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Robert Bliss Archive Donated to Leslie-Lohman

By David Jarrett

 

The Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation of New York City announces that a private donor has donated an archive of the late artist Robert Bliss (1925-1981). Included in the archive are color photos and slides of many of Bliss’s paintings, 8”x10” black & white photos he himself took of his young male models, correspondence among gallery owners who represented the artist and leaflets for exhibit openings.

 

While generally unknown, Bliss is well known and greatly admired among a small group of avid collectors for his exquisite paintings of teenage boys. Virtually all of his subjects were clad only in brief skivvies; at least a couple are known to be nude, one a rear view and the other with pubic hair and genitalia.

 

Bliss was born in 1925 in Newton, Massachusetts. He studied at Bowdoin College and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A husky six-foot-two, the artist considered himself self taught. He was an art instructor and gallery director at the Deerfield Academy, having arrived in the fall of 1951 and departed May 4, 1964. It was at this prep school that Bliss obtained many of his models. After departing Deerfield Academy, in November 1964, he rented a home in Hull, Massachusetts, a small, picturesque seaside town just east of Boston. He died there January 11, 1981, at age 55 purportedly due to complications from long-term alcoholism.

 

Bliss was a highly prolific painter, often spending days in a closed studio painting, with little regard for food or sleep—almost a hermit—according to contemporaries that knew him. Subsequently, he was a heavy drinker and had frequent periods of depression. One of the Boston gallery owners who represented Bliss for many years stated that Bliss’ disposition was unstable and that he had a temper that could grow violent. Once he hurled his loaded suitcase through the front door of his family home.

 

It is believed that he stopped painting boys around 1972 (the last dated painting known to Leslie-Lohman) for reasons unkown but perhaps over concern with the controversial subject matter (which would be even more controversial today with puritanical focus on age consent statutes).

 

The artist’s paintings evolved from a painterly quality in the 1950s and 1960s to highly realistic ones commencing in the mid/late 1960s to early 1970s. Called “magic realism” by Bliss, the artist’s paintings done during this later period probably represent the best of his lifetime work and are the ones that he is most recognized for today.

 

Most of Bliss’ paintings were oils on board. They were mainly monochromatic, always finely brushed pearly grays, occasionally reflecting pale tints of blue, mauve, peach or sepia, done in an atmosphere of haze, dull light or twilight–creating an almost magical, shimmering feeling. The hues are never bold and the shadows are always light, with an almost surrealistic feeling.

 

Bliss’ work ranged from huge paintings ten feet wide to small ones less that a foot square. While most of them focused on young males (mainly during the 1950s and early 1960s), virtually always with young (mainly boys) engaged in playful pastimes. The figures in his seashore scenes seem diminutive, generally set widely apart in the deep vistas of space, often romping about in wet sand.

 

By the mid-1960s, Bliss switched focus almost exclusively to painting mid-teenage boys, particularly athletes, trapeze artists, gymnasts, tightrope walkers, etc. One can feet the weight of tensed muscles in these pictures, the extraordinary split-second release of gravity as bodies soar above the challenges of the bar.

 

While rarely openly erotic, most of Bliss’ paintings of boys are sensual and many of them are sexually suggestive. For instance, one of Bliss’ paintings, a classic Saint Sebastian pose with the boy’s head thrown back, has the subject’s skivvies at a 30 degree angle, suggesting that someone had attempted to pull them down. Another painting pictures two boys sitting opposite each other, both facing a red-orange beach ball in the middle, one boy toeing the ball with his left foot and gently touching the other boy’s knee with his right foot. Bliss has been able to capture these boys in a style and technique that has seldom been seen since his death.

 

Bliss was also an active photographer and was in charge of the photographic library and program at Deerfield Academy. Part of the donated archive includes a couple dozen 8”x10” black & white prints of mid-teenage boys, apparently models, photographed by Bliss.

Bliss was extensively written about in the late 1950s and 1960s(particularly in Art News) as a promising young artist. He regularly had a number of one-man exhibits at Vose Gallery (1954-1962), Childs Gallery and The Green Dolphin in Boston, along with occasional exhibits in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the Art Association and Norton-Rogers Gallery. He also exhibited in Manhattan, in Florida and elsewhere. In the 1960s, Look magazine interviewed the top four young artists; Andrew Wyeth selected Robert Bliss (where he was pictured with a couple of his paintings).

 

The late publisher Malcolm Forbes (Forbes magazine) was an avid collector of Bliss’ work. According to a letter in his archive, Forbes has over 40 Bliss paintings in his collection (most are still believed to be in his estate). Furthermore, Forbes spent time visiting Bliss at his home in Hull during the 1960s.

 

Leslie-Lohman has one Bliss painting, circa 1963, in its collection. The Foundation would like to expand its collection to include later works. The whereabouts of the bulk of Bliss’ paintings is unknown. They occasionally show up in New England regional auctions and in Manhattan gay-related benefit auctions.

 

 

 



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