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Peter Blume: Painting the Phoenix

ISSUE:  Summer 1985

I first met Peter in the late autumn of 1928 at Lee Chumley’s speakeasy in the Village. I was at loose ends that evening after abruptly leaving what had become a boring dinner party. At Chumley’s I joined a group of pleasant young people, mostly strangers. In snatches of conversation I learned that some of them were recent college graduates who didn’t know what to do with their lives except to have a good time, if they could afford it, while waiting to become artists or writers. Peter was the youngest of those at the table and hadn’t been to college. He stood out from the others almost like a young prince, distinguished by his air of affability and his easy self-assurance. Unlike his companions of the evening, he knew exactly what he wanted to do, which was to paint.

At later casual meetings he talked about his project for a new picture and told me something about himself. He was then 22 and had been a professional painter, nothing else, for three or four years. He had a gallery that sold some of his paintings at modest prices.* The gallery was owned by a former saloon-keeper, Charles Daniel, one of the two dealers—the other was Alfred Stieglitz—who then displayed an enthusiasm for experimental American art. Daniel had brought together a little stable of painters who later became famous—Demuth, Sheeler, and Kuniyoshi among others— but he was always on the edge of going bankrupt. To Peter he //querrry?*Prices of those early Blumes rose dramatically after 1983, and they sold for increasingly substantial sums, at no profit to the artist. The few available were acquired by collectors or by leading museums—most recently, as of this writing, by the National Museum of American Art. had offered, quite informally, an allowance of I think it was 75 dollars a month, not more. Peter scraped along on that happily and didn’t once ask for an accounting. I was never to meet a young artist who thought less about money, so long as he had enough of it to buy paints and canvases.

Those early conversations with Peter, gradually becoming more intimate, were to change both our lives in fashions that we couldn’t have foreseen. I was spending the winter in the city, though I then lived in the overgrown countryside above Patterson, New York, as did some of my earlier friends. Peter, after the breaking off of a love affair, was roosting in other people’s studios; he couldn’t afford a room of his own. In the daylight hours he was making sketches along the waterfront or at the Metropolitan Museum, where he was fascinated by the display of late-medieval armor. The two types of sketches, armor and machinery, were coming together into a new conception, and now he needed a place where he could work on a large scale, without interruptions. I told him about space that was available in Aunt Addie Turner’s barn of a house on Hardscrabble Road: four unheated rooms that could be rented for eight or ten dollars a month. Peter took them without hesitation.

We rode to the country together in a battered Model T Ford, a gift from Charles Daniel, who must have sold a picture. Peter sat beside me, not having learned to drive. A headlight fell off and had to be reattached. During the first 30 miles I explained and illustrated the simple mechanism of the Model T, with its planetary gears; then I drew up on the roadside.”You take the wheel now,” I said. Peter took it and drove on—rather tremblingly at first, I seem to remember, but soon gaining confidence. After a dozen miles without further disasters, I fell asleep beside him and didn’t wake until it was nearly time to turn off on a back-country road. Peter by then was almost a skilled driver—except that he couldn’t back or get the car out of ditches. Those arts were to be the subject of a second and final lesson the following day.

Peter spent nearly a year in those bare rooms at Addie Turner’s. They were across the hall from the more comfortable room where Hart Crane lived intermittently and was sometimes able to work on his long poem, The Bridge.Peter was working almost without intermission on his first big picture, Parade, in which I appear as the figure bearing aloft a suit of armor. On three or four occasions he entertained a weekend visitor, one or another young woman who had yearned after him in New York. There must have been several of those yearners, for Peter was handsome, with Roman features and an aureole of red-gold curly hair. He found that each of the young women interfered with his work by talking too much, and on Monday morning he would drive her implacably to the train. While Parade went forward, he entered a period of self-imposed chastity. The picture was finished a little before New Year’s Day, about the time that his rooms at Addie Turner’s became too cold for habitation. It formed the centerpiece of his first one-man show and it was sold in spite of the Wall Street crash, which had shattered the art market.

Exhausted as he always was to be after finishing a major work, Peter set out on a ramble in his Model T. The ramble carried him through the anthracite belt of eastern Pennsylvania, with its immense coal breakers and its culm banks that loomed like black unvegetated mountains. There were halts when his battered Ford collapsed, often near a mining town where the one business street was lined on both sides with false-front stores. Always Peter was sketching, and he had become a superb draftsman. From the anthracite belt he drove south by easy stages to Charleston, where he found a studio near the waterfront and began putting together his impressions. A particularly sharp impression was of German sailors doing their early-morning calisthenics on the deck of the cruiser Emden.The picture taking shape was South of Scranton, and he planned to finish it at leisure in the northern countryside.

This time he found what might serve as a studio about two miles east of Addie Turner’s house and across the Connecticut state line in the depopulated town of Sherman. Here stood a roughly framed little structure once used as a chapel. It was unplastered, with cracks in the walls, but with space enough for an easel and a big canvas. The rent was 25 dollars a year, not a month, and Peter was at liberty to make alterations. He hired a carpenter to install a big plexiglass window and also to build an outhouse, formerly nonexistent; then he began to block in the new picture.

All this part of the story has been told before. What hasn’t been recorded is the change that had taken place in Peter himself. He was still in his period of elected celibacy, but by now he was looking for a mate—not for any mate; this one must possess qualities lacking in the many women he had earlier known. What were those qualities? Peter never put them into words, at least not to me, but I came to feel that the central one was a capability for self-forgetful and lasting affection. On a visit to New York he recognized that not-impossible she. Her name was Grace Douglas Craton, her nickname was Ebie, and she was a Southern girl who radiated the warmth that is also found in some Jewish families. Deeply attracted by Peter, she came out to the chapel for a sunny Columbus Day weekend. The weather turned bitterly cold and threatened to drive her back to New York, but she found a few winter garments left behind by former visitors to Addie Turner’s. By now that weekend has lasted for several more than 50 years.

