Vern Blosum @Karma: “A Gay King”

Vern Blosum’s Betony, 1962, installed at “(Nothing but) Flowers” at Karma through Sept. 13, 2020

I had to go into Manhattan for a meeting, and so I slipped into a show I’d been aching to see: “(Nothing But) Flowers” is a sprawling delight of a group show filling both Karma galleries for the summer. It is a rich and fascinating respite, and a quiet, disarming way to approach what painters do with the simplest of subjects. Plus there was that Manet Moment the other day.

Anyway, one of the things I most wanted to see in person was this 1962 painting, Betony, from Vern Blosum. When I went up to the Berkshires almost ten years ago to meet the artist who’d painted under the name Vern Blosum, I was obviously interested to see his paintings in real life, but I was also nervous, concerned that this pseudonymous project had been a joke, a hoax, which he would disown, relegating his works to orphaned oddball status.

Turns out there was no chance of that.

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RIP Vern Blosum

Time Expired, 1962, MoMA, acquired, interestingly, in 1971.
The name is made up, but the art and the person are real, and so is their family. Tracking down and meeting Vern Blosum was a huge treat for me, and I’m saddened to learn the artist has passed away.
Several years after it acquired a Blosum painting, The Museum of Modern Art grew concerned that the artist did not exist, and that perhaps, as rumored, the painting was a prank. Leo Castelli, whose gallery had sold many Blosums to prominent collectors in the early days of Pop, but who never gave Blosum a show, provided the museum with an artist bio. The Modern went so far as to search local archives for birth announcements and certificates in Blosum’s claimed home state of Colorado, around his claimed birth date in 1936. When they couldn’t find any, they put the painting in storage, where it remained for nearly 50 years.
It’s interesting that the brief announcement of Blosum’s death put out by the artist’s gallery contains this fictitious birth information. When I met the artist occasionally known as Blosum, I was assured that the MoMA bio was not untrue. So from the artist’s view, there is apparently some significance in its details. I expect I will look into this delta, but now is not really the time.
Previously: 2010: Anyone tell me about Vern Blosum?
2011: Verne Blosum found, or rather, found by Verne Blossum

The Absence Of Evidence

Short Circuit (aka Construction with J.J. Flag), c. 1958? photo: Rudy Burckhardt
Errol Morris’s new film about Donald Rumsfeld has me thinking a lot lately in terms of the known unknown, and the unknown unknown. As I’ve tried to find the missing Jasper Johns flag painting that was in Robert Rauschenberg’s 1955 combine Short Circuit I’ve kept running into another formulation which bridges the two: what we think we know.
It’s not that the story of Short Circuit as it trickled down through history in footnotes and parentheticals and anecdotes was wrong, so much as incomplete. . And the elisions have shaped the widely accepted understanding of both artists’ work. But it also prompts the question, “Who’s ‘we’?”
Because someone knows what happened to that flag painting. Someone’s always known. It just wasn’t me.

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RIP, Ivan Karp, And Thanks

I’ll get back to the Rauschenberg thing in a bit, but it’s already been too long that I haven’t noted the passing of Ivan Karp. He had been an amazingly generous, interesting, and informative resource to me over the years I’ve been delving into the history of postwar art, always ready to share a story, or an opinion, a recollection, or a corrective. And I’m sad to think we won’t be having any more chats. My thoughts are with his family, and especially his wife, the artist and historian Marilynn Gelfman Karp, who has also been very thoughtful and generous with her insights and stories.
An anecdote in Ivan’s NY Times obituary about how he and Marilynn met in what became an epicenter of the 1960s New York art world reminded me of a better version, from Ivan’s 1969 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art:

So kind of unknowingly the gallery by being what it was, an outgoing open place became a center of activity. People come in here and spend a lot of time. They’d meet each other. Every Saturday was an important event at the gallery. Dozens of people standing around in the back room discovering each other. There was a lot of romantic atmosphere. Always a lot of beautiful girls there. What always made the gallery activity worthwhile for me was the number of beautiful people and especially the beautiful girls who always came in. They were always particularly welcome; as they are to day still. That’s where I met my wife — at the gallery. She brought in slides and, in fact, brought in some paintings of an artist she was interested in. And I guess I was more interested in her than I was in the painter. But I think we did show the artist. And then I married his sponsor.

