Hyman Bloom, 96; painted works of grisly Expressionism

By Christine Temin
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2009

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Hyman Bloom, a Boston painter considered a maverick but key figure in the art world, died Wednesday in Nashua. He was 96 - old enough, and independent enough, that his art had already gone in and out of fashion several times.

When, in 1996, the Fuller Museum in Brockton mounted an exhibition of six decades of his work, it had been more than 40 years since his last comprehensive solo show.

In recent years, however, Mr. Bloom’s once fading star had begun to shine anew. Three years ago, Katherine French, director of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, curated “Hyman Bloom: A Spiritual Embrace,’’ an exhibition that will be on view at Yeshiva University Museum in New York City, beginning Sept. 13.

“There was nobody like him,’’ French said. “Every major museum in the United States has Hyman Bloom paintings. I firmly believe that he will be considered not only a great American painter, but a great contemporary painter.’’

Pamela Allara, professor emerita of contemporary art at Brandeis University, called Mr. Bloom “certainly one of the best post-war American painters,’’ one whose work was, through accident of timing, eclipsed by Abstract Expressionism.

“I think now, slowly, his reputation is building back,’’ Allara said. “I have no doubt that he will resume his proper place in the history of American art.’’

Mr. Bloom had lived in Brookline and Cambridge, moving to Nashua, N.H., in 1983. His wife, Stella, brought him for tests Wednesday to Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua, where he died.

In 1979, the Institute of Contemporary Art included Mr. Bloom, Jack Levine, and Karl Zerbe in a show called ’’’Boston Expressionism.’’ At the time, Globe art critic Robert Taylor wrote “the ‘40s and ‘50s in America represent an heroic age for the artists of New York; it was also a period of heroic accomplishment for the painters of Boston. It saw the first indigenous style to emerge here in this century.’’

Mr. Bloom was that rarity, a childhood prodigy in visual art, a field that has even fewer Mozart-equivalents than music. His was a classic American success story. His Latvian Jewish immigrant family settled in Boston in the 1920s. His talent was first recognized by Harold Zimmerman, a perceptive teacher at a Jewish community center in the city’s West End. It wasn’t long before Denman Ross, a Harvard professor and leading figure in Boston’s cultural scene, became Mr. Bloom’s patron, providing him with a $12 a week stipend so that he could devote himself to painting.

During the Depression, Mr. Bloom was part of the Works Progress Administration federal arts project that gave much-needed employment to many artists. He would eventually show at high-profile museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at prestigious events including the Venice Biennale.

Ross gave paintings by Mr. Bloom to Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, and collectors including William Lane donated them to such institutions as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover.

“I always admired his work, and I think he was a very important painter, especially for Boston,’’ Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., curator of American art at the Harvard Art Museum, said of Mr. Bloom. “He and Karl Zerbe were the leading Boston expressionists. I always tried to hang both of their works when I was at the Museum of Fine Arts to show people that history is complex. I tried to show them near Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and the Abstract Expressionists. The tradition of the Boston Expressionists is an important one.’’

But by mid-century, Abstract Expressionism had put Mr. Bloom’s career in the shadows. He could not compete with the hype of Pollock, photographed for the cover of Life magazine pouring paint on canvas. Ironically, Pollock was one of those who credited Mr. Bloom with being a precursor of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

“Without him, Abstract Expressionism would not have existed in the way that it did,’’ French said of Mr. Bloom. “He was really very inspirational to the group of painters who helped found that movement.’’

Mr. Bloom did not care about being a precursor, though, or about being fashionable. He cared about painting. He would stick to a subject with the tenacity of a ravenous dog holding a bone. The subjects of his work, meanwhile, did not tend toward the pleasant or the decorative.

In the 1940s he was painting corpses in a deliberately repellent style. They are inevitably connected with the Holocaust; in his youth Mr. Bloom had wanted to become a rabbi.

His not-so-still lifes and his apocalyptic landscapes suggest a world on the verge of destruction. He could paint ordinary fish as if they were participating in the Last Judgment.

Writing in the Globe about a 1968 show of Mr. Bloom’s work at Boston University, critic Edgar J. Driscoll Jr. was startled by a young gallerist’s announcement that Mr. Bloom was having a “revival.’’ The younger generation of the 1960s didn’t know his work. “Discipline, and craftsmanship - to say nothing of personal, not pasted-on vision - are cornerstones of his art,’’ Driscoll wrote.

Mr. Bloom could draw figures with the musculature of Michelangelo and the spirituality of William Blake. He abandoned the former as his figures started to dissolve into other sorts of creatures.

He was willing to experiment, to the point of using the consciousness-altering drug LSD under controlled medical supervision. He also attended séances in his quest for metaphysical truth. Given his penchant for the visionary, and the hallucinogenic quality of his work, this comes as no surprise.

Writing about Mr. Bloom’s 2002 show at the National Academy of Design Museum in New York, Joel Silverstein noted that the artist’s philosophy ’’constitutes a profound renunciation of materialist culture’’ and cited Mr. Bloom’s many sources, from Chassidism to Asian religions to Hindu music.

The monumental “Painting in Boston: 1950 - 2000’’ exhibition at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln in 2002 also put Mr. Bloom in the context of his contemporaries (David Aronson, Jack Levine) as well as much younger artists (Jon Imber, Todd McKie). That show made Mr. Bloom look less an outsider and more a pivotal figure, at least in the Boston art scene as it developed in the second half of the 20th century.

Still, he was decidedly out-of-sync with the art world for most of his career, and he deliberately avoided it by spending his later years in the Maine woods before moving to Nashua. Previously, he had also lived in Brookline and Cambridge.

When abstraction and minimalism prevailed, he stuck to figuration and canvases crammed with bizarre imagery. His subjects - based on sources including trips to the morgue - put off all but the bravest potential buyers. Over the sofa painting his was not.

And then there was his distaste for self-promotion, to the extent, Driscoll observed in 1968, that at the opening of his BU show that year, an occasion for honoring the artist, Hyman Bloom sat outside in his car.

Mr. Bloom married Stella Caralis on July 20, 1978, her birthday, some 13 years after he had first proposed.

“This year for my birthday,’’ she said, “he did a drawing, of him and I, sitting at a table.’’

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. today in Levine Chapel in Brookline. Burial will be in Vilno Cemetery in West Roxbury.

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.