Both Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine won eminence in American art before the age of thirty and, in their early forties now, they have had their reputations certified, so to speak, by a twin retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City this past spring. Though the two painters cannot be considered similar in direction beyond a common Expressionist bias, and an addiction to rich, luminous color, they have been coupled from the first because of the fact that they are both Bostonians, are friends, were guided by the same teachers, developed during the Depression years—and also, perhaps, because they are both second-generation Jews. Hilton Kramer, who offers us an independent appraisal of the value of their art, is interested in the contexts in which Bloom and Levine have worked as well as in the problems of their art as such.

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For more than a decade now the names of Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine have been linked in the art world as the special contribution which Boston has made to contemporary painting in this country. That their talents have always been disparate and their work unequal has not discouraged museum officials, art critics, and the rest of the officialdom of the art world from capitalizing on their biographical connection. In a period when all too few American painters have provided material for the legend of the artist—of which the public is still so fond, after the fact—their story has been a bit too juicy with sentiment for the official mind to pass up. Add to this the fact that both artists work in a highly literary mode of painting which makes itself readily available to easy biographical and philosophical “interpretations,” and that their Jewishness (always a sure source for the sentimental side of their story) has formed an important part of this literary content, and you will have some idea of the basis on which their fame and success rest today. The twin retrospective exhibition of their work this year at the Whitney Museum in New York—a truly amazing and disturbing event for artists of their age and achievement—was entirely symptomatic of the kind of homage the public is willing to pay to this sort of legend.

To be sure, their story is an engaging one, for it is nothing less than the story of two sensitive and talented Jewish boys making good in the world of Gentile culture. In 1927, when Bloom was fourteen and Levine two years younger, they met in an art class which the painter Harold Zimmermann, only ten years their senior, taught in the Community Center of Boston’s West End. Both of them were sons of shoemakers who had immigrated from Eastern Europe; Bloom himself was born in Lithuania and came to this country at the age of seven. Both were endowed with the kind of artistic gifts which augur well for the future when one’s whole energy is bent toward establishing the fact of talent, but not its quality or direction.

The agent of their early development and success was a Harvard scholar named Denman Ross, a figure out of the Berenson era for whom the practice of the fine arts meant a strict reverence for the old masters. Apparently Bloom and Levine were introduced to Ross through Zimmermann, for Ross—a collector, painter, writer, and museum benefactor as well as professor of fine arts at Harvard—was soon making every effort to help all three: first making work space available in the Fogg Museum and later renting studios in which they could work. He also provided the boys with a weekly stipend of twelve dollars.

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Ross’s influence extended far beyond this patronage, however—and here we leave the engaging story of the boys from the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, and enter into the realm of their artistic ideas. Insofar as these ideas were influenced by Ross, they can be summed up in this sentence from his book On Drawing and Painting: “The experience of the past should be referred to and only methods well tested should be followed.” (In context, the remark deals with methods of preparing a surface For painting, but it can properly be taken to represent Ross’s whole intellectual position.) Both Ross and Zimmermann seem to have been completely shut off from the artistic ferment of modern Europe, and particularly from the School of Paris, where the most significant artistic ideas of the century were being generated. For Zimmermann, it was a matter of physical isolation, at least in the beginning: he had simply not seen the work. (Later, when he did see it, it seems not to have touched him very deeply.) Ross’s isolation was more a matter of intellectual disposition. As Bloom himself remarked, “Ross couldn’t stand Rouault or even Cézanne,” and this is only one of many signals which indicate that Ross’s understanding of the Western tradition in painting was essentially a scholar’s and not an artist’s.