After the breakup of my first marriage, I too had been looking for a mate, and I delightedly found her not long after Peter found Ebie. She was Muriel Maurer, a black-haired, gray-eyed fashion editor, and it may have been Peter who made the introduction. I was best man at the Blumes’ very private wedding in 1931, and a year later Peter was best man at ours. Ebie and Muriel became fast friends; sometimes they were taken for sisters. They saw each other chiefly on weekends. Muriel and I were then living in New York; the Blumes had stayed in Sherman while Peter worked on his picture. They were happy and had barely enough to eat. Daniel tried hard to continue that little monthly stipend, but the gallery was in distress and his checks had taken to bouncing. Nevertheless Peter’s finished picture went to Daniel, who by 1931 was unable to sell anything. Creditors of the gallery were on the point of seizing South of Scranton when Peter rescued it. For two years it hung on our living-room wall in Chelsea. That was before it was sent to the Carnegie International Exhibition of 1934, where it won first prize and caused a commotion in the art world that is still remembered.

The Blumes had meanwhile been rescued from their penniless state by a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed them to spend nine months in Italy. After their return, they rented a little house on Church Road, in Sherman (ten dollars a month), and Peter set to work on The Eternal City, a three-year undertaking. On the opposite side of Church Road was a barn almost ready to collapse. We bought it at Peter’s (or Peternebie’s) suggestion and, after complicated financial maneuvers (we had no money), remodeled it into the house where we live today. Meanwhile the Blumes had managed to buy their rented house and were laying plans to enlarge it. Working together—Ebie all day and Peter in the afternoon when light began to fail—they were transforming their two acres of ragged lawn into a Japanese garden.

I was thus a close witness of Peter’s later career, but a witness only and never an adviser. More and more I came to admire him for his broad concepts, his patient workmanship, and his stubborn independence. After his earlier days at the Daniel Gallery, when he listened to older painters with respect (some of them would later be called Precisionists), he did not ask for advice about his work or accept it when offered. He continued to be a student and a learner, but the artists from whom he sought enlightenment were great men dead for hundreds of years. He was utterly unaffected by the winds of fashion that sweep across the art world as over a field of wheat in Kansas. Peter has been more like a tree standing firm at the edge of the field, changing shape with the passage of years, but only in accordance with its inner laws of growth.

Nobody could fail to recognize a Blume canvas. It will be large, if it is one of his major works, but every inch of it will be painted with the accuracy of a miniature. More or less familiar shapes, often remembered from his travels, will be combined in a dreamlike fashion. Each of the shapes will be part of a broader composition, essentially simple yet intricate in its movement and balance. Everything will be bathed in an unfamiliar light that suggests a special vision of man’s fate in the cosmos.

In the course of a long career Blume has suggested a number of visions, but one of them recurs so often as to become a dominant theme. It is the vision of decay or utter destruction or else of inanimate nature as contrasted with new life. Thus, in one picture poppies bloom at the base of three great weather-fractured rocks. A friend of Peter’s, Kenneth Burke, once said that this contrast is inherent in the artist’s name: Peter (the rock) and Blume (the flower). In another picture a decayed stump has given birth to a gorgeously flowering fungus. Still another shows young men and women beating down the fruit of an ancient and contorted olive tree that survives among the ruins of Hadrian’s villa. These smaller canvases are simple and appealing statements of the theme, but, with more force and complexity, it is also presented in some of his major works, as notably in The Rock (1948).

Inspired as it was by the devastations of World War II, The Rock announced a new stage in his career. At the right of the canvas smoke rises from the ruins of a bombed house. A wall has been sheared away to reveal an inner room where an oval portrait still looks down on a rocking chair. At the left a new stone structure rises under scaffolding. At the center is the rock itself, a huge, fantastic natural object, with a limestone quarry at the base of it where men are straining themselves at the task of rebuilding the city. As a whole, the picture transforms a moment in time into a timeless myth.

The artist’s cast of mind is not only visual primarily, and architectural in the broad sense of building compositions out of unexpected elements; it is also legendary or mythopoetic. Peter says of his own work, “I’ve been painting the phoenix, the Resurrection theme, in various forms.” As instances one might cite Tasso’s Oak (1960) and Recollection of the Flood (1969). A more recent example, and one more directly stated, is From the Metamorphoses (1979). Here his subject is a critical moment in the Greek legend of how the world was repopulated after a universal deluge. As Ovid recounts the legend, there were only two survivors of the deluge, Deucalion and Pyrrha, whose lives had been spared because they were faithful worshipers of the gods. Zeus took pity on their loneliness and told them to cast their mother’s bones behind them. They were horrified at first; then they realized that they were earthborn and that the bones of their mother were the stones underfoot. They cast the stones behind them and these were transformed into a new race of men and women.

In the picture the stones are being metamorphosed step by step into persons. A woman with bright flesh rises from the rubble and holds up one arm to the sky. In the background others of the new race are cultivating the soil while flowers spring up. Here once again are some of Blume’s favorite contrasts: rocks and flowers, destruction and renewal, dead nature and the triumph of life, as if to summarize one message of his long career, but this time with the phoenix presented in bolder colors.

Peter has always experimented with colors and textures, with sources of light, and with shapes unexpectedly combined; sometimes his effects are disconcerting. He continually changes his technical devices, but each painting has been true to some inner vision. Looking at his latest work— this year it is a splendid canvas, Autumn—I thought back to the early days when we roamed the streets together discussing the shapes that might be combined in a new picture. Also I thought of a sentence from Emerson: “To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your inner heart is true for all men—that is genius.”


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