This painter was Vern Blosum. When I met Blosum almost 50 years later, it was clear he remembered the sting of losing his girlfriend as if it was yesterday.
For his part, when I called Ivan several years ago out of the blue and told him I wanted to talk with him about Vern Blosum, he just laughed and laughed. The jig was finally up.
images: Ivan and Marilynn Karp from their Screen Tests, ST171 and ST173, both 1964, obviously ganked from Callie Angell’s Warhol Screen Tests Catalogue Raisonne. Marilynn was also filmed for Warhol’s The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women.

On Vern Blosum At MoMA

“You cannot imagine how happy I was to read your email.”
That was the almost-immediate reply to my request to stop by MoMA’s Painting & Sculpture department to discuss Vern Blosum and to review the collection file for Time Expired, the 1962 parking meter painting the Museum acquired in early 1963, just as Pop Art was evolving.
When we met a couple of weeks later, Mattias, who managed P&S, told me that the Vern Blosum mystery had been nagging the department for years. And he wasn’t kidding.
Shortly after the painting came into the collection, questions and rumors arose about its creator. Which I’ll get to, but which were apparently answered well enough for Time Expired to go on view, and repeatedly, through the 1960s. As I mentioned last spring, as late as 1967, the NY Times was reporting on visitor questions which the museum would forward to the artists to be answered. Blosum replied that his parking meters formed “a series of time paintings culminating in a giant expiration.” Which strikes me as a very conceptual, 1967 thing to have painted back in 1962.
But that’s the last mention I’ve been able to find. It doesn’t appear that Time Expired has been shown at the Modern since the late 60s. And I expect that is because of unanswerable questions Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller had–and that their successors inherited–about Blosum’s identity and its implications for their painting. It turns out in 1973 the museum took the extraordinary, even unprecedented step, of searching the birth and Social Security records in Colorado around the time Blosum’s bio claimed he’d been born, trying to confirm that he existed. And when they couldn’t, the painting went into some kind of archival limbo, a cold case file, which would periodically resurface to perplex curators and interns and archivists.
Which is all kind of amazing, when you consider where the Blosum came from in the first place: Leo Castelli Gallery.

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Vern Blosum: Famous For 25 Minutes

So, my mind is kind of blowing because Vern Blosum is in a show opening tomorrow.
Blosum’s work was included in some of the very first exhibitions of Pop Art in the early 1960s. His deadpan paintings of objects from New York City life: parking meters ticking down in five minute increments, like proto-serial art, were acquired by some of the most influential collectors of the day. Thanks to an emerging artist fund set up by Larry Aldrich, MoMA acquired a large Vern Blosum painting in 1963, which was regularly on view for many years.
And then he disappeared. No work, no shows, no nothing. I came across Verne Blossum [not sic] almost two years ago now, when his work Violation ran next to Warhol’s in the Washington Post’s March 1963 preview of Alice Denney’s pioneering show, “The Popular Image.”
Then I found the MoMA painting, Time Expired, and started digging.
I’m going to cut to the chase here and reveal that I have found Vern Blosum. I have met Vern Blosum. And I have seen Vern Blosum’s work in person. And his story is utterly fascinating. As you may have intuited from the varied spellings as early as 1963, Blosum’s own identity has been as much in flux as the history of Pop Art itself once was.
It’s taken a while, and a fair amount of research, and negotiating, and puzzling, but I think it’s alright to go ahead and tell Blosum’s story now. Or at least to tell my story with Blosum, because the artist is still alive and working, and should have the prerogative of defining his own body of work.
Meanwhile, the immediate trigger for this post is an intriguing show that opens in Los Angeles tomorrow, timed to the Pacific Standard Time events. Cardwell Jimmerson in Culver City has put together “Sub-Pop,” a survey of early, “non-famous” Pop artists. These are folks who featured prominently in the first draft of Pop’s history, and who were included in Walter Hopps’ and John Coplans’ formative Pop exhibitions.
In “Sub-Pop,” according to the gallery’s statement,

the smug success sotry of Pop Art is replaced by a somewhat more poignant “failure” story, that loaded word defined in the reductive sense bequeathed us by Warhol as simply, “the failure to become famous.”

