Born in Prussia in 1867, Friedrich Julius Oskar Blümner would win sustained critical attention for his mastery of color as a medium of emotional expression under the Americanized name Oscar Bluemner. Emigrating the United States in 1893, he arrived in Chicago in time to do design work on the Chicago World’s Fair, he quickly decamped for New York, where he set up an architectural practice. He was successful as a builder, but ultimately his interest in painting overtook the financial security offered by his trade. He found the world of architecture – and New York in general – to be dominated by greed and vanity. After winning a commission to design the Bronx Borough Courthouse in 1903, he was cheated of his fees. The episode embroiling him for several years in a legal quagmire, souring him further to his vocation, while also bringing down the borough president for corruption and fraud.
By 1908, Bluemner’s frustration with the betrayals and the crass commercialism of his architectural career began to grate critically against his long-held belief in the spiritual freedom of art. A chance visit to Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 5th Avenue Gallery introduced Bluemner to Stieglitz and his circle. Stieglitz championed vanguard modernism, preferring purity over commercialism, and Bluemner was well primed to engage with the dealer’s viewpoint. The disillusioned architect was quickly absorbed into Stieglitz’s small community of modernists, recalling later, “On that day it dawned upon me that there was still hope.” The sordid world of commercial architecture did him one parting favor, however. Winning a settlement of $7,000 over the contended design for the Bronx Borough Courthouse, Bluemner in 1911 finally had enough money to devote himself fully to painting.
Bluemner’s early mature works, starting in 1911, express much of his indebtedness to both German philosophy and German expressionist painting. Of these early works, few survive as they were originally painted: the artist scraped and sanded down many of their surfaces, reworking them a few years later. Though the fundamentals of Bluemner’s art were already present, the years of 1911-1913 would prove critically important for his development. A 7-month trip abroad in 1912 exposed him to greater European innovation, and he arrived back in New York in time for the 1913 Armory Show. Five of his works were exhibited, but the artist bemoaned the absence or underrepresentation of a number of European modernists, including the Italian Futurists and German Expressionists. Bluemner was beginning to draw the lurid colors of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner into densely cubistic landscapes. While his work had many affinities with Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Bluemner nonetheless repudiated pure abstraction that would become the focus of Der Blau Reiter group’s work. Taking a cue from German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, Bluemner insisted that art must be a synthesis of the inner state of the artist as well as the perceived outer world. Three months after the Armory Show, Stieglitz’s Camera Work ran Bluemner’s criticism of the exhibition, a blistering rebuttal of the conservative backlash against the show. Having thus enunciated his position on aesthetics, he set to work on a new series of canvases.
The international winds, however, were shifting. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 in Europe would cast a dark shadow over the painter. Many of Stieglitz’s circle were greatly disturbed by the specter of war. In addition to the austerity that war brings, the Modernist mission was seen largely as an international movement. Stieglitz had mounted critical exhibitions of modernist work by German and Italian artists as well as the better-known French, and he defied nationalism in favor of the view that true art transcends boundaries. Stieglitz had ambivalent feelings about his own German heritage, and many of his artists, namely Marsden Hartley, held similar conflicted views. As for Bluemner, for his reverence for Hegel, Nietzsche, and Brahms, and his defense of Kirchner and German Expressionism at the Armory Show, made his German heritage distinctly conspicuous. Bluemner’s Germany was certainly neither the Kaiser’s. In hindsight, it is clear that Bluemner’s art would certainly have been denounced along with Beckmann, Klee, and Kirchner as degenerate in the Nazi Germany. But the painter, in 1915, was between peoples. He had never fully integrated himself with his American home, despite having lived in the United States for decades. His Berlin exhibition was met with resistance from German critics: “Not European, so it must be American,” wrote one critic in 1912. (As quoted by Bluemner, 1929) He became a citizen in 1912 and exhibited at the Armory Show as an American; in his Camera Work essay, he speaks of “we,” “us,” and “our” in writing about American art. But as anti-German xenophobia swelled in the war years, Bluemner found that a career of building courthouses and ushering in American modernist painting were not enough. Although he was included in an important group show at Anderson Galleries in 1916, the few sales that resulted were not in support of the aging German immigrant. His dwindling finances forced him to relocate his studio and his family to Bloomfield, New Jersey.
