An Interview with Artist George Earl Ortman (1926-2015)

August, 2010

George Earl Ortman was born in Oakland, California in 1926. He studied art at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from 1947-48; with Stanley Hayter at Atelier 17 in New York City in 1949; at the Atelier André Lhote in Paris from 1949-50; and at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York City from 1950-51. In 1953 Ortman and the actress, Julie Bovasso, founded the off-Broadway theater, Tempo Playhouse, in New York City. This theatre group introduced the work of Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet and others to an American audience. During the same year, Ortman had his first solo exhibition at the Tanager Gallery in New York City. Since that time he has had 38 solo exhibitions across the US and in Canada. Ortman taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1960-65, serving as co-chairman of the Fine Arts Department from 1963-65; at New York University from 1963-65; at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey from 1966-69; and at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI as Head of the Graduate School Painting Department from 1970-91. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965, a Lee Krasner Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and an Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Grant in 2008. Ortman’s work may be found in numerous private, corporate and public collections including: in New York City—the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Academy of Design; in Washington D.C.—the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum; in New Jersey—the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and the Newark Museum; in California—the Oakland Museum of California and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; in Minnesota— the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Walker Art Center; the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts; the Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana; and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Ortman lives and works in both Castine, Maine and New York City.

Julie Karabenick: Over the course of your career, your art has been described in a striking variety of terms—surrealist, minimalist, symbolist, geometric, pop, optical—to name a few.

Pyramid
Pyramid, acrylic on Bainbridge board with wood and cord,
46 x 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 x 18 in), 2008

George Ortman: I would like simply to be called an artist. I’m concerned with exploring the possibilities presented by the picture plane and expressing new ideas with materials and process.

 

Community
Communityoil on canvas mounted on wood,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1964
Collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

I have always been interested in what makes art. How is it that space, form and color painted on a flat surface can create a kind of magic?

Dance of Life
Dance of Lifeacrylic on canvas mounted on wood, aluminum,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1966

Over time, I studied the use of signs and symbols in painting and theater. I was especially drawn to the paintings of Miró, Klee and Kandinsky. I was very impressed by the theater of Samuel Beckett. He could capture a sense of place and situation by a single symbol, such as an old shoe or tattered hat. The power of his intellect and his memory recall were extraordinary.

Once and Once Again
Once and Once Againoil on canvas mounted on wood, ping pong balls,
102 x 203 cm (40 x 80 in), 1961
Collection of University of Texas, Austin, Texas

In my very early works, I incorporated objects and shapes intuitively.

Comedy in Five Acts
Comedy in Five Acts, oil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster,
46 x 74 cm (18 x 29 in), 1956

The meanings of these objects and shapes were not clear to me at that time. Looking at these pieces years later, the shapes and objects have more meaning to me. However, they did not have the clarity and ability to communicate that I feel more simple geometric symbols and signals have; they were more an abstract experience of nature.

Hermaphrodite
Hermaphrodite, oil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster,
86 x 61 cm (34 x 24 in), 1957

JK: Not long into your career you began to focus primarily on geometric shapes.

GO: As I worked, I began to simplify my forms. Regular geometric shapes were easier to make—easier to cut from wood—than were more complex organic shapes.

Peace II
Peace II, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1961

I grew fascinated with these forms—shapes like the square or triangle that we see all around us. I wondered what these forms meant. How had geometric forms been used as a language?

I was asking myself questions about what I was doing, where things in my art were coming from. This led me to look at art more broadly, to look, for example, at primitive art, art of different cultures, art of the insane, children’s art and folk art.

New Gate
New Gate, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
244 x 203 cm (96 x 80 in), 1968

To the square I attached the meaning of intellect or knowledge. The circle to me was the feminine—the intuition or the memory of our nature. I felt the triangle reflected the union of man and God, the earth and the heavens.

JK: From the outset you worked with a broad range of materials.

GO: I’ve always been interested in exploring ways to put a picture together. Using simple geometric forms, I’ve experimented with many different materials. I like to work with contrasts—smooth and rough, hard and soft, recessed and projected on the flat picture plane.

