Editor's note: The following essay, without illustrations, was rekeyed and reprinted on May 12, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Debra Force. The essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition Oscar Bluemner: Visions of the Modern Landscape held at Debra Force Fine Art. Inc. May 12 through June 30, 2004. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through http://www.debraforce.com/
Oscar Bluemner: Visions of the Modern Landscape
Prior to his death in 1938, Oscar Bluemner wrote an essay for the catalogue of his exhibition, Oscar Florianus Bluemner, held at the University Gallery of the University of Minnesota in 1939, where he described the philosophy of his work: Landscape painting speaks to the soul like a poem or music, more intimately than any other kind of painting. I present a surprising vision of landscape by the daring new use of colorsI "introduced red" as Stieglitz said in 1915.
The artist classified his scenes as "Compositions for Color Themes," and in fact, often titled his works with musical themes such as Red Sharp, Red Flat, and In Low Key. Critics of the time felt similarly. Edward Alden Jewell in the New York Times (January 6, 1934) described them as "color music, building harmonies and rhythms," while Miss Breuning of the New York Post (January 12, 1935) termed Bluemner's expression of fantasy as an orchestration of brilliant colors, usually played in the upper reaches of the scale with big crashing chords of black to sustain the theme. The February 18, 1937 issue of Art Here described his paintings as having the boldness of Wagner and Brahms.
For Bluemner, color created the form and brought the landscape to life, while the combination of certain colors, their strength of tones, and their mass evoked emotion, a mood. When you "FEEL" colors, you will understand the "WHY" of their forms. The artist ascribed each color to a particular meaning or emotion:
Bluemner was so intent on selecting the right colors and tones for his paintings that he labored scientifically over sketches with extensive notations and equations intrinsic to his philosophy, often found on the reverse of his gouaches and watercolors. Beauty of color was his primary objective and was generated by the predominance of one color which projects an idea, by modulation within the primary color to avoid monotony and to emulate nature with its generic tone variation, and by complementary color which enhances the principal color and is never equal in value. Only that which serves the beauty of color should be rendered ahead of "truth to nature." (Bluemner in Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, p. 21)
For subject matter, the artist chose to depict his local environment. He felt that the most intense color, mood, individuality and advanced ideas could be expressed only through the familiar, which he found in the landscapes, canals, harbors, villages, and factories of New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. To him, such subjects represented the harmony between nature and humanity and therefore, what he called the "universal modern vision." (Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, p. 23)
Bluemner's architectural training was instrumental in the structural and industrial subjects he portrayed, as well as in the linear and definitive quality of his style from
1911 onward, with varying forays into Cubism and Fauvism. Although his earliest work is composed primarily of architectural renderings, he began depicting representational landscapes circa 1900, more somber in palette in watercolor, more expressively brilliant in crayon or colored pencil.
By 1909-1910, his watercolors became more colorful as was characteristic of his oils painted in the teens, and by 1924, he embarked on a series of watercolors with the emphasis of color as the agent of intellectual and emotional expression. (Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, p. 44) Much of his prime work was done during the period up to 1928, which also included a fascination with atmosphere, particularly the rising or setting sun or moon. He continued to paint watercolors and oils until his death, although in the 1930s, he favored casein-varnish as a medium.
The works on paper in this collection are reflective of Bluemner's career from 1889 to 1933. The earliest, Kursaal zu Naasen (fig. 1), an illustrative pencil sketch from 1889, features a more personal and unusual subject for the artist, an informal dinner party. Before Bluemner developed his mature style, his early landscapes were realistic, as in examples such as Landscape with River, 1902 (fig. 3), probably a Long Island view; Barges in the Sunset, 1903 (fig. 4), enhanced by the setting sun and its reflections and anticipating his work of the late 1920s; New York City, 170th Street, 1910 (fig. 5), a slice-of-life sketch of the upper reaches of the City, most likely done on-site; and Harlem River, 1911 (fig. 6), another spontaneously rendered sketch of a working harbor, focusing on a barge with its cargo resplendent in red, foreseeing what later became his signature color.
Study for Jersey Silkmills, Paterson, 1911 (fig. 7), a crayon piece with Fauvist palette, relates to Jersey Silkmills, the painting that Bluemner regarded as his seventh and most important early oil. Although he made several very preliminary sketches in pencil or ink with heavy notations, this study stands on its own. In keeping with his philosophy, the artist used intense coloration for its effect and harmony rather than reality. A smaller version of this subject from the same period is in the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, Stetson University.
Canal, Paterson, 1917 (fig. 10) is a Cubist depiction of buildings along the canal, rendered with bold red, blue, and violet contrasted against stark white snow. Mood overtakes place and for the rest of Bluemner's career, he would treat the landscape with mostly uninhabited buildings and a few trees with or without foliage in a grid-like architectural order. A similar work, larger in scale, Snow-South Paterson, is also at Stetson.
