Oscar Bluemner wrote, “I prefer the intimate landscape of our common surroundings, where town and country mingle. For, we are in the habit of carrying into them our feelings of pain and pleasure, our moods.” (as quoted in B. Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: Passion for Color, pp. 44-45) Jersey Silkmills, depicting the bright brick factories of Paterson, New Jersey, with the striking peak of Garrett Mountain in the distance, is a prime example of his powerful images inspired by these borderlands of nature and industry. Bluemner emphasized this dichotomy when he originally titled the work “Paterson, Mountains & Mills.” Demonstrating the bold use of color which earned him the nickname “Vermillionaire,” Bluemner reduces and intensifies the scene into a dynamic kaleidoscope of interlapping geometric planes that incorporate his ever-evolving philosophies of art and, specifically, color. Begun in 1911, Jersey Silkmills was considered by Bluemner to be his most important early painting, and it is a masterwork, not only of his ouevre, but of American Modernism.
Bluemner began his career as an architect, and his art is defined by a meticulous attention to detail and exactitude of planning. He kept “Painting Diaries,” and the great amount of contemplation and experimentation involved in the creation of Jersey Silkmills is evident in the fifty pages of sketches and notes for the work in these journals. He first drew and painted the view of Paterson’s mills around 1911 and would revise this work multiple times, even scraping the work down, before the painting was finally completed in October 1917. Through the years, the composition progressed from a highly representational rendering to the final image which is a symphony of form and color. According to Jeffrey Hayes' analysis of the artist's notes, the mountain became higher and more sharply peaked, the buildings became flattened planar shapes within a cohesive grid-like format, and the rhythm of the peaks and points became more uniform. The color contrasts were intensified and distributed in a balanced organization, with the central hot-red belt bordered by the cooler tones of the foreground landscape and mountain in the distance. Overall, the work was reduced to its essentials and then each was heightened, creating an image recognizable as Paterson but also transcending specificity of place. Bluemner proclaimed the philosophy behind these stylistic changes in his “Raisonnement” of May 1916: “The following view comprises all [my thinking] up to now:…Painting…must rearrange the forms, colors, effects of nature…aesthetically, in the purely beautiful sense, and emotionally, in the sense of the idea: or decoratively and personally…Herein lies the initial function of artistic order, in the dissection of the visible, in omission, selection, simplification, disarranging, exaggerating, purifying; in this way, one can gain a pictorial ideal, out of the confusion of the real.” (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, p. 199) More specifically, he explained, “These strongly colored, sharply formed, solid—one might say—“unearthly pictures” are based upon motifs of New Jersey. For the locally informed, it isn’t too difficult to recognize Paterson here, Stanhope there, or other rivers and villages of the state…but only as a general motif. For I wish to convey not the reproduction of nature for the sake of sentiment or accuracy, but perhaps like the musician—though based on the real world—I want to create freely, artistically. “Creation,” not imitation…the “pure painting” of things, of space in the landscape, and thereby propel the “spiritual content”—be it impression, be it expression—to the highest power.” (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, p. 34)
In Jersey Silkmills, Bluemner employs inexact complementary contrasts and a division of the picture plane into bands of color, which allow the red factories at the center to vibrate with energy. Bluemner associated each color with psychological meaning, and red is described as “blood, vitality, majesty, love, religious ecstasy.” (as quoted in R.S. Favis, “Painting ‘the Red City’: Oscar Bluemner’s Jersey Silkmills,” p. 40) When he first started Jersey Silkmills in 1911, he saw the power of color particularly for this composition: "This scene in Patterson [sic] with crude brick factories, a very dull foreground, ugly heaps of timbers all misplaced at the foot of an inviting hill will be utterly uninteresting artistically on a photograph…pen drawing…or grey-colored picture…This scene however, as it was illuminated, exhibited intense beauty of color, brilliant white, pale blue, blue green, purples, and a range of brilliant yellow & orange lights: that is, both contrast of tone and harmonious contrasts of color which the specific character of the scene, i.e. its arrangement of nature and buildings, divided into novel combination of line and mass. Moreover, the color-effect is peculiar, unusual: brilliant yellow and orange light, strong reds, with perfect blacks in the pale cool blue foreground, amidst the green foliage…Hence motif of uncommon interest.” (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, pp. 67-68) As he edited the painting into its final state, he kept trying to bring “the red colors into maximum potential” and concluded as he finished the work in October 1917, “Now it is all color…the forms being of little importance.” (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, p. 236)
Bluemner’s inspiration for his reworking of Jersey Silkmills into a powerhouse of planar color was largely drawn from his interactions with modern European–isms during his trip abroad in 1912 and through his activities with the Stieglitz circle and the Armory Show of 1913. A visit to Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery around 1910 first propelled Bluemner to experiment with oil painting, and an exhibition of Cézanne’s work there in 1911 demonstrated a combination of formal design and expressive color which Bluemner came to admire and emulate. He particularly respected that Cézanne “dismisses what is not essential to the unity of the idea and artistic impression of the whole” (as quoted in B. Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: Passion for Color, p. 27) and saw another exhibition of his work in Berlin in 1912. Together with the various exposure to Cubism, Futurism, Fauvism and German Expressionism during his nine months in Europe, these new ideas of color and plane propelled Bluemner to reevaluate his early works begun in 1911. The result was the two-dimensional network of colors and planes, such as in Jersey Silkmills, which would come to be recognized as Bluemner’s best work.