Rally
Rally, acrylic on canvas and aluminum mounted on wood,
183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1966
Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

The nature of the materials themselves can become symbolic. Fabricating with metal—aluminum—instead of canvas, and putting it next to a symbol made from plaster is to me an interesting idea to work with. The aluminum suggests the cold machine hardness of an industrial world; the plaster and the painted canvas the sensuous, the soft—more reflective of our inherited nature.

Congregation
Congregation, acrylic on canvas, aluminum, plaster
mounted on wood, 122 x 81 cm (48 x 32 in), 1966

JK: You’ve made a number of large banners.

GO: In the early 70s, the dealer, Marian Goodman, commissioned a group of artists to make banners.This posed an interesting color problem for me. I would make a drawing, then with color sample cards, I visualized the colors and their weights, and marked them so a fabricator would be able to achieve the results I wanted. I’ve made 17 banners, the largest being 21 x 21 feet.

Banner for Music Building, Indiana University
Banner for Music Building, Indiana University,
felt, 640 x 640 cm (252 x 252 in), 1972

JK: In your reliefs you work with contrasts of color and depth across the picture plane.

Walker
Walker, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood,
183 x 183 cm ( 72 x 72 in), 1972

GO: There seems to be something magical that occurs when you alter the perception of color through the use of relief. For example, we generally experience light colors as coming forward and dark colors as receding. However, if I paint a square a dark yellow and physically project it one inch forward on a lighter yellow surface, the darker yellow seems to come forward. If I paint a square light blue and recess it one inch behind a darker blue surface, the light blue appears to breathe or expand. It seems to struggle to come forward despite its recessed physical placement. With relief it’s possible to introduce ambiguity to our perceptions of color. We can make colors tell stories they are not supposed to tell.

Double Triangle
Double Triangle, acrylic on board, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1995

JK: You’ve also achieved relief effects working with tapestry.

GO: I designed the pieces and had them woven about two inches deep. Areas could then be shaved down according to my specifications. The tapestries were done in India.

Seeing is Believing
Seeing is Believing, wool tapestry, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1967

JK: Since your early work, you’ve often incorporated objects into your constructions and sculptures.

Rites of Love
Rites of Love, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
ping pong balls, 229 x 76 cm (90 x 30 in), 1963
Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota

GO: When I use objects in my work, they must transform their physical presence in order to achieve a complete reality.

East of Hoboken
East of Hobokenacrylic on canvas, wood, plaster, rope and graphite,
51 x 51 x 41 cm (20 x 20 x 16 inches), 2005

That reality for me is a synthesis of an object’s physical properties and other ideas it suggests.

Garden I
Garden I, acrylic, graphite and wood on board,
76 x 86 x 41 cm (30 x 34 x 16 in), 2004

JK: Geometric shapes have formed the basis for a number of chess sets you’ve constructed.

playing chess
George Ortman and his stepson, Roger Whidden,
playing chess on one of Ortman’s chess sets
Photo credit Lynn Braswell

GO: I have made six chess sets. I make them using the geometric vocabulary of my constructions.

Chess Set
Chess Set, acrylic on wood, 84 x 91 cm (33 x 36 in), 1970

JK: Let’s look more closely at the development of your art. You were born in Oakland, California in 1926.

GO: Yes. As a young man, my grandfather had entered the new field of electrical engineering. He’d worked with Thomas Edison in Chicago, but then did not accompany Edison to New Jersey to start the Invention Factory, Edison’s research laboratories. Grandpa was a bit of a romantic and travelled around the country for the railroad. He helped install electric trains, first in Davenport, Iowa, then in Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Arizona, and from Sausalito to San Rafael in California. He fell in love with California, and when the railroad company wanted him in Oregon, he quit and opened a business wiring houses—George Earl Ortman Electric. The housing boom was in Oakland, so he moved the business and his family there, where I was born.

During the Depression, my grandfather lost the business. My father was able to get a maintenance position at Mills College with the benefit that the family could take classes there, and at age five I began three years of art classes for children on Saturdays. My mother apparently thought I might have some talent, and transferred me to a school for cartooning and illustration where I spent another three years. I took art classes in high school, so by the time I graduated, I’d had about 12 years of training in art.

