Contradiction is the heart of the work of Hyman Bloom. The mind recoils at what the eye drinks in: Radiant color swiped in exultant strokes, greedily lapped up while rot and violence abound. Rational thought might provoke revulsion, or at least a little guilt. Bloom’s favorite subject: The human body freshly released from the grip of death, often flayed and purpling, flesh turned inside out. But Bloom’s work is not a rational thing. It’s an instinctive pursuit of beauty deep within the mortal terror of the inevitable. And it is beautiful, and terrible, and that tension leaves a mark. It’s what makes it art.
A sharply-honed display of this, Bloom’s most powerful work, opened earlier this month at the Museum of Fine Arts. Called “Matters of Life and Death,” it’s a dark paean to the limelight-shunning late Boston painter at apogee. That it provokes, stirs, disturbs, only makes it more compelling. It argues, convincingly, for nothing less than the widening of the canon of Modern American art, with Bloom, ever relegated to the sidelines, pulled closer to the center.
How he fell to the side is worth asking. As sharp as the show might be, postwar American Modernism is even more slim and pointed. In the 1942 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Americans,” 13 of Bloom’s paintings were included, two of which MoMA bought. Time magazine called him “a striking discovery.” He was famously shy and allergic to self-promotion (Time described him as living “a hermit-like existence in a Boston slum”), but there were larger forces at work.
As Bloom entered his prime, he was working in Boston with Abstract Expressionism ascendant in New York. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were rising from the aftermath of a world riven by World War II. Quickly, it would be the movement that eclipsed all others, leaving those who rejected it on the outside of American art’s most dominant moment.
Among them, of course, was Bloom. There was surely formal kinship — ravishing color, gestural verve — and personal admiration. Pollock and Willem de Kooning considered Bloom “the first Abstract Expressionist” in a 1954 interview with Yale University professor Bernard Chaet. But Bloom, who called abstract painting “emotional catharsis, with no intellectual basis” in the 2005 book “Boston Modern,” wasn’t having it. It doesn’t take much, whether by logic or gut instinct, to see why.
Pollock may have embraced abstraction because, as he famously said in a 1950 interview with William Wright, “the modern painter cannot express this age . . . in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.” But Bloom, clearly, disagreed. I’m with him. Amid the tumult of technological advancement and brutally efficient warfare that had just dispatched tens of millions, the body — upright in defiance, broken by conflict, mounded in mass graves — is constant. And the body, in all its fleshy contradictions — inside and out, life and death — was Bloom’s domain.
And so as abstraction blossomed in New York, Bloom stayed in Boston, rooted and turning inward. It’s a contrast of hubris and diffidence, and more. The Abstract Expressionists seized the moment to tear it all down, start fresh, make anew, though in the widening aftermath of the Modern shockwaves, we know it’s not so simple. Bloom, meanwhile, felt kinship with a continuum, old as time, in the representation of the human form.
As Bloom studied the body, he also studied art. “Matters of Life and Death” shows a young Bloom literally taking apart the human form in virtuosic figure studies, muscle groups stacked and swollen in furious action. His dark torrents of charcoal evoke Goya; his eviscerated bodies, the anatomical studies of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Rembrandt’s vivid dissection paintings. An early piece here, “Skeleton,” from 1936, feels almost like an archeological excavation, dried bones tucked neatly in a box centuries ago. Its claustrophobic confines are surely an echo of Hans Holbein’s “Dead Christ in a Tomb,” from the early 16th century.
Bloom was a supremely talented draftsman, matching old masters line for line. He tracked their methods as well as their technique, visiting morgues and attending human dissections at medical schools. In a short video in the show, his friend, the artist David Aronson, recalls visiting a morgue with Bloom for one of the first times, and how the ripening color of cadavers undergoing autopsy seemed to spark something akin to jubilation in his friend.
It was part dissection laboratory, part holy ground — for Bloom, one and the same. He saw, in death, possibility, but also much more: In the continuum of art-making in which he had inserted himself, he also saw the cosmic churn between the living and the dead, a cycle of existence poetic in its regularity, soothing in its inexorable rhythm.
When I look at Bloom’s paintings, I don’t see gore, violence, depravity, and darkness, though there have been many who disagree (residents of Buffalo, say, who in 1954 lobbied to have Bloom’s retrospective at the Albright Gallery shut down). What I see instead, at his best, is a master painter in supreme balance between intention and emotion, tracking both on the canvas in deliberate, exuberant strokes.
You’ll see art history old and new here: In Bloom’s 1945 piece “A Leg,” the severed limb clamped on an examination table, I saw an echo of another Abstract Expressionist breakaway, Philip Guston, which I loved. But the show saves its best for last, a somber space in low light where the artist’s technical mastery and visceral joy comingle with vibrant force.
Works here will imprint on your psyche: the soft precision of “Female Cadaver” from 1953, a near life-size ochre drawing of a woman’s body, split as though unzipped at the rib cage, from clavicle to pelvis — its delicate shading, its disarming serenity. (The male counterpart, “Cadaver II,” entrails dangling, lacks its quietude, but stirs in a different way.)
The drawings fill in space between a series of explosive paintings, as though to give you a chance to catch your breath. At one end of the gallery hangs “Cadaver on a Table,” from 1953, a body arched away from the viewer, its graying flesh framing the river of color radiating from a torso torn open. At the other end, “The Hull,” from 1952, a body lain prone, chest cavity splayed, ribs poised like a set of claws as a gloved hand brandishes a knife.
They should be awful. They’re not. They’re mesmerizing, awash in radiant hues — Bloom honoring, maybe, the earthly vessel that bears the soul. The interplay between inside and out is clear: sallow skin giving way to a luminous realm beneath, energy released by the slice of a scalpel.
Looking at these paintings immediately put me in mind of another frank and visceral painter, Francis Bacon, whose towering presence in the Modern canon is virtually unrivaled. Bacon and Bloom showed together in large group shows, including one in Boston in 1960. But they were paired one-to-one just once, at a show the same year at the University of California Los Angeles, which seems odd for so natural an aesthetic alliance. How did Bacon boom and Bloom fizzle? Stories are hard to change once they’re told, and while British Modernism favored the body — along with Bacon, the fleshy figures of Lucian Freud come to mind — in the United States, abstraction reigned supreme.
Had Bloom relocated to be with his closer kin, might we be telling a different story? Maybe. Bloom never cared so much for accolades or even approval, lost deep in his own work and pursuit of a visceral sublime. “The miracle of my life,” Bloom once said, is “a state of mind where everything is beautiful.” He made himself part of the project. His “Self-Portrait” here, from 1948, is a body freshly flayed and seen from behind, bursting with fiery tones, like a forest burning in the dark of night. That was Bloom: Amid the spectre of death, never more alive.
HYMAN BLOOM: MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Feb. 23, 2020. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org