Author Q&A: Robert Cozzolino, Peter Blume

15310Today's Q&A is with Robert Cozzolino, Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the editor of Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis. Peter Blume was a Russian American artists who was one of the earliest practitioners of surrealist painting in the United States. His elaborately detailed and dreamlike compositions helped define American Modernist art. Blume worked out the themes of his ambitious large-scale paintings through dozens of drafts in different media, slowly developing layers of allegory and imagery that dramatized the creative process, cultural memory, urban expansion, destruction, rebirth, and political power. Showcasing over a hundred paintings and drawings, as well as sketches, sculpture, and ephemera from all periods of his six-decade career, Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis provides unprecedented insight into the artist's process, his relationship to Surrealism, and his profound visions of twentieth-century social and spiritual upheaval. The book accompanies an exhibit ongoing at PAFA through April 5, 2015.

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Penn Press: Why do you think Peter Blume’s work is important? What does he bring to American contemporary art?

Robert Cozzolino: Blume was central to the development and reception of modernism in the United States. His career is inextricably tied to this narrative, although he had largely been retroactively pushed to the margins arbitrarily by critics (largely in the 1950s–'70s). His earliest patrons were collectors like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the founding patrons of the Museum of Modern Art, and others who were leading collectors of the day, interested in unusual, risk-taking new art. Blume was right there at the beginning of shaping Americans’ consciousness of what subjects/styles could be modern and of what modern art was. His work was controversial because of both style and content; and he was recognized as an important peer by others who admired what he did and what he stood for.

He made politically-engaged art, art about the psychological states we experience, and made realism “conceptual.” What he meant by that is he took renderings he made from experiences in many different places and times and mixed them in to a painting to seem like one contiguous whole. He said he used imagery and ideas as someone else might use color and shape in an abstraction.

This is the exhibition I have wanted to do most since I became a curator. I grew up in Chicago seeing Blume’s painting The Rock (1945–48) at The Art Institute and was captivated by it. Later on, when I became an art history major in college, I switched my emphasis from Northern Renaissance art to American art in part because I kept being drawn into the modern galleries there and spent a lot of time looking at The Rock. It is a dream project—a rare thing—that has actually happened here. PAFA is appropriate because the institution has historically been committed to presenting new perspectives on American artists and we love to draw attention to artists whose reputations are unjustly obscure. Blume is ready for rediscovery; PAFA is a place that values this kind of work and presenting the unexpected to audiences.

I have spoken with many artists, including such figures as Peter Saul, who cite Blume as an influence on the kind of politically or socially engaged, eccentric, and visually stunning narrative painting they did in the 1960s and beyond. Many artists and visitors to the show have remarked on how fresh and current Blume’s work looks—and they have especially noted how flexible and willing to try multiple approaches to art-making he was; Blume is an artists’ artist—a cliché that actually holds true in the best sense in his example.

How was Blume involved with Surrealism in America? Did he have any contact with the European Surrealists?

The answer is indirect—curious detachment; yes and no. Peter Blume was part of many different overlapping artistic communities throughout his long life. He met many of the American and European artists and writers who were directly involved with the Surrealist movement but always remained an independent. Blume was aware of Surrealism at least by 1928, likely even earlier. Some writers and poets that Blume met in Greenwich Village had translated the Surrealist manifestoes and poetry into English or had met the Surrealists in Paris (Malcolm Cowley, for instance). When critics began writing about his work in 1930 they associated his style with the movement because of his precise technique and juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements (the abrupt changes in scale and setting in South of Scranton, for instance). Blume always insisted that his work was based on actual experience and observation, consciously reordered at will. He maintained that he did not paint dream imagery, derive his subjects from the unconscious, or use symbols related to psychoanalysis. Despite this, the Surrealists were interested in him and likely considered him a potential American recruit. The writer Philippe Soupault wrote a profile of him for a French art journal in 1932; Soupault had been a founding member of the Surrealist movement and a pioneering practitioner of automatic writing.

In the 1940s Blume found himself in the midst of a community in Western Connecticut that included several artists who were directly involved in the Surrealist movement or participants lingering on its edges. Alexander Calder, whom Blume had met in the 1920s as a fellow student at the Art Students League, lived in Roxbury; André Masson and his family settled in New Preston to flee war-torn Europe; Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy also settled in Woodbury for the same reason; Arshile Gorky moved to Sherman, the same town in which Blume lived, in 1944. Blume saw them frequently and they saw Blume’s work. Curiously, Blume started making automatic drawings in 1940, around the time in which these artists began living in Connecticut, although the impetus had much to do with personal problems he was having with his own work, the war, and a commission. My essay on The Rock in the book tells that story.

Who were Blume’s primary influences?

Blume’s influences were cubism, 14th–16th century Italian, Flemish, and German painting. He also looked closely at the work of his American contemporaries and tried to find something of value in a wide range of art; in 1951 he was on the jury at the Art Institute of Chicago that selected Willem De Kooning’s Excavation as the prize winner for the Annual American Exhibition—a juried exhibition of contemporary American painting. Italy remained a special source of inspiration after his initial Guggenheim Fellowship trips there in the early 1930s. He returned frequently in the 1950s–1970s. Many of his major works of the period are homages to Italian art and culture, such as Tasso’s Oak and Recollection of the Flood. Works such as Summer (1966) and Recollection of the Flood (1967–69) show that Blume was paying attention to 1960s painting, taking what he felt useful in it, and integrating it with his own method.