While researching their show, the gallerists contacted me about Blosum [his West Coast spelling], and we were able to track down the Blosum painting that John Coplans had shown in “Pop Art USA,” which he curated in 1963 at the Oakland Museum.
To get my own Blosum saga caught up, I’ll start tonight with a post about MoMA’s painting. And then next week, I guess, I’ll tell about tracking down Blosum, and meeting him, and seeing his work. Because I think he’s more than just an amusing story, or an overlooked artist; he and his work occupy a remarkable moment–and an important space, however tiny it may seem right now–in the history of contemporary art.

Verne Blosum Found! Or Rather, Found By Verne Blossum

You stumble upon something that Google doesn’t know anything about, and you post about it, and then a while later, the other handful of people wondering about the same thing eventually email you, and you try to figure this stuff out together.
Thus it is that the Verne Blosum Fan Club is proud to welcome the Greensboro Chapter to the table.
The other day, a curator from the Weatherspoon Art Museum contacted me after seeing my 2010 posts about the pioneering Pop Art painter Vern Blosum. Because it turns out the museum which is affiliated with UNC-Greensboro, has a Verne Blossum painting, Twin Expiration, above, from 1962.
I first found out about Blossum when his parking meter painting, Violation was illustrated alongside Andy Warhol in a 1963 Washington Post article about Alice Denney’s foundational Pop Art show at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.
Then it turned out MoMA has a Blosum parking meter as well, Time Expired, purchased for them in 1964 by Larry Aldrich. [No, I’m not typing it wrong, his name shows up in contemporary sources with both one s and two, with an e and without.]
The Weatherspoon discovery [for whatever reason, their collection database has not been indexed by Google] comes on the heels of another out-of-the-blue email from some folks in California. Seems they’d come across Vern Blosum in the catalogue for Pop Art USA, a 1963 exhibition curated by the Pasadena Art Museum’s own John Coplans. That Blosum, titled 25 Minutes.
Clearly, there’s a theme, and I’m not just talking about parking meters. 25 Minutes was apparently lent by the L.M. Asher family. Betty Asher was one of the major collectors and supporters and curators at LACMA for many years. Just phenomenal. And her son is Michael Asher.
The Weatherspoon’s Blossum turns out to have been donated in 1981 by Robert Scull, probably the most famous [or infamous, depending] Pop Art collector of them all, in honor of Virginia Dwan, who has had a long, generous relationship to the museum.
For an artist who seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the art world, Vern[e] Blos[s]um sure left behind, not just an intriguing body of work, but also an incredible body of collectors.
The work continues.

Found, Sort Of: Vern Blosum

You remember how, a couple of months ago, I could find next to nothing online about Vern Blosum, the mysterious artist whose crisp, deadpan paintings of parking meters were featured in one of the very first museum exhibitions of Pop Art, “The Popular Image,” organized by Alice Denney in the Spring of 1964 1963 at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art?
Well, we’re making a little progress. I’ve been in touch with people who know or knew Blosum and his work. As I piece his story together, I’ll present it here. For an artist to show alongside Warhol, Rosenquist, and Oldenburg, and to be collected by MoMA and Larry Aldrich [1], and then to practically disappear, well, it’s fascinating.
What I really wanted to do, of course, was to find and see Blosum’s work, to see how it might relate to those earliest Pop contemporaries, and maybe see how it holds up. But all my searches came up empty. Until tonight. Somehow, Blosum’s entry in an art history teaching image database at California State University [WorldImages at SJSU, to be specific] showed up on Google.
There’s a very clean image of Blosum’s 1962 painting, Time Expired, which is listed as being in MoMA’s collection [a mystery again because MoMA’s online catalogue comes up a blank]. I’m looking into that, but first, just look at this.
It’s not a flat, billboard style like Rosenquist, or a flattened silkscreen image like Warhol or a deliberately graphic/comic style like, say Lichtenstein. And it’s not photorealistic, and certainly not Photorealist, despite how Cal State apparently teaches it, Instead, it’s quite illustrative, the city street version of Wayne Thiebaud’s diner desserts. I think it’s really quite nice.
[1] Actually, I misread that. One of the only web results for Blosum was in Larry Aldrich’s 1972 interview with Paul Cummings in the Smithsonian’s Oral History collection at the Archives of American Art. That led me to a couple of lengthy discussions with folks at the Aldrich Museum about whether they have the Blosum painting Larry clearly said he’d bought. They don’t.
Now I see why. Aldrich is talking about the MoMA painting above, Time Expired. He created a multi-year fund for Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller to purchase new work from emerging artists, and he was telling Cummings what works the Museum got from the fund each year. This 1962 Blosum came into the collection in 1963, just as, or just before, Denney was assembling her show in DC.
It’s funny, because the dynamics and challenges for museums to collect new work don’t seem to change that much. It can still be tough, or at least problematic, for curators to ask their donors to buy unproven and/or less expensive work, partly because of ask fatigue, and partly because big donors like to donate for big things.
Also, Aldrich’s unabashed discussion of using his fund to get the Museum’s curators to do his “shopping” for him is simultaneously awesome, refreshing, and cringe-inducing.

