Museums are always turning art into a story. In permanent collections, the pictures illustrate a historical narrative. In a retrospective, they tell the story of an individual artist and, in a special exhibition, that of a time or place or idea. But there’s also a tough story of natural selection that rarely surfaces—the drama of which artists survive. Who flourishes over time? Who flickers intermittently? Who fades into the footnotes?
A serious museum must keep that story fresh or its collection becomes just another picture book. In the drama of survival, the struggle among the marginal artists is particularly fascinating and often fierce. Oscar Bluemner (1867–1938) and John Graham (1886–1961) are two American modernists from the first half of the twentieth century who, though known to professionals, rarely break into wider public view. Each worked during a dark period in the American art world, a time of poverty and obscurity, and each tried to bring a new radiance to a dull-eyed provincial society. In “Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color,” now at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the curator Barbara Haskell is engaged in a classic effort to raise Bluemner into the inner circle—to make him the peer of the early American modernists Hartley, Marin, Dove, and O’Keeffe.
A German architect who came to America in 1892, Bluemner designed buildings in an august but conventional turn-of-the-century idiom, among them the Bronx Borough Courthouse. In middle age, embittered by a lawsuit, he turned away from architecture and toward painting, searching for the sort of mystical luminosity that also enchanted other early American modernists. However, he never left behind his architectural passion for the strict line and the controlled composition. Painting in New Jersey and Massachusetts, he developed a lush and swirling palette of intense reds and blues that he imbued with a murky symbolic meaning. A red house might represent the “ego” and become a stand-in for the masculine, for example, while the blue forms seem to have represented the eternal female principle.
Alfred Stieglitz exhibited Bluemner’s work, but, though the painter achieved some critical success, he made very little money. He suffered terribly. He became a crank. And it did not help, in the nationalist America of the time, that he was a German. After his death, Bluemner was soon forgotten. (This is his first retrospective.) Haskell’s exhibit will not convince many people that he’s a great artist, but I don’t think that matters at all. He’s a serious artist who found one remarkable note. He developed his own distinctive red, a luminous color that seems somehow constrained or held in place, like the light in a ruby or the fire in a carefully constructed oven. That constraint is wonderful—we like our fires contained—but is also a weakness. The greatest art-mystics risk delirium; they provide more release to the imagination than Bluemner does. His red never finally challenges the frame, which, in an artist of his kind, seems a failure of nerve.
John Graham, currently the subject of a captivating show called “Sum Qui Sum” at the Allan Stone Gallery, became one of the great eccentrics of twentieth-century New York. An incorrigible narcissist, he was an immigrant from Ukraine who concocted a dazzling aristocratic persona in Depression-era New York. (He would dress exquisitely for the annual May Day parade staged by the communists and, raising a beautifully gloved fist, exclaim, “We want bread!”) Graham was a kind of cultural alchemist, helping impoverished artists dream big dreams and stimulating them to recast themselves. He brought to New York enlarging ideas about the primitive, the unconscious, and the latest formal developments in European art. As an artist himself, he was wildly uneven—he rarely appears in the permanent collections—but he made some images of women that, like Bluemner’s red houses, are not quite like anything else in art. The current show contains some of his erotic drawings, which are amusing if you are a Grahamophile, but, more important, it has several of his best portraits of women. Graham took Picasso’s classical depictions of women and bewitched them. They go askew. They develop a private sense of measure. His women are cross-eyed, lost in dreams and the thoughts that reach beyond the pale.
Museums should also contain oddities—exotics, in danger of extinction, who occupy a fragile niche in the culture of art. I’d rather see a good Graham than a minor Pollock, a good Bluemner than a second-rate O’Keeffe. They enrich the forest.