During this period he also simplified his palette. The lemon yellow and rich reds owe something to German Expressionism, but Bluemner mediated his inner light through an almost scientific caution. He was diligent in his choice of paints, rejecting impermanent pigments and extraneous colors. He playful coined a term for himself—poor in dollars but rich in color, he was the first “vermillionaire.” (Bluemner, 1929) He took care, however, not to use vermilion derived from cinnabar, which can be unstable over time, but a cadmium-based approximation. His tendency to use paint right out of the tube was not due to haste or impulse, but careful consideration: he saw that mixing colors greyed them, and so abstained from mixing more than any two pigments at a time. He wrote also that “to ‘mix color with brains’ is like mixing business with sentiment” – that is both sentiment and business suffer for the mixture. (Bluemner, 1929) Whether his process was the result of science or metaphysics, the result is paintings that are unparalleled in their visual intensity.Bluemner’s period in New Jersey was challenging financially but a period of immensely successful painting by an artist finding his full voice. Bluemner had returned, immediately after the Armory Show, to canvases begun as early as 1911, as well as completing the present and other work. In 1915, Stieglitz gave him a solo show at 291, and the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in 1916 was revered as a touchstone in the consolidation of American Modernism. In both of these, as well as 1919’s Bourgeois Galleries exhibition, he was represented by brilliantly-colored semi-abstracted New Jersey landscapes. Bluemner was an urban American artist carving his own way. He used Futurist devices, such as the subdivision of the composition into metered segments, in a way that gestured at the passage of time, but he disdained the cult of the machine that the Italians espoused. His houses and trees play into cubist conventions as well as the synesthesia of Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Synchromism of Stanton MacDonald-Wright. He was certainly aware of these artists: Dove he met through Stieglitz, while MacDonald-Wright’s brother, Willard Huntington Wright, was the curator of the Anderson Galleries show.
The present work is an exemplar work from this high-water mark in Bluemner’s career. Begun earlier in the decade, Perth Amboy was reworked after his return from visiting Germany, France and Italy in 1912, and the purifying experience of participating in the 1913 Armory Show. Additional elements may include the grid-like elements that bifurcate the foliage into a resonating halo of concentric circles, the red horizon and the planar recesses of building in the middle background. The jagged-edged line of the foliage comes direct from Kirchner, while glowing cadmium red forms at right are Bluemner’s signature form. These huddled boxes turn up much of his work, suggesting a place of security and inwardness that Bluemner alluded to often in his writing.
The cave-man-painter, a mere utilitarian ‘artist’, hired artificer-drudge, portraitist, chronicler, technician, with his natural eye-and-hand-camera, required no color, no ‘painting-up’, as little as he required feeling and imagination, but he needed all the wit and calculation of his intelligence so as to deceive the eyes of the tribesman with a clever reproduction and illustration, a record or counterfeit of external physical appearance…he ‘drew’ and thereby created the art of Line. (Bluemner, 1929)The color red was a fixation of the painter, who saw it as the fundamental color. Red is not just primary, but in fact primal. In a parable-like description of his work, the artist described how Primal Woman invented painting as a medium of expressing emotion. This imaginative and expressive enterprise preceded drawing:
His explicit efforts to distance himself from “calculation” and “counterfeit” suggest that it would be improper to attempt to “decode” the colors of his paintings – and likely impossible as well. He ascribes the color red to femininity and emotion, but also to “the ‘red’ superman of Nietzsche, the ‘red’ symphonies of Brahms, the ‘red’ dreams of the Chinese poet.” (Ibid) He saw the color as a tool with which to resist cold and calculating reason, draftsmanship being the tool of science, regimentation, and dehumanization. He did not reject the linear perspective, but saw the role of imagination and emotion as giving life to line and intellect.
Although Bluemner certainly studied the work of Severini and other Futurists, the geometric lattice he imposed upon the landscape was not in the service of frenetic motion. His architectural drawing from the early years of the century demonstrate the hand of a diligent draftsman, and he continued to draw all his life. To complete Morning Light (Dover Hills, October) (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), he produced a charcoal study with meticulous geometries interrupting the form of the picture. With this gridded plan, he returned to a canvas begun earlier in the decade, regimenting its forms into what Barbara Haskell has called a “prismatic lattice.” Although no similar charcoal study survived, Perth Amboy was likely completed through a similar process. (Haskell, p. 66)
Bluemner is known to have described his general working method in a 1916 diary:
1) First, in general, total idea after the motif, real or invented, in color and form, as “throw”
2) Constructive form sketch
3) Tone sketch
4) Color sketch abstract. Motif
5) Charcoal study in full size as pre-work
6) Oil-or watercolor picture after 1 through 5) as judgment tests (As quoted in Haskell, p. 183)
A 1929 diary details the transfer from tonal drawing to canvas:
Tracing or else a perfect lines and shapes drawing based on the enlarged sketch must be made on very thin paper. Then by putting it over reversed own carbon paper upon the smoothed (razored, sandpapered) priming and also laying over the drawing a very transparent tracing paper, upon this the lines are all retraced with pencil. The carbon impress on the priming is drawn over with thin black pen lines in freshly ground (not glue deprived) India ink, quite black. The carbon is removed with bread, soft rubber, and finally with turps (not xylol) or alcohol which degreases the painting. (Ibid, p. 184)
Through this mechanism, the painter fully separated the elements of color and line into two separate processes. Although he did not strictly adhere to these processes for every canvas, the present work shows much the same “prismatic lattice” at work as other works for which the preparatory charcoal drawing survives. The balance between powerful color and studied composition prefigures many developments of the Bauhaus in the 1920s, serving also as an inspiration to American Precisionism and later Color Field painting.
In later years, Bluemner’s compositions would grow more organic and expressionistic, leaving behind the dynamic symmetry of his 1910s. Bluemner left a powerful and lasting mark on early American modernism, sketching both the theory and practice of the direction of painting to come in the following decades.