One to help young American artists, and quite frankly, the second one was a personal selfish one in thinking that in essence they could help my efforts and sort of do my shopping for me, because, as I said, I could only get out once every two weeks and sometimes I wasn’t even able to successfully do that. And I was under an impression, which I since learned was a mistaken impression, that they had people combing New York galleries all the time. Which I discovered was not the case.

He then recounts all these collecting war stories where he “loses” work to the Museum, or where he complains that prices have gone up because he’d let MoMA buy an artist’s work before he got it himself. He sounds a bit tacky, but passionate, with a good eye, and in his telling, at least, if there were any potential conflicts, the Modern always prevailed.
Previously: Anyone tell me about Vern Blosum?

Anyone Tell Me About Vern Blosum?

verne_blossum_wp.jpgAs I’ve been digging into the history of modernism and contemporary art in Washington DC, one of the most prominent events I keep coming back to is “The Popular Image” and its performance companion, the “Pop Art Festival.”
Organized Alice Denney in the Spring of 1963 for the fledgling Washington Gallery of Modern Art, “The Popular Image Exhibition” was a very early exhibition of Pop Art, coming at the same time as the Guggenheim’s Pop/Object show [which, unlike the DC show, traveled around the US], and less than six months after Walter Hopps’ seminal “New Paintings of Common Objects” show in Pasadena. Alan Solomon, who wrote an essay for the DC catalogue, then reconfigured the show a bit that fall for the ICA in London [1], where it introduced the US variant of Pop to Europe.
I’m most fascinated with the Pop Art Festival, which included a Happening by Claes Oldenburg designed for a DuPont Circle dry cleaners; a sprawling Judson Church/Yvonne Rainer/Kluver/Who knows who else dance performance in an Adams Morgan rollerskating rink; and an opening night tape recording performance by renowned Pop Artist John Cage. I know, right? But let’s wait on that. There’s a mystery from the show first.
A Washington Post preview from April 14, 1963 titled, “Eruption of Pop Art Slated for This Week,” mentions an artist I’ve never heard of, and who I can’t find mentioned in any other reporting or reviews of the show: Verne Blossum.
“Verne Blossum, who is inspired by parking meters with red ‘violation’ flags,” is mentioned between Roy Lichtenstein, “who likes comic strips,” and Jim Dine, “who attaches a lawnmower to a canvas and paints around it.” Blossum’s painting [above], is reproduced alongside Large Campbell Peeling Can by Andy Warhol. So that’s a pretty nice grouping. And yet.
And yet, they spelled his name wrong, for one thing. It’s Vern Blosum.
In 1967, the NY Times reported that his parking meter paintings series, titled “Time Expired,” was the subject of questions at a lunchtime docent tour at MoMA. “It’s a series of time paintings culminating in a giant expiration,” he replied. But no work by Blosum appears in the Museum’s collection today.
In his Smithsonian archives interview in1972, Larry Aldrich also mentioned buying Blosum’s work, but none is listed in the Aldrich Museum’s collection database, either.
I mean, it sure seems like the guy was doing something right in the 1960s; his almost complete [apparent] disappearance–or at least his delayed re-indexing online–makes me want to find out more.
UPDATE: Woohoo, I’m hearing details from a couple of people, and am following some hot leads. This has the markings of a great story. Stay tuned.
[1] In his May 2009 dissertation at Case Western, titled “Just what was it that made US Art so Different, so appealing?” [pdf] Frank G. Spicer III notes that Blosum, George Brecht, and Robert Watts were in the DC incarnation of “The Popular Image,” but were not shown in London.