studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière with funding from the GI Bill. In Paris, Bluhm met other American abstractionists such as Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, as well as members of Europe’s artistic and intellectual avant-garde, including Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud, and Alberto Giacometti. During the nine years he spent in Europe, Bluhm’s artwork moved away from his initial landscapes inspired by Cézanne and towards abstraction. Although Bluhm lived an ocean away from the epicenter of abstract expressionism, his works of the early 1950s share its gestural brushstrokes, visible paint drips, and pulsating color. When Bluhm returned to the United States in 1956, he settled in New York, where he joined Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, and others as a member of the Club—the group of artists, writers, and art dealers who would meet in an apartment at 39 East 8th Street—and became a regular at the Cedar Bar. A year after his arrival in the New York art world, Bluhm had his first U.S. solo exhibition, at the Leo Castelli Gallery.
Bluhm acknowledged his artistic debt to artists of the New York School, but he also rejected the label of “second-generation abstract expressionist,” which he saw as limiting and pejorative. While his work of the 1950s and 1960s shares the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of abstract expressionism, Bluhm had also begun to test the limits of this particular approach to painting, most notably in the “poem-paintings” he created in collaboration with Frank O’Hara. Poet, curator, and ardent supporter of abstract expressionist art, O’Hara was also a friend of Bluhm’s and had included his work in a selection of artists for Documenta II in 1959. In 1961, they created twenty-six improvisational works that brought together words, letters, and brushstrokes—experiments in linguistic as well as visual abstraction. In the 1970s, Bluhm’s style underwent another significant transformation. His work grew in scale and featured lush, curvaceous shapes suggestive of female forms, rendered in bright blues, warm pink and purple tones, and hot reds. Titles such as Arethusa, Mermaid’s Delight, and Guillotine Lady strengthen the works’ associations to the feminine. Bluhm continued to expand the size of his works throughout his career. By the 1980s and 1990s, he was creating a single image across three canvases. In addition to their art historical overtones, these triptychs also served a practical function—they enabled Bluhm to work on a mythical scale and still fit his paintings through his studio door.
Bluhm enjoyed a steady level of success and critical acclaim throughout his career as an artist, although his relationship to the New York art world was fraught with ambivalence. Disturbed by what he saw as a growing commercialization of art, Bluhm left the city for Millbrook, New York in 1970. He later moved to East Hampton and then settled in Vermont in 1986. Bluhm continued to exhibit in Europe throughout his life, and his work has consistently found support among artists and critics alike.
Today, his works are in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., among many others. Bluhm died on February 3, 1999 in East Wallingford, VT.