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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), Moonlight Fantasy, 1930. Signed with conjoined letters at lower left: BLŰMNER; inscribed, dated and signed on the backing with framing notes: Catalogue #15/ 28 ½ x 38 ½ /Gouache painting on panel/1930/ #234/Moon Light Fantasy/Oscar F. Bluemner /Casein varnish on paper mounted on board 30 ¾ x 22 ½ inches (78.1 x57.1 cm) (11138)

I really liked the display at The Art Show this year of Oscar Bluemner's work by Menconi + Schoelkopf. But, like last year's show by this same gallery of John Marin, it turns out that The Art Show booth was only a smaller prelude to a much larger show of Bluemner's work held after The Art Show closed and back at the gallery's headquarters on the Upper East Side. So I held my fire until I could see the larger gallery show, and found a delicious entertainment that I can highly recommend.


Titled "Bluemner and the Critics,"it' s on through December 17 and has a catalogue by Roberta Smith Favis – who is not to be confused with the New York Times critic of nearly the same name, but is instead a longtime professor at Stetson University in Florida, and first curator of the fabulous Bluemner collection given to Stetson by the artist's daughter Vera Kouba.


The current show at Menconi + Schoelkopf is pretty fabulous, too, though it has only as many pictures as an Upper East Side gallery can easily display. We aren't talking loft spaces here, but fortunately Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938) belonged to an era when one could be just as radical on a small scale as on a large one. And the coloristic brilliance of these paintings still beguiles as much as the stocky and pre-eminently architectural forms within them, simplified to near-abstraction.


In all there are about 25 small to medium-sized paintings and drawings on display—about one third loans that were never for sale. The loans weren't included at The Art Show – but they form a very handsome addition to the work for sale or sold and still on view at the gallery.


One thing I found very exciting was the seemingly- endless variety to all these pictures. Bluemner ceaselessly juggled his buildings, trees, roads, suns, moons, rivers and what not into an almost-infinite variety of compositions – all without abandoning his own bright colors and very personal visual vocabulary.


In time span the work begins with a small (about 5 x 7 inches) 1909 watercolor of a boy named Robert walking alongside the Raritan Canal. It ends with the much larger "Summer Night," a casein on board approximately 3 x 2 feet, and done in 1936. With stark simplicity it shows a tall rectangular, flat-roofed building done in red with a dark sky behind and just one green-leafed tree in front.


Generally speaking, Bluemner's pictures evolve over the decades from smaller, more detailed compositions done prior to 1920 to larger, simpler compositions done in the 1920s and 1930s, though there are exceptions to this generality in both periods and plenty of successes in both periods as well.


Because Bluemner was born, raised and educated in Germany before coming to America around 1893, it is customary to describe his style as "expressionist" rather than "cubist." Actually though his work owes more to French ancestor-figures like Cézanne & Van Gogh than it does to those Expressionists who flourished in Germany in the early years of the 20th century like Kandinsky & Emil Nolde.


Initially after he came to America, he practiced as an architect, and painting was his hobby. However, he met Alfred Stieglitz in 1908 and Stieglitz was very admiring of his painting. Largely (if not entirely) as a result of this encouragement, Bluemner quit architecture and took up painting fulltime.


Stieglitz showed Bluemner's work at his own gallery, "291" and published some of Bluemner's writings in "Camera Work," the Stieglitz publication. Bluemner was also represented in The Armory Show of 1913.


Thanks to an infusion of money he enjoyed at about this time, he went back to Europe for about seven months to learn more about modern art. And though it's not clear to me where he studied, it seems to have been during this period when his paintings became simpler and more structural, tinged with cubist force lines and/or rectilinear shapes.


This sea-change could have been caused by what he learned in Germany as much as in France. Even the German Expressionists couldn't escape being influenced by French cubism, which was shown in Berlin only a year or so after it had debuted in Paris. This influence can be seen in the paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from about 1913 onward, and even more in the Munich branch of German Expressionism, not so much with Kandinsky as with his colleagues, Franz Marc and August Macke.


Alas, Bluemner's return to America was not greeted the way it should have been. Bluemner was to have many shows over the next three decades, but sales were few and far between. In large measure, this was undoubtedly due to the general poverty caused by the Great Depression, when nobody had much money to spend. It was also due to the modernity of Bluemner's style but – according to Prof. Favis, in her catalogue essay, anti-German prejudice may also have been responsible – brought on by having Germany as enemy in World War I.


Even Stieglitz, she says, withdrew his support from Bluemner, and from all the other foreign-born artists he had previously endorsed. What had been "291" became "An American Place," devoted to showing only native-born artists: Charles Demuth, Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe.


In the end, at the age of 70, poor Bluemner took his own life.


Still, the critics never deserted him, and the many testimonials to his talents make for an eloquent exhibition catalogue to the current show. The most recent praise that I could find in it came from Hilton Kramer, writing in The New York Times for 1967, and the most distinguished critic praising him while he was still alive was Henry McBride, who offered tributes more than once in The New York Sun.


All the other names, I am afraid, would be familiar only to specialists in the period, but during this period, New York was fortunate in having many daily papers publishing art criticism of any sort. Art lovers were free to pick and choose the critic or critics that they most sympathized with, and go to the shows that these critics reviewed favorably -- instead of being subjected to the tyranny of one daily paper, the way we are now.


Whoever planned the layout of this catalogue has tastefully combined excerpts from different reviews with reproductions of different paintings in the show. And "Moonlight Fantasy" (1930), the dreamy, night-time image I have chosen to give my readers a notion of Bluemner's gifts, is accompanied by a quote from a reviewer who signed only his or her initials, "H.A.R." This review appeared in The Brooklyn Eagle in 1935, and it reads as follows:


"Oscar Bluemner is a true exponent of Expressionism in the correct interpretation of this much misunderstood and misapplied term. The collection of his paintings now on view at the Marie Harriman Galleries is therefore quite apart from its interest as an exhibition, a concrete definition of the term. For Mr. Bluemner form and color are mediums by means of which he sets down his emotional reactions to the universe."


Very neatly put, I'd say -- and an anticipation of much art to come.

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