A Glimpse Into the Estates of Two 20th-Century Genre Painting Masters

Jack Levine and Hyman Bloom are two of the 20th century’s foremost genre scene painters (painters who depicted everyday life). New York’s ACA Galleries recently became the sole representative of the estates of both Bloom and Levine, who were close friends and shared the ability to marry tradition and modernity in their works, both in execution and subject matter. Levine summed up the tone of their works in his pithy declaration, “I want to remember everything. I’m not a primitive or a space cadet.”

Levine was born to Lithuanian Jewish parents in 1915 and grew up in Boston, in the poor but vibrant South End immigrant community. Like many artists of his generation, Levine worked in the Works Progress Administration, creating public works in order to help move the country out of the Great Depression. Levine’s Social Realist style is multifaceted: it celebrates ordinary people, critiques power and corruption, records life in America, depicts myth and history, and explores realism’s formal boundaries. His 1965 painting Board Room shows a quickly sketched scene of powerful men sharing ideas, with gestures and a compositional structure that resemble Raphael’s School of Athens (ca. 1510-11). Although the image is rendered with an economy of marks, each man’s identity and persona is clear. A religious painting, Adam and Eve: Expulsion (1981), depicts the trembling regret of the two subjects, as God, represented by an arm baring a shining sword, expels them from Eden. The two are rendered in brushy, earthen tones, far closer to the color and modeling of the landscape than the Lord who banishes them.

Bloom emigrated to the United States from Latvia in 1920. He also worked for the WPA between 1935 and 1940, and although much of his work follows from a shared Social Realist vision, Bloom’s meditative imagery focused more specifically on Judaica and the experiences of Jewish people, as well as discrete painterly gestures and forms. Unlike Levine’s use of gestalt to convey drama and action, Bloom’s post-Impressionist use of thoughtful marks and bright, interwoven colors give his paintings an air of pensive fragility. Rabbi with Torah II (1995-05) depicts a rabbi carrying the large, ornate scroll of Hebrew scripture; the scene is rendered with a flurry of tiny marks that resolve into a rich image, but also remain tentatively abstracted as paint on canvas. Bloom’s A Leg shows him at his most daring, matching and exceeding the pointillist frenzy of artists such as Georges Seurat and Giacomo Balla. The recumbent leg that is the painting’s subject is difficult to discern, yet the overall image and its variegated patches of color are absorbingly beautiful in their abstraction.

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