When I became a curator at the National Academy Museum in 2000, I discovered with surprise that among its members were a number of artists whose work I knew from having done research on American art of the 1940s and ’50s, but of whom I had no idea that they were still around. Hyman Bloom was one of them. His name appeared in art history books in 1942, when Dorothy Miller, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, included thirteen of his paintings in one of her regular exhibitions of contemporary American art—thereby launching his reputation. In 1950, Bloom represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, together with Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. By 1954, he was having a full retrospective at the Whitney Museum. It would take 48 years before another museum exhibition of his paintings took place in New York, at the National Academy Museum in 2002.
If Bloom’s early work related to the expressionist tendency that prevailed in the art of the 1940s, by the 1960s, however, his luxuriant landscapes and still-lifes of shimmering glass vases were at the opposite pole of the dominant pop and minimalist aesthetics. Undisturbed, and genuinely uninterested in the art scene, Bloom pursued his own direction until the end.
Dorothy Miller’s account of her first visit to Bloom’s studio in 1941 has often been told: First he wouldn’t let her in, then when she was allowed in, all his paintings were turned facing the wall and he wouldn’t show them to her. It was much the same when I first visited Hyman in December of 2000. He and his wife Stella were most welcoming into their house, but on the door of his studio was the image of a fierce dog with the words KEEP OUT!
And yet Hyman Bloom was the most courteous and delightful man, and truly one of the most fascinating artists I have ever met.
He often said that as a child he wanted to become a rabbi and, from the start, painting was for him a spiritual adventure, a search to give pictorial form to his profound need for transcendence. His sources of inspiration were wide-ranging. He observed corpses at the morgue, participated in séances, studied Eastern philosophy and theosophy, even experimented with LSD, after having read Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception. “It was an eye-opener,” he said.
Bloom was born in Latvia in 1913. From his background in the Eastern European Jewish community he had inherited a blend of mysticism and harsh realism reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. (Singer was one of Bloom’s favorite writers.) Bloom’s best-known paintings, the corpses and autopsy scenes of the forties and fifties, in which decaying flesh glows with the iridescent colors of precious stones, forcefully convey his conception of art as a metaphysical quest. “For me,” he said, “paint and thought amount to the same thing. They are an attempt to cope with one’s destiny and become master of it.” His fascination with what he called “the paradox of the harrowing and the beautiful” found visual expression in apocalyptic visions of rats gnawing at human limbs, rendered in fluid and sensuous strokes of luscious colors; or in chilling depictions of demonic, insect-like monsters in spectral charcoal drawings that recall the art of Odilon Redon.
One of Bloom’s main sources of spiritual strength was his passion for Middle Eastern and South Asian music. In it he found “something old and primal, a majestic feeling of timelessness,” which he wanted his paintings to elicit as well. In the 1930s he began assembling an amazing collection of oriental recordings—then not available in the United States—which is now the Archive of World Music at Harvard.
Because he rarely traveled, didn’t go to openings, disliked parties, and did not readily engage in small talk, Bloom had the reputation of being a recluse. But he enjoyed the friendship of many artists, musicians, composers, scientists, and writers. Among them for instance were the Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness, who shared Bloom’s interest in mysticism and spiritualism, and then painter Jack Levine, whom Bloom met as a teenager when they were both taking art classes in a settlement house in Boston.
In the early 1950s, when Bloom was teaching a drawing class at Harvard, one of his students was John Updike. Later Updike remembered Bloom as “far and away the quietest” among his instructors. Bloom was indeed a man of few words, but the intensity of his paintings and drawings reveal the formidable mind and exceptional talent behind this quiet appearance.