Revelations about a reticent artist

Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things

Revelations about a reticent artist --Hyman Bloom, the artist, was not a recluse. He had a wide circle of devoted friends and acquaintances, and no end of younger artists who revered him. But he hated to talk about his work.

He never showed up to openings of his own shows. And, as we learn in Angelica Allende Brisk’s superb, one-hour documentary, “Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things,’’ when Bloom would invite people back to his studio, all the works would be turned to the wall.

Yet Bloom — mischievous, twinkly-eyed, habitually ironic — is the presiding spirit behind Brisk’s 2009 film, which uses footage from long interviews she did with the late artist (who was by then in his 90s and audibly short of breath). The footage brings Bloom incredibly close, humanizing the black-and-white still photographs of his early life and of the Jewish Ghetto in Boston’s West End, where he came as a boy from war-torn Latvia in the 1920s.

Bloom was good-looking and charismatic. Art historians, fellow artists, and curators detail his path from precocious draughtsman — “Michelangelo reborn!’’ — to controversial avant-garde painter in the 1940s, admired by Pollock and de Kooning, and feted by the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was “a prophet,’’ declares the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum’s curator, Nick Capasso. “He’s what artists are supposed to be,’’ chimes in his friend, the artist Jack Levine. “He has the courage of his professional acts.’’

Although he was fiercely independent, Bloom was regarded as the leading figure among the so-called Boston Expressionists, described by Capasso as “probably Boston’s biggest contribution to Western Art.’’ And yet he fell out of favor, and a big part of Brisk’s warm but sober film is given over to exploring the gradual trailing off of Bloom’s reputation. Was it because he shunned publicity and didn’t go to New York, where great reputations were being made? Was it because he continued to explore private themes in a figurative idiom, when abstraction was all the rage? Was it because of his subject matter (corpses and cadavers) or his spiritualist bent, which prompted involvement in séances and LSD trips as well as depictions of synagogues and rabbis with the Torah?

There is no one answer. But some very intelligent and eloquent people offer their perspectives, among them the artist Arthur Polonsky, the art historians Judith Bookbinder and Isabelle Dervaux, as well as Bloom’s widow, Stella, his first wife, Nina Bohlen, and his longtime friend Dr. A. Stone Freedberg.

His reputation aside, the film’s emphasis is on telling the fascinating story of Bloom’s life, and on teasing out the sources of his art. It’s done very deftly, with tight and judicious selections of material relating to historical context and biographical incident, wonderful music (Bloom was a lifelong aficionado of Indian music), and — not least — examples of Bloom’s paintings and drawings throughout.

The inclusion of this material alone — at a time when even Bloom’s best pieces are depressingly difficult to find — makes the film invaluable, and quite revelatory.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at  

© Copyright The New York Times Company