Norman Bluhm (1921-1999)
Property from the Estate of Norman Bluhm
Norman Bluhm (1921-1999)

Winter Nights

Norman Bluhm (1921-1999)
Winter Nights
signed 'bluhm 59' (lower right of right panel); signed and dated again 'bluhm 59' (on the reverse of each panel) and titled 'winter nights' (on the reverse of the central panel)
triptych--oil on canvas
overall: 96 x 144 in. (243.8 x 365.7 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
K. Baker, "Second Generation: Mannerism or Momentum?", Art in America, June 1985, pp. 104, 106 (illustrated in color).
J. Harithas, R. Rubenstein and L. Sansone, Norman Bluhm, Milan, 2000, pp. 21, 25, 31, 35 and 51 (illustrated in color).
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Norman Bluhm, 1960.
Chicago, Young Hoffman Gallery, Around 10th Street: Abstract Impressionism in the 1950s, 1976.
Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum; Worcester Art Museum; New York, Grey Art Gallery, New York University; Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Austin, Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York 1955-60, June 1984-February 1986, pp. 64-65, no. 6 (illustrated in color).
Bronxville, Sarah Lawrence College Art Gallery, Inner Worlds, Fantastic Landscapes of the 1950s, 1987.
Mexico City, Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, Leo Castelli y sus Artistas: XXX años de promoción del arte contemporáneo, June-October 1987, pp. 114-115 and 274 (illustrated in color).
New York, Washburn Gallery, Works from the 1950s, 1990.
Youngstown, Butler Institute of American Art, Norman Bluhm: A Tribute Exhibition, March-April 1999, p. 6 (illustrated in color).
Sale room notice
Please note the correct dimensions for this lot: 96 x 144 in. (243.8 x 365.7 cm.)

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming Norman Bluhm, Catalogue Raisonne of Paintings edited by John Yau.

Winter Night

It snowed and snowed , the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

As during summer midges swarm
To beat their wings against a flame
Out in the yard the snowflakes swarmed
To beat against the window pane

The blizzard sculptured on the glass
Designs of arrows and of whorls.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

Distorted shadows fell
Upon the lighted ceiling:
Shadows of crossed arms,
of crossed legs- Of crossed destiny.

Two tiny shoes fell to the floor
And thudded.
A candle on a nightstand shed wax tears
Upon a dress.

All things vanished within
The snowy murk-white, hoary.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

A corner draft fluttered the flame
And the white fever of temptation
Upswept its angel wings that cast
A cruciform shadow

It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

1946, Boris Pasternak

"Bluhm is the only artist working in the idiom of abstract-expressionism who has a spirit similar to that of Pollock, which is to say that he is out,---beyond beauty, beyond composition, beyond the old-fashioned kind of pictorial ambition".
(Frank O'Hara, 1962, as quoted in F. O'Hara, Standing Still and Walking in New York, New York, 1983).

In 1959 Bluhm created several considerable triptychs, Winter Nights, Chicago and The Anvil; by introducing the three panel format he effectively disrupted "prevailing assumptions about how to make a painting, and also modernist assumptions of wholeness" (R. Rubenstein, "Ecstatic Meditations: Norman Bluhm's paintings over five decades", Norman Bluhm, Milan, 2000, p. 22). These three triptychs are not only the most ambitious of his works created up to that date in terms of scale, they also introduce a more open and orchestrated arrangement of color and paint application. By 1959 "Bluhm emerged as a stylistically individual painter... Allover structure gave way to what has been termed 'centrifugal' compositions" (Ibid, p. 21). Titled Winter Nights at the suggestion of Frank O'Hara, the New York art world's poet laureate, in reference to Boris Pasternak's classic poem of 1946, Bluhm's masterpiece is literally poetry in motion. With a slashing defiance, Bluhm stakes his claim as a forceful promoter of abstraction, and not a sublimated or liberated form of plein aire painting but a cross into something more akin to Gutai and Fluxus in his very physical and performative act of creation. The arcs of primary color that careen across the surface of Winter Nights are fleeting records of Bluhm's swinging arm and physical acrobatics, the end result is a visually striking document of his actions, executed with complete precision and confidence. Writing of Bluhm's painterly freedom and historical liberty, art critic Barry Schwabsky commented that Bluhm's paintings represent for him "a half-insistent, half-diffident way of flirting with the depiction of space rather than either declaring it or abandoning it, a glance past the absoluteness of any position (whether in the physical or ideological sense)" (Ibid, p. 23).

Winter Nights of 1959 is arguably one of the most successful works created under the rather large umbrella of "Action Painting," coined in the early 1950's by Harold Rosenberg. This idiom was merely a label, but it is prescient when confronted by Bluhms' masterful paintings and specifically those of the late 1950's. Kenneth Baker in his review of the heralded 1985 exhibition Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955-60 recognized that "Bluhm, Goldberg and Leslie each set out to raise the intensity of a received pictorial language to a pitch that would reinvigorate it. Bluhm handled the color and swiping gesture as if it were an idiom of immediate feeling" (K. Baker, "Second Generation: Mannerism or Momentum?" Art in America, June 1985, pp. 105-106). Baker goes on to state that "Bluhm's are the most poignant works in 'Action/Precision' because they seem to reveal so openly the dependence of gestural painting on the complicity of its audience" (Ibid., p. 107).

Bluhm along with his close friends and colleagues Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Zao Wou-ki arrived at their most celebrated moments in near simultaneity during the late 1950's. In Paris in the early 1950's, they spent a considerable amount of time painting and socializing with other contemporaries such as Sam Francis, Samuel Beckett and Alberto Giacometti. Paris was a culturally rich environ in the early 1950's, and at this time Bluhm even appeared in Jean Cocteau's famous film Orphee. This close-knit group of irascibles brought the language of the New York school to Paris and were able to enliven and transform the increasingly dogmatic practice of painting in America due to their critical distance from New York.

James Harithas, former chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, organized the first museum exhibitions of Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell and Salvatore Scarpitta among others and had the following to say of Bluhm in June of 1998:
"An Artist's fundamental task is to create form and infuse it with meaning and emotion. Significant artists not only create beautiful works of art for their own and future generations, but the best of them also communicate a profound spirituality through their art. Especially in this time of rampant materialism, it takes great intensity and imagination to pursue a transcendent art and a willingness to accept the solitary existence fundamental to this quest. Norman Bluhm is such an artist."
(J. Harithas, "Norman Bluhm", Norman Bluhm, Milan, 2000, p. 11).

Norman Bluhm in his studio, 333 Park Avenue South, New York City, 1958. Photograph by George Moffet - Lensgroup.

Norman Bluhm, Joan Michell, and Franz Kline. Photo by Arthur Swoger.

Norman Bluhm, Zao Wou-ki, and Hisao Domoto at a gallery opening circa 1960.

Norman Bluhm in his studio, 333 Park Avenue South, New York City, circa 1959. Photograph by George Moffet - Lensgroup.

Exhibition poster from 1960 Castelli show.

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