Born in Preuzlau, Germany in 1867, Oscar Bluemner emigrated to the United States in 1892, the same year he won the Royal Medal in Germany for his painting of an architectural subject. This architectural thread ran throughout Bluemner's career as a painter, as he began to abstract his architectural forms into clearly delineated shapes. He also began to integrate landscapes into his paintings, which he refined in terms of pure color. During the last two decades of his life, Bluemner simplified his compositions and intensified his colors, producing powerful works that are often considered the best and most important of his career. Painted in 1934, Contrasts (Two Spaces) combines architectural elements with the natural landscape, manifesting the artist's unique use of color and form and exemplifying Bluemner's mature style.
Bluemner's early work in America consisted of abstracted landscapes in watercolor, but a trip to Europe in 1912 exposed him to Expressionism, which led to the development of his very personal painting style using primary colors. By 1908, Oscar Bluemner established himself as a major American Modernist when Alfred Stieglitz chose to represent him at his legendary Gallery 291. Bluemner's New York period culminated with the inclusion of five paintings in the seminal Armory Show of 1913, followed by his first one man show at 291 in 1915. In 1916 he exhibited at the prestigious Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters. Even though his work from these years assured Bluemner's standing as one of the country's leading Modernists, it was his subsequent work from the twenties and thirties that embody the intensity of Bluemner's emotion and have achieved iconic status.
The year 1925 was pivotal for Bluemner when his wife Lina died suddenly. The artist's grief and despair had a profound effect on him, and Bluemner strove to express his grief and intense emotions through the colors in his subsequent body of work. He sought to capture in these paintings the contrasts between life and death, unrest and peace, physical and spiritual. Bluemner devised a chart that linked colors with psychological properties: he associated red with power, vitality and passion; blue with serenity; yellow with aggression; green with relaxation and rest and violet with unrest. By the 1920's Bluemner's repeated motifs of landscapes, houses, and trees were not only meant as strong visual statements, but were also purposely composed and painted by the artist to represent and communicate intense personal emotions and moods. In Contrasts (Two Spaces), high intensity reds in the building at left are juxtaposed with serene blues and greens in the landscape at right, creating a yin-yang juxtaposition of passion and calmness.
Unlike other artists of the Stieglitz Circle, Bluemner did not achieve success comparable to his peers in his lifetime. Despite some commercial accomplishment, such as the 1932 acquisition of Composition by the Whitney Museum of American Art, people found Bluemner's volatile personality difficult to bear, and he did not sell many paintings. In the face of personal and financial strife, however, Bluemner's art was met with high acclaim. In 1935, the artist held his last solo show at the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York, and press response was spectacular. Art critic Margaret Bruening wrote: "His 'Landscapes' are only points of departure to regions of subjective imagery ably sustained by the artist's color patterns. Houses or trees may be red or green, skies may be blue or crimson, it does not matter, for the artist is not attempting to set down any realistic account of the world but an orchestration of brilliant colors, usually played in the upper reaches of the scale with big rashing chords of black to sustain the theme. When Gauguin painted a violet-colored horse he affirmed the right of the modern artist to occupy himself with his own reactions to the world, rather than with its faithful delineation: in these canvases, which are only color improvisations, and very handsome ones, upon landscape themes, this point of view is emphasized." ("Paintings by Bluemner at Harriman Gallery," New York Post, January 13, 1935 as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 72)
In 1938 following a painful and debilitating illness, Bluemner took his own life. The artist's last published words encapsulate his unique style: "I paint my attitude. I try to say in paint through our environment here what came with me from Europe, what re-shaped itself here, in forty-five years...I should be a writer, I would be a composer, but being all retina, I saw it all as color." (as quoted in Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, p. ix) Contrasts (Two Spaces) stands out among Bluemner's most daring and reductive late landscapes. Its semiabstract qualities reflect the artist's mature interest in his expression through color.