At the close of the 1960s, Norman Bluhm was on the cusp of a significant critical transformation. Although he acknowledged the vital role played by the New York School artists (de Kooning and Kline in particular) in the evolution of his aesthetic, by the 1960s Bluhm had already begun to question the limitations of Abstract Expressionism. In keeping with his academic training—Bluhm had studied art and architecture under Mies van der Rohe, and then fine art at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris—he returned to the practice of drawing from the nude model. He also began to incorporate art-historical references into his paintings. Over the course of the 1970s, his rectilinear brushstrokes softened and coiled into curvilinear abstract female forms suggestive of the Western art-historical tradition of the reclining nude. With colours becoming increasingly saturated and titles rooted in Greek mythology, such as Aphrodite, Niobe, and Persephone, he emphasized the feminine and referenced the Classical.
Sleeping Goddess is an exemplary illustration of Bluhm’s work from this period, which reached its pinnacle in the early 1980s. Curvaceous, organic shapes evocative of the female form, rendered in a symphony of purple, violet, and fuchsia, appear against a rippling ground of burnt umber and a sky of turquoise. Through its masterful synthesis of gestural abstraction and classical painting, Sleeping Goddess is proof of the great scope of Bluhm’s artistic innovation. Poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein rightly asserts that Bluhm “has single-handedly reconciled the emotional directness and raw energy of Abstract Expressionism with the visual symphonics of Old Master European painting” (Harithas, Rubenstein and Sansone, Norman Bluhm, Mazzotta, 2000).