Inevitably, there was a cleavage of affinities, and it was Levine who worked more directly under the discipline of Ross’s ideas. It is significant that these early years under Ross’s tutelage were devoted to drawing, for it is above all in draftsmanship, and in technique generally, that the academic mind takes refuge in the presence of conflicting artistic demands. Levine’s crayon drawing entitled “Jewish Cantors in the Synagogue,” dated “before 1933” in the Whitney catalogue, not only reveals the artist’s early proclivities as formed under Ross’s teaching, but it is also, I believe, a good index to the real loyalties of his plastic sensibility. Other drawings of the same period are similarly executed: the effort is all toward rendering volumes and contours in a traditional, pre-Impressionist manner; nowhere is there a line or gesture which bespeaks the kind of impatience with the past which we recognize as the beginning of artistic maturity. All energies were still being spent on the fact of the artist’s talent.

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Equipped with this point of view, which placed upon draftsmanship the major burden of the painting art and surrounded it with a constellation of technical devices culled from Rembrandt and other masters, Levine entered into the turmoil of the depression, making a place for himself as a WPA painter. Now in retrospect the Federal Art Project can be said to have had only one positive value: it allowed certain painters to survive. But as a period in the history of art it was dominated by an intellectual and pictorial provincialism which was suffocating to serious goals in painting. And like Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, and others who made their reputations in the 30’s, Levine found in the provincialism of “social realist” art something entirely apposite to his academic training.

Moreover, as the son of an immigrant and a Jew, he was a member of the class which embraced the political ideals of the depression with the greatest intensity. In the context of unemployment, rising fascism, and the other terrible burdens of the 30’s, the commitment which Levine made to “social realism” must have seemed at the time like a commitment to modern life itself—particularly, alas, for a student lately out of Denman Ross’s atelier.

The style which Levine went on to develop in the 30’s was a heavy, satirical mode of realism which relied almost exclusively upon caricature for its effects—caricature, that is, “dressed” in a painted surface which has practically no independent interest of its own. The first major statement of this style is a work called “Feast of Pure Reason,” dated 1937. With variation and increasing subterfuge, it is the style which Levine continues to practice.

There are three figures in the “Feast of Pure Reason”: a policeman in uniform, an underworld character, and—there being no other name for the “gentleman” in formal afternoon dress, high collar, walking stick, cigar, etc.—a capitalist. They are seated together in a dark, interior atmosphere, but the implication is unmistakably clear: this meeting represents the corruption of our society. The method of organizing the picture is equally unmistakable: the figures—who resemble nothing so much as those imported crockery figures Which used to be made after characters in Dickens, with their names in relief on the bases—are immersed in shadow so that light may be allowed to reveal faces and hands in all their double-chinned, baggy-eyed, knuckled ugliness. Highlights also fall on “significant” objects: in this case, an expensive-looking whiskey decanter, a symbol of the conviviality—Oh, the irony!—with which these supposed enemies in society, the Law-enforcer, the Lawbreaker, and Respectability itself, come together for mutual benefit and profit.

These themes dominate the major canvases of Levine’s oeuvre: the privileged status of the underworld in “Gangster Funeral,” 1952-53; the hypocrisy of politicians and patriots in “Welcome Home,” 1946, and “Election Night,” 1954; the corruption of the moneyed classes in “Reception in Miami,” 1948.

It is worth noting that the dates of these pictures place them in the last decade, some of them in fact within the last couple of years; for what gives them an overriding coherence is their indulgence in a form of easy irony and social comment which we associate with the “innocence” of the 30’s. Levine has been frank to say that “All considerations of modernity or contemporaneity fill me with honor,” and although I am sure he meant this declaration to apply to his technical means and not to his thematic materials, his pictures, even pictures of a couple of years ago, seem already terribly “dated,” already given over to subject matter which has little contemporary relevance on any level: the satire no longer applies and the painting is simply a series of hommages to the old masters, in some cases not very well understood. (Anyone who thinks that “Rembrandt’s forms are of necessity massive-sculptural” does not have an infallible notion of what the old masters were up to.) Levine’s paintings represent ideas which he has had in his head for years; they represent an idea of reality, social reality, on which he has not allowed the brute facts of experience to make the slightest alteration. It rather confirms one’s suspicion that “social realism” is one of the most extreme forms of mannerism in modern painting.

