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.

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