Today'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.