If Levine’s sense of reality gave him no warning that his subject matter had lost its urgency, his phenomenal success should have. For after Ben Shahn, one would be hard-pressed to name another American painter today whose work is so conspicuously present in the major museum and private collections in this country—and purchased, one must add, at prices which stagger the imagination as his pictures never do. But it is characteristic of this kind of “liberal” artist in our time—one thinks of Arthur Miller on Broadway—never to allow the success of his work to give him pause; never to interrupt the warm glow it must give him to utter what seem heresies; never to face the possibility that what is being said is no longer heresy but the most easily digestible cliché of the public imagination.

With his subject matter stabilized (a curious turn of events for a “social realist”), Levine has been free to dwell more and more on the mannered details of his pictures, and the zenith of this concentration is reached in “Reception in Miami.” Of all the improbabilities imagined during the Federal Art Project, none would have strained credulity more than a “social realism” gone rococo—but that is precisely where this picture has brought it.

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By temperament and achievement, Hyman Bloom is an artist of another sort, and the juxtaposition of his pictures with Levine’s at the Whitney exhibition only served to underscore this difference. In some ways, Levine is the perfect foil for Bloom’s talent, for by contrast it makes his art seem to have a purity and relevance it actually lacks. Ultimately, I think, Bloom is a victim of the same problem as Levine—of conceiving his commitment to modernism in terms of a “modernist” subject. Yet even as victim he is so much more interesting than Levine, he brings to the art of painting such a richer personality and promise, and demonstrates so much more forthright a painterly energy in struggling with his academic past, that we are moved to lament again the rather flimsy excuse which prompted museum officials to bring them together. It represents indeed the triumph of schmaltz over their critical faculties.

What Bloom has brought to contemporary painting in this country is a fastidious, wellbred, literary mode of expressionism; and this, in turn, cannot help seeming isolated and special in its relation to the greatest modern painting, on the one hand, and to recent American painting, on the other. Consequently, Bloom is a painter historically à rebours.

Of his two early teachers, it was for Zimmermann that Bloom felt more affinity. Perhaps in some way Zimmerman made certain modern influences—above all Rouault’s, and also Soutine’s—assimilable to Bloom. He certainly never fostered such influences directly, but as a painter himself one has the impression that he must have been more explicitly concerned with fresh problems than with pieties for the past. Or perhaps Bloom’s own artistic personality was strong enough to incline in a direction about which his reverence for the old masters must have made him deeply hesitant. In any event, these two painters, Rouault and Soutine, constitute the extremity of Bloom’s modern vocabulary; and his art needs to be seen, I think, as an attempt to effect a resolution of conflicting reverence and sensibility.

Yet it should be recognized at the outset that in selecting Rouault, of all the modern French painters, as a figure for emulation, Bloom selected a painter who is himself one of the isolated talents of the modern movement. Rouault’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953 revealed him to be a painter of the second rank; a religious sentimentalist disguised as a tragedian. As for Soutine, it is clear that what Bloom saw in this master was not his more powerful expressive energies; powerful enough, that is, to indicate an entirely new way for organizing and executing an easel painting; but simply a vision, looser, more chaotic than some, more given to indulgence, but essentially traditional and “spiritual” like Rouault’s. Contrasted with the ideas which a younger painter like Philip Pearlstein has proliferated out of Soutine, one is inclined to feel that Bloom was never really touched by the master at all.

Under this burden of reverence for the achievements of the past and attachment to modern influences which are themselves easily neutralized by this reverential attitude, Bloom has fabricated a subject matter to serve as a style. This subject matter is chiefly concerned with explicit Jewish themes—synagogue scenes, rabbis, etc.—and a brooding over mutilated corpses and putrefied limbs which, in turn, are considered to have been inspired by the spectacle of Hitler’s massacre of the Jews.

