More talent than fame
IT'S amazing how reputations in art can fade in and out, often for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the quality or importance of what the artist produced. John Singer Sargent is a perfect example. His reputation couldn't have been higher during his lifetime, and yet, a decade after his death, he was considered little more than a flashy virtuoso. That's how he was perceived until roughly 1970, when a number of influential art professionals decided it was time once again to give him his due.
Albert Pinkham Ryder stands at the other extreme. He achieved extraordinary fame after his death in 1917 - many art experts during the 1930s and '40s, in fact, thought him America's greatest artist to date - but now he is viewed as only one of several interesting artists of his generation.
Not every creative individual is subject to this kind of career vacillation, of course, but enough of them are for it to raise serious questions about the manner in which we judge art, and the degree to which we permit fashion, dogma, theory, and the pursuit of novelty to influence our critical opinions.
At no time in recent history was this issue more relevant than during the years following World War II. Literally dozens of outstanding reputations, some of 20 or 30 years duration, were ``plowed under'' by critical attacks or simple neglect, primarily because the painterly approach that would soon be known as Abstract Expressionism had captured the attention of several of the period's most brilliant critics and they, in their new-found enthusiasm, had decreed that it and only it should reign.
For a while, however, it appeared as though American art could also support a few younger painters whose ideas and ideals ran parallel to, or even diverged dramatically from, the work of Pollock, de Kooning, Still, Rothko, and their colleagues.
High on the list of these independents was Hyman Bloom, a Boston Expressionist whose emotionally charged canvases of religious ritual and spiritual ecstasy had begun to receive national attention as early as 1942. Together with Jack Levine, Abraham Ratt-ner, Byron Browne, Ben Shahn, Morris Graves, and Philip Evergood, he represented - for a large portion of the art world, at least - the true hope for American art. Not only were his paintings, and those of the others, remarkably accomplished and original, but also they promised to lead American art out of the trap into which it had fallen by virtue of its militant provincialism on the one hand, and its overdependence on European modernism on the other.
In Bloom, the United States had a champion who was young (he was born in 1913), passionate, committed, and extraordinarily gifted. Two drawings in the possession of Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, executed when he was 15 and 17 years of age, reveal talent and performance almost unbelievable in one so young. And if he had the natural inclination and the skills, he also had the imagination and discipline needed to produce art of very high quality.
A few of his intense, slightly exotic, and psychologically provocative depictions of Jewish temple and home life were included in the Museum of Modern Art's important ``Americans 1942'' exhibition and were seen by several of the emerging Abstract Expressionists. De Kooning, in fact, who had visited the show, indicated in a 1954 conversation that ``he and Jackson Pollock considered Bloom ... the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America.''
They were not alone in that opinion. Thomas Hess, in his influential 1951 book ``Abstract Painting,'' included reproductions of two of Bloom's paintings and indicated that they were there because, ``In Bloom America has another artist who fuses the abstract and Expressionist traditions, and who has achieved this difficult task within the limits of his personal metaphor.''
Bloom, in short, was sitting on top of the world. Not only was he viewed as one of America's best younger independents, but also he had won the approval of Abstract Expressionism's two most famous painters, and one of its major apologists.
Unfortunately, however, that's as far as he got. For all his ability at fusing ``abstract and Expressionist traditions,'' his work ultimately was perceived as too idiosyncratic by those very same figures, and he was packed off to join the ranks of painters deemed insufficiently ``pure'' for critical canonization.
His ``exile'' wasn't immediately apparent, of course, but such things seldom are. His reputation continued to grow, and as late as the early 1960s, he was still almost as well-known as anyone else in American art.
The signs were there, however, for those who knew where to look. He was increasingly described as a good painter rather than as an important artist; his work was at first seldom and then never included in exhibitions of ``significant'' recent American art; and his name was gradually dropped from the lists of those discussed in art and art history classes.
Quite simply, he had fallen out of favor and out of fashion, even though his work continued to grow in depth and range until well into the 1970s. True enough, he has been honored now and again in print and in specialized exhibitions as one of the major Boston Expressionists, and he exhibits regularly in one of New York's better galleries. But for all intents and purposes, he has been forgotten. Ask any of today's art or art history students for the names of even second- and third-level Abstract Expressionists, or minor Pop Artists, and they'll rattle them off with ease. But ask them if they've ever heard of Hyman Bloom, and you'll almost certainly receive a blank stare.