There are artists who, despite their abundant gifts, seem destined to endure a melancholy fate, and one of them was Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), the subject of a fine exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Bluemner was too “advanced” for the traditionalists at a time when modernism was still a contentious issue, and he was too tactless and outspoken in his relations with the modernists of the Alfred Stieglitz circle to benefit from their support. He remained an archetypal outsider in whatever milieu he frequented.
He was born in Germany, where he was trained as an architect, and it was as an architect that he initially established himself in New York. In 1904, he designed the Bronx Borough Courthouse, but this remained his only major completed work in architecture, which he then abandoned in favor of painting.
In 1910, Bluemner met Stieglitz, whose 291 Gallery was already an established haven for the American avant-garde. Bluemner’s first solo exhibition at 291 came in 1915—a series of eight landscape paintings—and this further confirmed his commitment to painting. So, too, did his contributions to the prestigious Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters.
Yet a variety of vexations continued to make both art and life extremely difficult for Bluemner. Money had always been a problem for him, and it was a problem that became more acute over the course of his career. When he could no longer afford to live in New York, he settled in the New Jersey countryside; and when he could no longer afford the materials he needed for his oil paintings, he turned to watercolor as an alternative. Yet his slide into penury proved irreversible.
Then, too, there was the problem of Bluemner’s German identity. This became especially acute in 1917, when the United States declared war against Germany, which inevitably provoked a terrific wave of anti-German sentiment. This added considerably to Bluemner’s woes. In every respect but one—his painting—he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And even as a painter, he was in some respects ahead of his time. Had he come of age as an artist in the era of color-oriented abstraction, he would very likely have been acclaimed an avant-garde master. The series of paintings called “Suns and Moons,” which Bluemner created in 1926-27, are virtual prototypes for a kind of color abstraction that later became commonplace in American abstract painting.
The show that Barbara Haskell has organized in Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color thus has an interest for us that extends well beyond Bluemner’s personal misfortunes. It’s an exhibition that anyone curious about American modernism will want to see. And Ms. Haskell is to be congratulated, also, for the accompanying catalog. She has triumphantly succeeded in rescuing an ill-fated painter from the tragedies of his life in a way that will allow posterity to appreciate his accomplishments.
Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Feb. 12, 2006.