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Of the so-called Jewish pictures, the best is “The Rabbi,” painted in 1947, for the face in that picture is a truly painted image, and its qualities of sadness and authority are as much dependent on the texture and finesse of the painting as on the artist’s literary ideas. At the same time one cannot escape the feeling that an appeal is being made in this picture for a response which is extra-artistic; and this feeling is even more emphatic in the presence of a genre picture like the “Synagogue” of 1940. In the latter, one can imagine the “charm” it must hold for the Gentile observer: the distortions of physiognomy, with a play upon a Semitic “look” which, by a skillful use of light, is given a surface of theatrical agony; the stylization in the grouping of figures and ornament (which, again, seems excessively stagey); the over-all exoticism of the scene, with the most being made of ornament and dress; and all executed in a manner which allows for a certain “added” painterly interest to be imposed on the careful, stage-like representations. To the “foreign” eye, which brings no associations to it, it must be as absorbing as a kosher dinner—a matter of taste. But for the observer who has associations with this imagery from childhood onwards, Bloom’s Jewish paintings stimulate the same surprise and dismay one feels on finding gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party. It’s a bit too stylish to be palatable.

A similar failing occurs in the pictures concerned with corpses and limbs in states of dismemberment and putrefaction. Just as one senses in the literal Jewish subjects an appeal for us to respond to something outside the artist’s work, one feels in the presence of these “mortality” images an insistent invitation to be horrified. My own reaction is to decline the invitation. And this reaction, I need hardly add, has nothing to do with callousness toward an historical calamity of the greatest magnitude; it has, on the contrary, everything to do with the basis on which a work of art makes its appeal. My feeling is that in these pictures, too, no less than in the others, the effect is merely an effect of décor; and it is lamentable to see Bloom’s sense of color, especially, placed in the service of charging this invitation with a maximum urgency. I am reminded of what Henry James once wrote about Baudelaire, that “evil for him . . . consists primarily of a great deal of lurid landscape and unclean furniture . . . an affair of blood and carrion and physical sickness—there must be stinking corpses and starving prostitutes and empty laudanum bottles in order that the poet shall be effectively inspired.”

As an account of Baudelaire, I don’t think this takes us very far; but as a way of indicating the sort of false appeal concealed in Bloom’s cadaver series, it is entirely to the point, for it assigns this lurid scenery to its proper place—to décor, to surface felicities inverted for additional effect. What James goes on to observe, that “Our impatience is of the same order as that which we should feel if a poet, pretending to pluck ‘the flowers of good,’ should come and present us, as specimens, a rhapsody on plumcake and eau de Cologne”—this suddenly reminds us that Bloom’s whole effort here is toward upsetting our traditional expectations of beauty in a work of art. But this effort is of a kind consistent with his academic past and with his reluctance to confront the hazards of modernism on its own ground; it makes no new demands on his energies as a painter but simply turns up another literary subject, loaded with moral implication, as a means of committing his art to contemporary life.

It can scarcely be without cause that Bloom’s most successful paintings are his least programmatic: I mean his “Christmas Tree” and “Chandelier” series. The latter, I suspect, issue from his synagogue pictures; relieved here of circumstantial details and stagey effects, they become occasions for his purest painting. Even more than in the “Christmas Tree” pictures, which tend to lose their formal coherence, the two “Chandelier” paintings have an elegance which is dependent on nothing outside their own color and form. To be sure, the formal idea is not audacious; the image of the chandelier is placed frontally on the surface and surrounded by a symmetrical pattern which clearly indicates a ceiling or wall. But perhaps because of this lack of audacity, just because the idea is so “minor,” Bloom could feel free to execute the image with a richness and purity which his more ambitious works never attain. In “Chandelier I,” particularly, Bloom’s well-bred expressionism finds a handsome embodiment, indicating perhaps that his fulfillment will in the future depend on an abandonment of grand ideas.

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On the Horizon: Bloom and Levine: The Hazards of Modern Painting via @commentarymagazine
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