Hyman Bloom: Abstract expressionist pioneer who was eclipsed by Rothko and Pollock

By chance, two of the founding fathers of American abstract expressionism were born a few miles apart in Tsarist south Latvia in the pogrom-ridden years before the First World War. Both men were from Orthodox Jewish families, both fostered early ambitions to become rabbis, both were brought to the United States as children. There, however, similarities end. The older man, Mark Rothko, né Rothkowitz, was destined to number among the most famous names in 20th century American art, on a par with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The other, Hyman Bloom, né Melamed, had faded into artistic obscurity long before his death at the age of 96.

This was not how things stood 70 years ago. In 1939, Rothkowitz – the change of name did not come until 1940 – was struggling to find a painterly voice, playing around with surrealism and reading Freud and Jung. It was Bloom, a decade younger and in Boston rather than New York, who was making the work that would lead the eminent critic Clement Greenberg to dub him "the greatest artist in America" the following year. It was Bloom who was given an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1949, who was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1950 (Rothko had to wait until 1958) and who, after a one-man show at the Whitney Museum in 1954, was claimed by no lesser authorities than de Kooning and Pollock as "the first Abstract Expressionist in America".

Looking at his work of those years it is difficult to see how the pair can have reached this conclusion; even more so how Bloom came to be lionised by the notoriously inflexible Greenberg. Bloom's mother had wanted her son to be a doctor, and, while studying art at Harvard, he sat in on autopsies at the university's medical school. (To make money, he also taught painting to fellow students, among them John Updike.) The results of this study are clear in his Cadaver series of the early 1950s, and in a Goya-esque canvas, The Hull (1952), now in the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

This last work renders a dissected body in the livid colours of Francis Bacon or Chaim Soutine. Although by no means slavishly so, The Hull is certainly representational: the aim of the canvas, Bloom recalled half a century after he painted it, was to make death "more understandable, even more acceptable, more familiar, more knowable." Its feel is symbolist rather than abstractionist, like a 20th century take on its maker's hero, Odilon Redon. Other works of the time make clear reference to the artist's Jewishness. Bloom's paintings of rabbis were, as he admitted, a series of displaced self-portraits, ageing as their maker aged.

While Judaism remained at the core of his life and work, Bloom's mystical leanings took in, at various times, Hinduism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy and spiritualist séances. In the 1960s, he experimented with psychedelic drugs and spent many years in psychoanalysis. By then, his star had irreversibly waned. Refusing to abandon his home town or his way of painting, Bloom played a formative role in the school known as Boston Expressionism. Fame, though, lay in New York and abstraction, and when Greenberg's early ardour for Bloom rapidly cooled, his critical eclipse was assured.

From the end of the 1950s, shows by the one-time child prodigy were reviewed with gentle ridicule at best, occasionally with open bile. The influential Hilton Kramer was particularly savage. Finding a Bloom in a show of modern American art was, he said, like being served gefilte fish at a smart cocktail party. In another aperçu, Kramer complained that Bloom's paintings smelled of pastrami. (He justified his attacks as "just a matter of one Jew criticising another Jew".)

If Bloom remained loyal to Boston, the notoriously Wasp Boston did not remain loyal to Bloom. Few of his works were bought by the Museum of Fine Arts, and Bloom's only recent show in the city was at the small Danforth Museum in suburban Framingham: its contents focussed almost entirely on the painter's lost glory days of the 1930s and '40s. For all that, Bloom never stopped painting, his later landscapes and forest scenes suffused with the apocalyptic feel of the ageing Turner. In old age, he and his Greek second wife, 30 years his junior, moved to New Hampshire, their house an eclectic mix of Hindu musical instruments, torah covers, rabbinical fur hats and unsold paintings.

Speaking of his show at the Danforth in 2006, the gallery's director, Katherine French, remarked, "There was a period of about six months when Hyman Bloom was the most important painter in the world, and probably a period of about five years when he was the most important painter in America." Most of the country's major museums, including MoMA and the Whitney, have Blooms in their collections, though most of them are in storage. The contrast with Mark Rothko could not be more marked. Unlike Rothko, though, Bloom lived long enough to find happiness. Where his fellow Latvian died by his own hand in New York at the age of 66, Bloom carried on for another 30 years, forgotten but apparently content to be so.

Charles Darwent

Hyman Bloom (Melamed), artist: born Brunaviski, Latvia 29 March 1913; married 1954 Nina Boland (divorced), 1978 Stella Caralis; died Nashua, New Hampshire 26 August 2009.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?