Shortly after I started this blog I introduced a feature called the Forgotten Artist File. I wanted to explore the work of artists who at one time had been well-known but were currently disregarded by art historians or forgotten altogether. One of the artists I featured was American painter Peter Blume. Perhaps he is most remembered today for his epic painting The Rock (currently in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago), but apart from this one work his art has been little seen for decades. This perhaps will change, though, since the Pennsylvania Academy of FineArts (PAFA) in Philadelphia is currently presenting a large retrospective of his work. Driving home the idea that Blume is largely marginalized is the fact that this show is the first major exhibit of his work in nearly 40 years.
The field of art history can be incredibly selective and, frankly, exclusionary. When covering American art, for example, historians may only choose to cover those periods and artists who, in hindsight, were the most important in furthering new and innovative ideas. Art history texts are also sometimes limited in size, so exclusions may merely be the victim of a limited number of pages. When looking at American art of the 1940s and 50s, Abstract Expressionism clearly comes out as the winner. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (among many others, of course) are the artists who are mentioned today, and still engender theoretical discourse. One could argue that Pollock is discussed as much today as he was when he was still alive. His work was as shocking as it was innovative, and he is rightly remembered as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. But, although Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists made lasting contributions to American art history and art history in general, they were hardly the only artists who were getting attention at the time. Blume, along with artists such as Charles Burchfield, George Tooker, Philip Evergood, Ivan Albright, and Henry Koerner constituted a different art historical narrative of the mid 20th century. Their work was based in realism, but introduced ideas imported from European modernism like abstraction and surrealism. They received recognition and accolades. Their work was collected by major museums (especially the Whitney Museum in New York). But today, they’re hardly mentioned. Open up an art history survey published within the last 20 years and you’re unlikely to find them listed.
It’s surprising to see how quickly this marginalization occurred. In my library I have a copy of the book American Art of the 20th Century by Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, published in 1972 They write extensively about these American surrealists and acknowledge their contributions alongside the work of the Abstract Expressionists (although this is sometimes done grudgingly- they clearly do not like Burchfield’s watercolors). I also own a newer version of the text, re-dubbed simply Modern Art and published 20 years after the other book (Admittedly, these are not identical books, but the authors are the same and many of the same illustrations are used in both). In the newer version, these artists have been almost completely removed, as if their contributions to American art meant nothing. Burchfield and Evergood make the cut, but that’s about it. Abstract Expressionism, though, gets over 10 pages. This is unfortunate, since these artists took European ideas (like surrealism) and re-interpreted them to create something quintessentially American. Below I’ve placed Blume’s South of Scranton next to Yves Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility. It’s not hard to see how European Surrealism inspired Blume:
Show like the current one are important because they remind us that there are many facets to art history besides the grand narrative that art history book usually present. These kinds of shows can re-ignite interest in an artist that was previously forgotten or considered “minor”. This has recently taken place with Charles Burchfield and perhaps now Blume will follow. There’s certainly room for him in art history, if we only know where to look.