Along with the strong art-world inspirations on his work, Bluemner’s dramatic depictions of New Jersey’s factory towns were also heavily steeped in the political world surrounding World War I and the tense labor relations of early 20th century industry. Roberta Smith Favis explains, “In many ways his immigration to America was the quintessential American experience, and the silk factories of Paterson, associated in the public mind with immigrants, were the perfect embodiment of that experience in all its ambiguity.” (“Painting ‘the Red City’: Oscar Bluemner’s Jersey Silkmills,” p. 42) His deep sympathy with the workers is exemplified by his many metaphorical references within his painting diary of “interweaving” forms, “vertical creases” and even “silk colors.” (“Painting ‘the Red City’: Oscar Bluemner’s Jersey Silkmills,” p. 35)
Jersey Silkmills is a testament to Bluemner’s deep understanding and reflection upon the revolutionary thought growing in both the art world and wider society during the 1910’s. The work stands as a culmination of Bluemner’s earliest series of paintings, embodying the compositional and color principles he developed and perfected over the course of his first years as an artist.
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION
Signed with conjoined letters 'OBlümner' (lower left)
Oscar Florianus Bluemner
Oscar Florianus Bluemner , 20th Century, Paintings, oil, United States of America, architectural, cityscape, geometric
New York, Bourgeois Galleries, Exhibition of Modern Art Arranged by a Group of European and American Artists, March 25-April 20, 1918, no. 2.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, University of Minneapolis, University Gallery, Oscar Florianus Bluemner, March 2-28, 1939, no. 32.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum, Oscar Bluemner: American Colorist, October 11-November 15, 1967, no. 25.
New York, New York Cultural Center, Oscar Bluemner: Paintings, Drawings, December 16, 1969-March 8, 1970, no. 23.
Allentown, Pennsylvania, Allentown Art Museum, The City in American Painting, January 20-March 4, 1973 (as Paterson Silkmills).
Katonah, New York, Katonah Gallery, American Painting, 1900-1976: Part I. The Beginning of Modernism 1900-1934, November 1, 1975-January 4, 1976, no. 3.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Lines of Power, March 12-April 9, 1977.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., The Eye of Stieglitz, October 7-November 2, 1978, no. 4.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Buildings: Architecture in American Modernism, October 29-November 29, 1980, no. 6.
Norfolk, Virginia, Chrysler Museum, Inside 291, April 26-June 17, 1984.
Washington, D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art, and elsewhere, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, December 10, 1988-February 19, 1989, no. 27.
Montclair, New Jersey, The Montclair Art Museum, Passionate Pursuits: Hidden Treasures of the Garden State, September 29, 1996-January 5, 1997.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, October 7, 2005-February 12, 2006 (as Jersey Silkmills (Paterson)).
Montclair, New Jersey, The Montclair Art Museum, and elsewhere, Cézanne and American Modernism, September 13, 2009-January 3, 2010.
20 ¼ x 30 in. (51.4 x 76.2 cm.)
Bourgeois Galleries, Exhibition of Modern Art Arranged by a Group of European and American Artists, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1918, p. 13, no. 2.
University of Minneapolis, University Gallery, Oscar Florianus Bluemner, exhibition checklist, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1939, no. 32.
Fogg Art Museum, Oscar Bluemner: American Colorist, exhibition catalogue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967, n.p., no. 25, pl. VI, illustrated.
New York Cultural Center, Oscar Bluemner: Paintings, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1970, n.p., pl. 23, illustrated.
Allentown Art Museum, The City in American Painting, exhibition catalogue, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1973, p. 8, illustrated (as Paterson Silkmills).
J.I.H. Baur, American Painting, 1900-1976, exhibition catalogue, Katonah, New York, 1975, n.p., no. 3, illustrated.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Lines of Power, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1977, n.p.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., The Eye of Stieglitz, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1978, pp. 5, 9, no. 4, illustrated.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Buildings: Architecture in American Modernism, New York, 1980, exhibition catalogue, p. 13, no. 6, illustrated.
J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1982, pp. 64-68, 196-99, 232, 236-37, 243, 448, fig. 18, illustrated.
J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 30, no. 27, illustrated.
J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, Cambridge, England, 1991, pp. 32-36, 78, 80, 89, fig. 21, illustrated.
R.S. Favis, “Painting ‘the Red City’: Oscar Bluemner’s Jersey Silkmills,” American Art: Smithsonian American Art Museum, vol. 17, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 27-47, fig. 3, illustrated.
R.S. Favis, Oscar Bluemner: A Daughter's Legacy, Selections from the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, Stetson University, Deland, Florida, 2004, p. 15, illustrated.
B. Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2005, pp. 64, 69, 174n124, 175n159, 225, fig. 56, illustrated (as Jersey Silkmills (Paterson)).
G. Stavitsky, K. Rothkopf, Cézanne and American Modernism, exhibition catalogue, Montclair, New Jersey, 2009, pp. 173, 177, 341, no. 26, illustrated (as Jersey Silkmills (Paterson)).
Robert Bluemner, son of the above, 1938.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, acquired from the above, 1968.
Private collection, acquired from the above, 1973.
By descent to the present owner.