Obituary: Norman Bluhm

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The Independent Culture
THOSE WHO despise the Establishment need not be surprised to later find themselves unestablished. Norman Bluhm had little time for games of fame and fortune and no time for the machinations of the commercial art world; it had just as little time for him.

The importance or, more importantly, the excellence of Bluhm's oeuvre is an open secret amongst several successive generations of American critics, poets, curators and writers, but such clandestine acclaim guarantees little. If Bluhm cannot be memorialised here as a genuinely important painter, he can at least be honoured as a paradigmatic figure of one of the significant cultural shifts of the 20th century, from the School of Paris to New York's Abstract Expressionists.

Bluhm's trajectory was so archetypal of an artistic era (whilst obviously being enjoyably unique if not eccentric) that it smacks of a biopic in the making. He was born in Chicago in 1921, but spent six years as a child with his mother's family in Lucca, in Italy. Back in Chicago, he became Mies van der Rohe's youngest architecture student at the age of 16, such training perhaps evident later in the gigantic scale and panel sections of his paintings. As he said: "It reminds me of the architect I never became."

During the Second World War, he flew more than 40 B-26 bombing missions in North Africa and Europe, even acting as personal aerial chauffeur to Marlene Dietrich. (As he was a legendary raconteur, some of Bluhm's doubting friends brought him to a reception for the singer to prove this claim. As he entered, Dietrich rose to her feet and cried, "Oh Norman, so good to see you.")

After distinguished war service Bluhm went back to Mies van der Rohe briefly in Chicago and then, supported by the GI Bill, to Florence to study fresco painting, a major influence. In 1947 he moved to Paris for nine years. Bluhm studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and knew everyone from Alberto Giacometti to Antonin Artaud, Paul Eluard to Rene Char. He also appeared in Jean Cocteau's film Orphee, as a handsome black-goateed intellectual sitting in a cafe reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Bluhm came to New York in 1956 (the year Jackson Pollock died) and was a central figure in what became known, not happily, as second-generation Abstract Expressionism. He was a core member of the hard-drinking, hard- fighting crowd around the notorious Cedar Tavern, a now mythic high point of Manhattan bohemianism.

With the poet and curator Frank O'Hara, Bluhm produced a series of 26 "poem-paintings". O'Hara's poem "Three Airs", dedicated to Bluhm, perfectly captures the artist's work in its first stanza:

So many things in the air! soot,

elephant balls, a Chinese cloud

which is entirely collapsed, a cat

swung by its tail

and the senses

of the dead which are banging about

inside my tired red eyes.

A year after arriving in New York, Bluhm had his first solo show with the new Leo Castelli gallery, where he appeared with such contemporaries as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Bluhm popped in unannounced on his 1960 solo show at Castelli's to discover paintings by Rauschenberg and Johns actually propped against his own works, entirely obscuring them. Castelli wailed; "But Norman, what can I say, they're selling!" Bluhm doubtless proffered physical violence and he nicknamed Castelli "Mighty Mouse".

The eclipse of "Ab Ex" by "Pop" was almost as total and overnight as journalism makes it sound and Bluhm suffered along with a whole generation of painters. His combative stance probably did not help: "By accepting the rules of the dealer the artist destroys himself, better than anyone else could. New York now means this destructive merchandising of art."

Bluhm returned to Paris in 1964 for a year before moving to East Hampton and, finally, remote Vermont. When he came to Manhattan it was to visit the Metropolitan and the Cloisters, whose 15th-century "Unicorn" tapestries were as major an influence as the works of Tiepolo, Rubens, Matisse or ecclesiastical stained glass.

If Bluhm was far from modish he had become America's best-known little- known major artist and his supposed neglect should not be exaggerated. He was in the collection of every major museum and honoured with various touring retrospectives. Indeed a 40- year retrospective is to open in March at the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio along with the publication of the first full-length monograph, by Galleria Peccolo in Livorno.

Bluhm's style continued to evolve regardless of fashion, following its own internal obligations, and the paintings seemed to get larger every year, as if in deliberate defiance of the art world's relative lack of interest. For Bluhm the only thing that mattered was the work and its own organic resolution; everything else was publicity and marketing. By these standards, he was one of the most successful artists of the century.

Norman Bluhm, painter: born Chicago, Illinois 28 March 1921; twice married (one son, one daughter); died East Wallingford, Vermont 3 February 1999.