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Peter Blume

By Jack Levine

It’s a bit of a shock to me to be delivering this tribute to Peter Blume. We were almost not the same generation, I didn’t know him very well. But this is like a terrible gap torn out of history, somehow. It’s as though some connecting bridge between him and me fell into the water. As I said, we weren’t that close.

He had gone to the Educational Alliance on East Broadway where he made the acquaintance of the Soyer brothers, Raphael and Moses, and of Chaim Gross, and other people like that. And that’s about as far back as I go. I haven’t done a great deal of research. In the fullness of time, he moved to Sherman, Connecticut, where he lived with writers. That was the funny thing about him. Both he and his wife, and Malcolm Cowley and his wife, the Van Dorens, and so many other writers would descend on this place in a body. That was our Connecticut contingent. He always seemed very happy with writers. Perhaps I would be too, although I shouldn’t commit myself on that.

Someone described him as being handsome with red gold hair, and I think you might say that. I think he was a handsome guy with a radiant smile. Very much the happy prince. Sort of arrogant in a nice way. I know an anecdote about him. You know I was with the Downtown Gallery; Edith Halpert was his dealer at one time. She was mine as well. And I was visiting with her. She was behind her desk doing her usual act of Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russias. And she was telling me, bitterly, about how she had this conversation with Peter and in the meantime he was doodling. Never talking. He got up to leave and he said to her, “You may have this.” She was chewing nails. (I don’t know the feminine of impresario. I suppose it is impresaria.) She was very bitter about this, and I thought to myself, I must get to know him better.

I have known his work; he was precocious, but then so was I. At my earliest awareness of what was going on, I was aware of Peter. I was aware of his masterpiece The Eternal City. It’s an extraordinary painting, which is in one of the New York museums. In the lower left, there’s this amazing treatment of the underground, subterranean corridors of the Coliseum, where people have been slaughtered throughout the centuries. On the opposite side is this pulverized, mashed, broken marble, sculptures of marble and alabaster. It is incredible, his textural treatment of it, the power that he had to do this. In the midst of this sort of ancient Roman ruin we get the kind of brickwork that the Romans used. The bricks were more like pancakes than bricks in our sense. He worked in micrometers and with a focus which you could call Magic Realism if you want to indulge in cliches. Within that, is this figure, a kind of hirsute, swarthy figure in chains, and the caption above it reads ELEEMOSINA [Charity]. I don’t think I would want to offer him anything. I wouldn’t want to go near him. But there he is in chains. He’s some sort of saint but to me he is negative. And somehow or other he seems to be haloed by epaulets floating around him. And then on the far side is the thing that gives the painting its name. It’s the jack-in-the-box. It has popped open, with the bead of Mussolini with bulging eyes and it has this horrible green color, the color of a paper lantern. It’s a kind of a scare, a kind of guignol. And in between there is this scene of cavalry officers cutting down people with swords. I understand Peter has said that he got this by reading Trotsky’s History of the Revolution, or some such thing. I rather think he must have been thinking of some of the early Eisenstein films: The Battleship Potemkin, Ten Days that Shook the World. In any case, I think I am describing a multiple, I am describing the man who would bring the images together in such a way that would be very very disturbing, a disparate sort of thing. I think of him now that I have made the acquaintance of Proust, as being a sort of Marxist Proust or a Proustian Marx. He’s combined all these things, and mind you in so many ways they are extraordinary things to bring about essentially a different reality.

There’s another painting he did called South of Scranton. And that, as it turns out, is a German battleship going up some estuary towards Scranton. (I don’t know the geography of Pennsylvania.) And there are men in white tights, like trapeze artists, going up and down the superstructure of this ship and there is some kind of old city beside it. This is a German warship. That’s before this country had the sense to realize that something scary was happening, which was the same again as with Italian Fascism. I mean, the man was prescient, the man was prophetic, and he was also slammed by a number of critics for doing these things which an artist is not and was not supposed to do.

In any event, and he was very young at the time, he won first Prize at the Carnegie International which I think was probably the most prestigious international show in the world at that time. And he just as a kid won first. There is a book on him. I was reading about what some of the critics had to say, some of whom are still around and whom I am acquainted with, after a fashion. The reviews are flat, they’re predictable. Peter, who would spend years on a canvas, was being taken care of by these critics who were just trying to make their weekly deadlines. You could read these things and hear the presses running for the weekend edition.

I don’t want to keep you too long. I just thought I would make a couple of further comments about him. Terry Dintenfass, who was his last dealer, took me to visit Peter and Ebie at their home. We had lunch. And I never saw anything like this. He had this view, a landscape, he had made over completely. Mostly his own pick and shovel work. He had arranged this landscape to his pleasure. You know it’s like some kind of description in a Chinese essay on what landscapes should be, where you have a hill, a mountain, you have a pond, you have a waterfall, an old brook, the rocks. The rocks are very important. Clumps of trees have to be strategically placed so it may be beautiful. I mean we were looking out at something like a Poussin landscape or a Claude Lorrain. I mean really. Who ever does that?

The last show of his I saw turned out to be sculpture. Masterful. Really prodigious. A virtuoso. I saw him here later and I said “Peter, where did you learn all that? How did you become this kind of consummate sculptor overnight?” He grinned and he said, “I was at the American Academy in Rome and I checked it out.” You realize he’s talking to a man who his whole life never sawed his way through a board. He was a Renaissance man, all right.

I think I’ve sold him pretty hard. I just want to say that with the sort of human contact pretty much gone—you know there’s nobody in between us—it’s a shock to find I’m next. I feel something very brotherly about him. And I suppose it was my place to do this.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1993.

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