Bloom (1913-2009) is a largely forgotten figure. But his brilliance was widely recognized at mid-century. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline all revered him. Elaine de Kooning wrote brilliantly about his early work. The great Renaissance scholar Sydney Freedberg called him “a virtuoso with paint.” And in a letter to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell wrote: “Hyman is awesomely consistent, brilliant, ascetic — more and more people say he is the best painter in America, and so he is.”
Born into an impoverished village of Orthodox Jews in Latvia, Bloom spent his early years living in a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor. He was 7 when his family arrived at Ellis Island in 1920. They settled with Hyman’s two older brothers, who had emigrated before World War I, in a tenement in Boston’s West End, eight people crowded into three rooms.
At school, Bloom’s talent was noticed by his eighth-grade art teacher, who encouraged him to enroll in drawing classes at a community center. The artist Jack Levine, who became Bloom’s close friend, was a fellow student.
Their teacher, Harold Zimmerman, cultivated their talents with an experimental approach. He got them to proceed very slowly, working up their drawings from memory rather than direct observation, with small marks and adjustments, always remaining acutely sensitive to the composition as a whole.
As a teenager, Bloom drew boxers and wrestlers (his two older brothers were body builders) and — in one astonishing drawing included in the show — a titanically muscular man breaking loose from thick ropes on a wheel of torture. For all his best work’s bold painterly freedoms, drawing — and the human figure — remained fundamental to the end.
Through Zimmerman, Bloom met Denman Waldo Ross, a professor at Harvard University. Ross subsidized the boys’ continuing art education. He instructed them in painting one night a week while Zimmerman continued his drawing classes. Zimmerman also took Bloom and Levine to New York, where Bloom was exposed to Chaim Soutine and Georges Rouault, lodestars of his later work.
In his late 20s, Bloom’s career took off. He was painting synagogues, Christmas trees and brides in an idiom that drew on Soutine, Rouault, Marc Chagall and Jean Dubuffet, but that still seemed entirely original. He began winning the support of people such as Dorothy Miller and Alfred Barr, curators at the Museum of Modern Art, and was soon inspiring fellow artists, including the de Koonings and Pollock.
In 1941, Bloom had an experience that profoundly altered both his inner life and the trajectory of his art. His close friend Betty Tovey committed suicide, and her family asked him to identify her body at the morgue.
Bloom had known Tovey for more than a decade. They had shared a house and a studio in Boston. She was well traveled, cosmopolitan, an accomplished violinist and 10 years his senior. The two don’t appear to have been lovers, but Tovey was Bloom’s confidante during a period that saw him wrestle with anxiety and spiritual confusion. As he moved away from practicing Judaism, she shared her interest in metaphysical literature. Bloom began to explore theosophy, Vedanta (one of the main branches of Hindu philosophy) and other forms of spiritualism. He remained a seeker all his life.
His experience seeing Tovey’s body in the morgue led him to regard death from a new and more beautiful perspective. “I had a conviction of immortality,” he wrote, “of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being.”
A glancing observer of Bloom’s art over the next two decades might assume he was obsessed with morbidity and death. And in a way he was. But what really preoccupied him was the profound intertwining, the ultimate indivisibility, of life and death.
Bloom’s view of the body almost as a trap, a disguise to be ravaged and riven, the better to see through it, had plenty of antecedents in European art. Artists of the Northern Renaissance, for instance (most notably Matthias Grünewald), had painted the desperately ruined body of Christ with the specific goal of transcending corporeality. Bloom’s electrifying work can be seen as part of this tradition.
Two years after identifying Tovey’s body in the morgue, Bloom ran into a friend, the artist David Aronson, who was on his way to Boston’s Kenmore Hospital to view dead bodies. He invited Bloom along.
Most accounts of Western art since the Renaissance include the stories of those taboo-breaking artists who, curious about the internal structure of the human body, turned their attention to cadavers, often inciting controversy. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo studied and dissected them. Rembrandt and his Dutch compatriots advanced the tradition in the 17th century.
So the image of two ambitious young Jewish painters in Boston walking together to a hospital to view cadavers is not in itself remarkable. And yet just because the year was 1943, and vast numbers of these two artists’ fellow Jews were being swept up across Europe and sent to concentration camps where they were systematically murdered, it is hard not to be haunted by it.
Bloom did not intend his subsequent paintings — the ones that dominate this show — as a commentary on the Holocaust. Still, revelations about the catastrophe in Europe surely must have fed into his own imagination. And inevitably, our knowledge of those events form part of the prism through which we see them.
The decade after the war saw Bloom produce his strongest work — not just images of corpses and autopsies, but also fascinating, near abstract images of excavated hordes of treasure. These glittering works, built up with gorgeous passages of textured paint, depict their subjects as if laid out horizontally (like a body on a slab) and seen from above.
Bloom was inspired in part by images of recent archaeological discoveries. He gave the paintings such titles as “Archaeological Treasure” and “Treasure Map,” inviting us to see analogies between excavated treasures (and the opalescent glass he especially loved) and the glistening luminosity of the body’s interior.
Ten years after Bloom represented the United States at the Venice Biennale (along with Pollock and de Kooning), he was paired with the British artist Francis Bacon in a show at the University of California at Los Angeles.
How I’d love to see it restaged. Both artists were preoccupied with the abject side of the human body — the body as meat. But Bacon, a thoroughgoing existentialist, didn’t have a spiritual bone in his body. Life, for him, was a form of theater, a game doomed to futility. Bloom, by contrast, thought there was something more. He was a visionary artist, in love with strains of thought that became less and less fashionable to love. He didn’t care about art world success.
When museum curators visited his studio, he famously turned his canvases to the wall. I’ve long wondered: Was Bloom trying to conceal his works from eyes he deemed incapable of understanding? Or did he recognize that his recent things were not quite up to his earlier work?
Perhaps he was just being modest. In the end, like so many genuine seekers, Bloom was going his own way. He saw what he saw. It became less and less important to him that the rest of us see it, too. He produced good things over the following decades. But the works he painted in the decade after World War II remain a great and indelible achievement.
Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death Through Feb. 23 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. mfa.org.