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Unfinished business

Fame was fleeting for the late painter Hyman Bloom. What happened to his reputation? And what happens to it now?

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 11, 2009

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NEW YORK - Less than three weeks after Hyman Bloom died in late August at 96, a show of his paintings and drawings opened at the Yeshiva University Museum here. At the opening were many who knew him: collectors, curators, friends, family.

Looking clear-eyed and crisply turned out, Stella Bloom greeted well-wishers with warm embraces and posed patiently for photographs in front of her husband’s works. Among them were paintings of chandeliers, seances, and Christmas trees, all in streaming, opalescent colors, as well as drawings of dark, mystical forests, disorienting in their scope and detail.

She was accustomed to attending the public launches of her husband’s exhibitions without him. Widely regarded as the most significant painter Boston has produced in the last 60 years, Hyman Bloom was also famous for refusing to attend his own openings. Ever since he had come to national prominence in the 1940s, he was steadfast in his refusal to court the approval of critics, collectors, and curators.

“I used to say, ‘Honey, you should go to the opening,’ ’’ Stella said. “But he’d say, ‘What for? I don’t want to go. I want to work.’ ’’

Last month’s event was different. There would be no one back in the studio in their home in Nashua when she returned. Just an unfinished painting on the easel, a house full of her husband’s books, and six decades of sketchbooks, drawings, and paintings.

“On the day he died,’’ she said, “I thought the trip to the doctor’s was just another appointment. I had no idea.’’

An artist’s death is often a moment for reassessment. The timing can be bitter, or at least melancholy, for the artist is not around to see the potential benefits. He can interfere neither with those who want to champion him nor with those who are inclined to forget him. It’s a time for casting aside received wisdom, disentangling old biases, and looking again.

Since Bloom’s death, many in his circle have been asking - again - whether he was unfairly neglected. Why, despite tremendous acclaim in his 20s and 30s, is he not as well known as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, both of whom admired him and even credited him with helping to kick-start abstract expressionism?

Why, moreover, if he had no serious rivals in the Boston area as a painter of consequence, was Bloom never given a show at the Museum of Fine Arts?

And now that he is no longer among us, what will happen to his reputation from here?

The artist as a young man
Hyman Bloom’s life was too idiosyncratic to be called emblematic, but it bore striking resemblances to those of Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky, artists who also came to the United States from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Bloom was born in 1913 in Brunoviski, a village in Latvia. He was the son of a shoemaker and a seamstress who, when he was 7, immigrated to America. He grew up in what was virtually a Jewish ghetto in Boston’s West End. A keen draftsman from an early age, he was recognized for his unusual talents, and given lessons by two influential teachers, Harold Zimmerman and Denman Ross.

After visiting New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Bloom fell under the influence of Georges Rouault and Chaim Soutine. He also read Helena P. Blavatsky’s 1888 occult treatise, “The Secret Doctrine,’’ and began his long involvement with spiritualist groups and seekers.

After his close friend the artist Elizabeth Chase committed suicide in 1939, he saw her body in the morgue, and the experience prompted a state of mind he claimed to have had only twice in his life: a sense that “everything is beautiful. . . . Everything in the world has an aura of just rightness and beauty.’’

The paintings he produced over the next few years, of chandeliers, corpses, severed legs, Christmas trees, brides, and rabbis, brought tremendous acclaim. Bloom was included in an important American art survey at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942, and became known as one of the country’s most influential young painters.

But his renown was soon overtaken by the abstract expressionists, and later by the pop artists. Bloom remained influential among a small group of artists in Boston, but was mostly forgotten.

Why this happened is hard to say. Theories abound.

There is the belief that had Bloom moved to New York, he could have found himself at the center of that city’s burgeoning art world; also, that he continued to paint figurative imagery during years which saw all the critical attention going to abstract painters.

In much the same vein, there is the notion that he was reclusive, or at the very least retiring in his relations with the art world, and that he did without a dealer or regular shows for most of his career.

“He was not an easy artist to work with for curators,’’ admitted Katherine French, the curator of the Yeshiva show and director of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, where the show was first seen in 2006.

Others believe Bloom’s subject matter posed problems. Again and again, he painted cadavers, autopsies, severed legs in various stages of decomposition, and haggard old crones. Not the kind of work that easily finds buyers.

And then, finally, there was his longstanding interest in Theosophy, in seances, in Jewish and various other strains of mysticism, which may have been alienating.

Some of these theories have more explanatory force than others. All carry at least a grain of truth. But if the people who were closest to Bloom see his case as one of tragic neglect, it seems that Bloom himself remained astonishingly indifferent.

Angélica Brisk, who has been working for five years on a documentary, “Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things,’’ called the day after she had shown me an early cut of the film to say that she had been thinking about the question:

He didn’t feel neglected. It’s our conundrum,’’ Brisk said. “It’s felt by the people around him who feel moved by the work, amazed by his gifts and talents. We have a greater interest in the question than he did.’’

“He was never bitter,’’ Stella Bloom confirmed. “He didn’t care. I asked him once, and he said they could write what they liked.’’

Retiring but not reclusive
A week after the Yeshiva opening, Bloom’s widow was sitting at the kitchen table in Nashua, talking about the pest control men who were just leaving, when her eyes welled with tears (and not for the first time that day).

The men had come to see about a mouse problem. It was unclear why Stella Bloom was so upset: Was it simply that these were the kinds of mundane problems she was going to have to deal with on her own now?

And then, wistfully, she said: “Hyman loved mice. And snakes, too.’’