Did Peter Blume’s personal background as a Russian immigrant have any significant effect on his artwork?

Blume’s Russian roots do not seem to have been critical to his artwork; his Jewish background was, although he did not make it an overt part of his identity or subject matter. Samantha Baskind’s essay in the book tackles this topic, which is complex. Blume’s family does not seem to have practiced ritual; but the cultural aspect of his background was ingrained and came out in a predilection for themes of renewal, destruction, growth, transformation. We know he was familiar with the Old Testament; but Blume does not seem to have written about spirituality anywhere; he went out of his way to avoid being pinned down!

Can you describe Blume’s formal artistic education, if he had one? Under whom did he study?

One of the remarkable and mysterious aspects of Blume’s career is how little formal training he seems to have had; while many of his contemporaries had years and years of training often at multiple schools, Blume attended the Educational Alliance [The Educational Alliance is a community institution in New York City, originally established to help Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe acclimate to life in the U.S. The Art School there was founded in 1895.] and the Art Students’ League, but neither for very long. What seems to have made a difference and supplemented that education was his total immersion in a studio practice early on (by age 18) and close relationships with artist friends with whom he shared ideas and whose work he saw frequently. He also visited museums and galleries constantly, and he seems to have learned a great deal from these trips and experiences of close looking.

What distinguishes Blume’s style from that of his Surrealist contemporaries?

Blume was forthright that he had no interest in or intention to depict his unconscious or dreams. He was not pursuing the irrational but rather painted his version of reality. Everything in his pictures was observed first-hand before any liberties were taken; mostly these have to do with their coexistence in a space that they didn’t previously occupy together.

Can you explain what automatism is and how it functioned in Surrealist thought?

Automatism is one of the most influential contributions of the Surrealists. It refers to making drawings (in Blume’s case) in a trance like or half-waking state, without consciously directing one’s hand; allowing for spontaneous unconscious markmaking that might reveal something of the direct pool of inspiration, id, subconscious, true self. Making without a filter, without predetermination. It had clinical applications in psychiatry and especially during WWI to treat trauma and shell-shocked soldiers.

What were Blume’s views toward other aspects of Surrealism (for example, literature, music, theater, films)?

This does not seem to have been recorded. Blume was on top of art of his time; he likely saw/knew this stuff, but he did not talk about it specifically.

In what ways does Blume manifest “nature” and “metamorphosis” in his art?

Blume always maintained that nature and its capacity for growth, regeneration, etc. was a tremendous inspiration, especially in the work from The Rock onward. I believe he saw analogies in nature that he felt related to the story of humanity, from the dawn of recorded time, in folklore and myth and through the contemporary moment.

For the average educated Westerner, it is not too difficult to remember artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Degas, and Monet, despite the passage of time. In a century from now, where do you think Blume will fall in our collective cultural memory?

The hope I have for projects such as the Peter Blume retrospective and book is that it stimulates new interest in the artist’s enormous achievement and rich output. I always view my work as providing a new launching point for a new generation of viewers and scholars to take Blume in new directions. I think the work is strong enough to inspire this. I think in 100 years that Blume will be remembered for producing some of the most important and gorgeous images of the twentieth-century. I think the way people think about modernism and what constituted modern art will be much less constricted than it is today. Blume’s role is critical to that.

I have often been asked why there hasn’t been a major exhibition of his work since 1976. In part it just happens to be the nature of the art world’s ups and downs, trends and values that shift from time to time. Believe it or not, the field of American art was still relatively sleepy and still revving up at the time of Blume’s death in 1992. Attention had been given to 19th-century stalwarts like Eakins, Homer, Cassatt, Whistler, Sargent, abstract expressionists, and the Stieglitz circle, but solid scholarship was still lagging on others like Blume—who doesn’t conveniently fit into a bin or with a label—or even popular figures like Andrew Wyeth or Grant Wood. This is how I put it in my foreword to the catalogue:

Peter Blume died in 1992. This is the first major posthumous exhibition of his work. The art world, which once considered him its darling, has not yet come to terms with his work and its legacy. This publication and the accompanying exhibition are a step in the right direction. They represent the first retrospec­tive of Blume’s work since 1976 and only his second monograph. During the last few decades of Blume’s career, a narrow image of what constituted modernism dominated American art history and exhibitions of the subject. Discussions of how artists painted rather than what they painted often took precedence. Many writers uncritically asserted that artists who maintained a careful attention to craft and depicted recognizable imagery were irrelevant to discussions of modernism. American art history has shifted to reject such a dogmatic viewpoint. The field is more inclusive of unusual approaches, it encourages close readings of artists who have been marginalized, and it supports ways of seeing that bring together artists who would never have been considered in the same breath even ten years ago.

This is healthy, but it has been a modest step toward undoing a cycle of repeti­tion that privileges the same unchallenged modernist narrative. The tendency to fall back on artists who have dominated the postwar marketplace in the museum world, in academia, and in the commercial gallery system is strong. In this environ­ment it is rare and valuable that curators are supported by institutions that believe in changing and expanding how we see art history, remembering and reconstruct­ing the trajectory of artists’ careers, and reminding audiences of the pluralism that has always existed in American art. I am grateful that I work at a museum that not only values this impulse but also encourages it.

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Robert Cozzolino is Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis is available now, and the accompanying exhibition will be on display through April 5, 2015.