Study for Secluded Spot-Red Amidst Gray, 1917 (fig. 9) features an abandoned factory, but in this gouache, intense red is contrasted against a cool gray, portraying a desolate monotony. The actual oil was painted in 1928-1929 and is in a private collection, while a charcoal study also from this later period is at Stetson. Another work from the same year, Bloomfield Lock (fig. 11) is rural, rather than industrial in subject, and projects a layering of color rather than the color block of Secluded Spot.
Davies Pond, Bloomfield, 1918 (fig. 8) with its Fauvist palette of canary yellow, orange, and turquoise to midnight blue features a church on a hill with houses below creating a sense of community. The surrounding trees, abstract in form, frame the scene. Scandal in Village, 1919 (fig. 12) is a departure from the artist's more architectural orientation and carries the representational style of Davies Pond to pure abstraction. Although the buildings have structure, the sinewy trees and atmospheric light overpower the setting in a Fauvist manner. The scene has the eeriness of Charles Burchfield, while some of the forms are reminiscent of Arthur Dove. Bluemner's use of stark, leafless trees is also seen in other watercolors such as the more abstract Dancing Trees (1918) in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum.
Tars, Azlo "Flach" Soho Fat Mill, 1920 (fig. 14) and Sparkill, Red Mountain Farm, 1920 (fig. 18) are watercolors which feature mirror-like imagery. The former is more linear and precise with an upbeat palette, while the latter is rendered more mutely and freely. Both sport the artist's signature red against hues of blue and green. Sparkill most closely relates to an oil of the same title (1915) in the artist's use of alternating curved patterns (The Regis Collection). Stieglitz found this painting to be "very positive, sincere, definite, unborrowedNature in a big sense" and as a result, gave Bluemner his first solo exhibition in America. (Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, p. 69)
Port at James Street, Bloomfield, 1922 (fig. 16), another New Jersey subject, projects a bolder mood, given its darker hues and heavier black outlines. Using a grid-like format, the artist cools the power of red against a green ground. This classic color contrast stays true to the artist's intention to portray the beauty of color, with the layering of pinks and purples used to enhance the primary red.
Yellow House on Bank Street, Elizabeth, 1924 (fig. 17) is compatible with other works from this date, which are freer in style and less structured. This watercolor is a more spontaneous rendering given its fluidity of line, particularly in the trees, and use of graphite interspersed with watercolor. The light of the yellow house brings a warmth to the nocturnal street scene and the pillar-like tree trunks dominate the foreground and create a sense of isolation.
Church in Newark, Mercer Street, 1925 (fig. 13) exhibits the artist's penchant for architecture as well as for the color red. It features a more expressionistic style that provides kinetic energy to the composition. This watercolor has a whimsical flavor against a black backdrop, portraying the macabre effects often found in the work of Burchfield. By the same token, Snow, December (fig. 19) from the same year evokes a cold bleakness in its palette of white and black, contrasted against a midnight blue sky.
Study for "Winter Sun" Mill Creek, Elizabeth, 1925 (fig. 20), a more dramatic scene, features mill buildings in varying shades of red contrasted with tones of gray, white, and black under a pungent setting sun. The heavy earth-toned red buildings, which complement the fireball sun, are symbolic of the artist's melancholic demeanor during this period This gouache is architectural and industrial, yet Dove-like in its undulating forms and atmospheric quality, which anticipate a series of sun and moon abstractions from 1927.
Human or figurative presence rarely appears in Bluemner's work. In the urban scene Red Buildings with Statue (fig. 22), a sculpture of a woman presides before a cluster of red buildings. The composition and perspective seem to beckon the viewer to enter the scene. This gouache is characteristically architectural, linear, and brilliant in palette with the predominance of a powerful, vital, and intense red. In other works, the artist transformed inhuman elements such as trees into figurative forms, as in Scandal in Village.
Two gouaches from circa 1928 feature a lone red smokestack amidst either a blue/green or brown/green background. Red Smokestack (fig. 15) is the more vibrant and crisper of the two, with the contrast of red against a cool royal blue, while Mystic Mood (fig. 21) is more muted and somber in its tonality and softness of line against a warmer, enveloping brown. Both works offer an air of mystery in the lone tower and Dove-like curvature of the trees. A related drawing from 1928 is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
This exhibition both begins and ends with a drawing. Study for "Blue Above", 1933 (fig. 2) relates to an important oil from the same year, Blue Above (private collection), which is part of a series of works focusing on "the abstract and the concrete, [which]are the constant rhythm of all movement, in all things, throughout history." (Bluemner in Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, p. 72) This subject's vertical format and fenced foreground create a monumental, utopian feeling and " an individual longing for oneness with the universe..." (Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, pp. 161-162) Another charcoal drawing of this subject from 1932 is in the Stetson collection.
The works in this collection were acquired from the artist's daughter, Vera Bluemner Kouba, by prominent New York collectors in 1969. Since that time, they have been lovingly and privately enjoyed until their presence in this exhibition. Many of the works have been requested as loans to the upcoming major Bluemner exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We are grateful to the collectors for allowing us to bring this wonderful group to the public eye and would like to express thanks to Roberta Smith Favis, Barbara Haskell and Jeffrey R. Hayes who have been generous with their advice and research.
May 12, 2004
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