George Ortman: Against Abstraction
On ViewMitchell Algus Gallery
February 29 – October 4, 2020
Like so many other exhibitions, this one had to close temporarily due to the ongoing pandemic. Timed to coincide with MoMA’s Donald Judd show, which also closed, both can now thankfully continue. One very good reason, amongst others, to visit is to take the opportunity to see George Ortman’s (1926–2015) works not solely through the lens of minimalism—one view that has become habitual—but rather, to think about how Judd and Ortman relate historically, and contrast aesthetically. Judd was well aware of Ortman by the 1960s and cited his works as “preliminaries” of the hybridized “specific object” Judd believed would constitute a new type of work—neither painting nor sculpture—that shared characteristics of the two distinct genres. Both artists pursued the three-dimensional wall-based, painted object, though Ortman’s desire was not the subsequent, reductive illumination of illusion or relational composition. Ortman was a prominent figure on the New York art scene in the 1960s, but the sheer invention, as well as the timeliness of his works, seems to have blindsided critics who struggled to characterize just what these objects were. Dada, surrealism, constructivism or hard-edge, and even simply abstract painting were some of the descriptions used. For Ortman though, multiple interpretations were fine and potentially opened the way for more complex meanings. In an interview from 2010 with Julie Karabenick for Geoform, an online scholarly publication about abstraction, Ortman said, “A painting may be extremely complex and there may be many ideas…in one picture…People have always found something that they could enjoy…and never did I really feel annoyed in any way.”
In order to understand Ortman’s oeuvre and his aims, it’s important to understand his background and biography. During WWII, Ortman studied with French expatriate Stanley William Hayter, the founder of Atelier 17. After Hayter returned to Paris in 1949, Ortman also travelled there on the G.I. Bill, now studying at Atelier André Lhote. The influence of surrealism continued in Paris at this time, driving Ortman’s decision at one point to build a door or window into a painting rather than simply paint images of them. This inclusion of the physical, built object combined with pictorial, spatial issues typified Ortman’s later work. Though he returned to New York the following year, in 1950, Ortman remained influenced by his experiences in France, where he recalled in the Geoform interview that “de Chirico, Miró, Dali and Matta… were huge intellects who explored space in painting.”
Upon returning to New York City, Ortman found himself in the midst of Abstract Expressionism’s most vital moment, and he was even invited to be a member of The Artist’s Club on E. 8th Street. From this confluence, a highly singular form of abstract, or symbolic, object incorporating painting emerged. Early Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg come to mind, though Ortman preferred abstraction, as it provided a wider scope of meaning and interpretation.
Among the works on view at Mitchell Algus, Tales of Love (1959) was first shown in a solo show at the renowned Stable Gallery and signaled the direction Ortman would take, but that New York seemed unready to see. At six feet square, it is a configuration of red and yellow painted collaged canvas squares with a blue central square comprising white triangular and circular plaster insets over wood. It is a confounding work, both heraldic and modernist. The composition is neither formal play nor narrative structure alone—is it lyrical constructivism, or geometric surrealism? Peace II (1961) at 48 by 48 inches is again oil and canvas collage on wood. Four yellow squares superimposed at the center of the otherwise red composition make a cruciform that echoes four squares toward the corners of the painting. A second larger and complex cruciform of geometric sections with a rounded aureole shape remains ambiguous to vision because of the unifying red color—in fact the composition as a whole presents a very mobile sense of surface to space, an exploration of the contradictory possibilities of haptic and perceptual expectation. The examination of spatial complexity through shape, color and relief surface is a constant of these works, as is the use of geometry that could be seen as a sign or a symbol; this is left open.
The more recent work, Study after Bosch, Gaudi and Miro (2013) is 32 by 30 inches and pencil on paper. It is the sort of piece generally regarded as surreal, with borrowed elements from the titular artists astutely rendered and placed within a landscape of imaginative realism. It maps the artist’s thought wonderfully: influences, fellow travellers, formal affiliations. It is hard to say when Ortman’s work will be further recognized, but as time goes on and lazy isms loosen, artists who fall outside the established canon will surely be seen more clearly for their own merits, instead of being held to a measure of conformity by one or another category or art movement. Certainly abstraction is not an adequate, or even appropriate, description of much art that falls under that rubric, including the work presented here.