JK: What were your plans after graduating?

GO: At that time—in the 40s—when you graduated from high school all you thought about was going to war. I spent two years in the Navy and the Naval Air Corps. When I got out, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. It never entered my mind to be an artist. I got a job as a postman for a while, but this became boring. A friend from the service had an uncle who was an architect. The uncle advised him to go to art school if he wanted to be an architect, and my friend later told me how exciting this was. We had the GI bill, which meant free tuition, $75 a month for living expenses and $35 a month for supplies. So that’s how I began art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts—now California College of the Arts—in Oakland in 1947. The classes I liked most were watercolor and a class where you were encouraged to experiment, and where I tried all sorts of things. As far as painting was concerned, I didn’t have the patience to wait for oils to dry!

After about a year and a half, I decided that there must be something more to art than Oakland, California, so in 1949, I got on a bus to New York City where I arrived with about $35 in my pocket. Fortunately, I had a friend I could stay with. I got a job as a busboy and started looking around for art schools. I tried the Art Student’s League, but it was too academic and pretty much what I had left behind in California. So I visited museums and wondered what next, when I remembered an art teacher, George Harris, had told me to be sure to look up Stanley William Hayter.

JK: The Surrealist printmaker who founded Atelier 17 in Paris, moving it to New York at the beginning of WW II.

GO: Yes. I went to see him while he was teaching a class, and after about 15 minutes of talking, he gave me a copper plate, burin, scraper and #8 engraving tool and told me to go to work. Hayter was extremely bright and talented. His atelier was cosmopolitan and very friendly. Experimentation was encouraged, and everyone would share information and techniques. I thought the work at Hayter’s shop was the best going on in New York at that time. I did etchings and engravings. Most of my work involved fantasy images, images mainly derived from primitive art.

JK: Did you feel a kinship with the Surrealists?

GO: I liked their great freedom and the fact that they worked from the imagination. It’s interesting that the Surrealists seemed to want people to believe that they didn’t have any rules, that they championed the undisciplined, the dream and fantasy world, the irrational and the automatic. Yet a number of the Surrealist painters —such as de Chirico, Miró, Dali and Matta—were huge intellects who explored space in painting, which is a highly intellectual approach to the picture plane.

JK: Did their explorations inspire you?

GO: I felt that these painters created a new space in which to express their vocabularies. I, too, wanted to create my own space to house my furniture, my vocabulary.

JK: After the war, many artists, including Hayter, returned to Europe.

GO: In 1949, everyone around Hayter was talking about getting back to Paris. I knew I could get the GI bill there, and decided to go as well.

JK: So once again as a young man, you set off on what to many would have been a most daunting adventure.

GO: I arrived in Paris with about $2 in my pocket. It took about three months for my GI bill money to arrive, but a friend of mine—the Chilean painter and printmaker, Enrique Zañartu, who had worked with me at Hayter’s in New York—convinced the concierge to allow me to stay until the money came through. Enrique spoke French very well and helped me a great deal with getting settled in Paris.

JK: While In Paris, you studied at the Atelier André Lhote.

GO: Lhote was a cubist and a traditional European teacher. The attitude was that students were there to learn what the teacher did. This was hard to take for most Americans, and, being American, arrogant and very young, I paid little attention to Lhote, which was rather stupid of me. But Enrique had a studio nearby and a press, so in the mornings I went to school and drew and painted from the model and in the afternoons I worked on the press.

JK: It was in Paris that you first began to actually cut into your canvases. How did this come about?

GO: At that time I felt unsure about what I was doing, and I went to Enrique for advice. He told me to lock myself in my room and just draw—draw anything. After about two months of this I asked myself why I was just drawing things. It got a little claustrophobic in my room, and there was a whole world going on just outside my door. Why not bring some of the outside in? Why not build a door rather than draw a door on the picture plane? Why not actually build a window on the picture plane rather than draw it?

I recall that, like the Surreaists, I wanted to do something different plastically, something new on the picture plane. So I began doing mixed media constructions—paintings on canvas into which I incorporated doors and boxes with objects inserted into them. Integrating objects into the canvas induced a kind of schizophrenic sense of two and three dimensions at work simultaneously.

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