Bloom’s works, from every stage of his career, were all over the walls. Every room groaned, too, under the weight of his shimmering collection of vases and ceramics, and his vast trove of art books, among them monographs of favorite artists like Matthias Grünewald, Rembrandt, and Hieronymus Bosch; volumes on Topkapi carpets, Himalayan art, and the sketches of Hokusai; and books with titles like “Torment in Art,’’ “Witchcraft and Demonology,’’ “The World of Bats’’ and “The Occult in Art.’’

There were also a number of ornate lutes and sitars, some of which Bloom had played (he was a lifelong aficionado of Indian music). And in many rooms one saw sculptural busts of Hyman’s head, made by various artist acquaintances.

In short, it was impossible to escape his presence. Everything in the house pointed in some way to him.

The stories Stella Bloom told were tinged with humor and irony. She described, for instance, watching him unawares at work in his studio one day. She was astonished to see how much time he spent walking back and forth in front of the easel, and how he kept one hand in his pocket.

“Is this what you do,’’ she asked him. “You work with just one hand? You walk back and forth like this?’’

“What do you know about work, about painting?’’ he replied.

But those who knew Bloom, including Stella, were all eager to put to rest the notion that he was some kind of curmudgeonly recluse. Yes, he was utterly committed to his work, they said, and that was part of what was so impressive about him. But he loved company, and he inspired extraordinary devotion in those who knew him.

His oldest friend was the artist Jack Levine. The two of them studied art together in Boston as boys, quickly gaining a reputation as a pair of wunderkinds. Referred to as “the bad boys of Boston,’’ they later became the leading figures in a loose affiliation of artists known as the Boston Expressionists.

Levine, now 94, lives in New York. Just after hearing the news that his friend had died, he went to Penn Station to get the train to Boston. It was 4 a.m.; he hadn’t even bothered to check the schedule. The first train came two hours later. Knowing instinctively where he must be, he spent over nine hours waiting in Boston for someone to receive the instruction to collect him and drive him to Nashua.

That someone ended up being Ben Morgenthau, a young pediatrician who knew Bloom only in his twilight years. Both men were at the Yeshiva opening, and at a dinner afterward for some of the people closest to Bloom.

“Hyman was full of life,’’ said Morgenthau. “He appreciated the energy of youth.’’

Morgenthau met Bloom through the one person who was missing at the Yeshiva opening, a man who had been Bloom’s doctor, friend, and most committed financial supporter: Dr. A. Stone Freedberg.

A revered former Harvard Medical School professor, Freedberg would speak with the Blooms almost daily by phone. He died nine days before Bloom, at 101. His collection of Bloom’s work, which is spread among members of his own family, is one of the best in existence.

The Danforth commitment
When an artist of any importance dies, it’s common for museums to put work they own by that artist on display if it’s been in storage. There are Hyman Blooms in many major collections, including the MoMA, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts. But right now, for anyone in the New England area, it’s almost impossible to get any true sense of Bloom’s achievement, because his work is not on view.

The Danforth, which is unique in its commitment to Bloom and his fellow Boston Expressionists, has sent its Blooms to New York for the Yeshiva show (they will be back, and on display, early next year). Other local museums, such as the MFA, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, have their Blooms in storage (in one case, the Bloom is on loan).

Several prominent critics, such as Holland Cotter of The New York Times, are known to be great admirers of Bloom (Cotter wrote an excellent introductory essay for a Bloom show at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton in 1996). But the Yeshiva show has not yet been reviewed.

Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., Distinguished Fellow and Consultative Curator of American Art at Harvard Art Museum, is a former head of American art at the MFA. He wrote frankly, but sensitively, about the question of Bloom’s reputation in a recent e-mail from overseas.

“Ab Ex [abstract expressionism] met a huge cultural need, to express the pain the US and the world felt at the end of the war, the Holocaust, the Bomb, and the need to express it in avant-garde (e.g., abstract) terms. Pollock seemed the natural, American successor to Picasso in a way that Bloom never could have,’’ Stebbins wrote.

“The art of Bloom,’’ he went on, “was in many ways just as ‘good’ as that of the Ab Ex painters, but it felt too local, too illustrative, too obvious to serve the purpose. The best Ab Ex painters seemed to most people, then and now, to reach deeper.’’

Elliot Bostwick Davis, the MFA’s John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas, describes Bloom as “one of the visionaries, part of a broader group of artists looking for spiritual threads by way of Buddhism, Eastern mysticism, and in his case Judaism.’’ She said there will be at least one Bloom hanging in the MFA’s new American wing when it opens a year from now.

But at this time, the MFA has no plans for a Bloom solo show. As Davis puts it, “There are so many artists who don’t get the recognition they deserve.’’

It turns out that Hyman Bloom almost did have his day at the MFA. In the late 1980s, according to Stella Bloom, the MFA let him know that it was planning to give him a solo show. The museum had even put it on the calendar, she said.

Bloom should have been excited. But Stella remembers him telling her: “I don’t think it’s going to happen.’’ Sure enough, about a year later, a letter arrived informing him that the show was not going to happen. “He said, ‘See, I told you,’ ’’ Stella recalls. (An MFA spokesman said a Bloom exhibition was proposed but never “officially scheduled.’’)

Hyman Bloom was more than just “influential,’’ more than just a “painter’s painter.’’ His art, at its best, combines visceral power with a striving, speculative, swarming quality that does indeed suggest a visionary sensibility, and feels unique in American art. Great examples are not rare; they are just tucked away in a relatively small number of private collections,

“It’s too bad the MFA didn’t have that show,’’ Stebbins said in his e-mail. “I think every view, and every artist, counts, and there’s no way of telling who will be on top in a hundred years.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

(Pam Berry / Globe Staff / File 1996)

HYMAN BLOOM: A Spiritual Embrace At Yeshiva University Museum in New York through Jan. 24. 212-294-8330, www.yumuseum.org

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