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

August, 2010

JK: As we’ve seen, you made a number of chess sets using a geometric vocabulary. Here’s an early one from 1962.

Chess Set
Chess Set, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood and on
sculpted metal, ping pong balls, 97 x 71 x 61 cm
(38 x 28 x 24 in), 1962

GO: It took a long time for me to conceive the first one. I wanted to make a chess set using the vocablary I was using in my constructions. Some chess pieces were easy to align with my forms. The castle: the square—strength. The bishop: the cross—religion. The queen: a circle—woman. The king: the diamond—communication from man to the heavens. The knight and the pawn took a lot of thought. The knight, which moves in a strange way on the board: the heart—romantic, erratic. And last the pawn, which only moves forward or forward to the side when taking a prisoner: the arrow.

JK: It’s interesting that you also have worked with different types of fabric.

GO: When making a tapestry, I would make drawings, select the colors, and note the depths I wanted. Then the tapestries were woven in India. I didn’t actually go to the workshop there, but I was told that the pieces were woven several inches thick, then cut down with a shaving machine to create the depth of relief I specified.

Rendevous, wool, 122 x 213 cm (48 x 84 in), 1966

JK: And your large banners?

GO: For the banners I would make drawings to scale and select the colors. They were then made from felt under my supervision by a fabric house in New York City.

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

JK: In addition to your many geometrically-based reliefs and sculptures, from the early 60s through the late 80s, you also developed a large series called Imitations. Based on your intensive studies of great master paintings, you both created your own versions of them and derived purely nonobjective paintings and constructions from them. How did this series come about?

GO: At that time I was moving away from more minimal works and dealing with symbols as a kind of parade of relationships. I hoped that presented together, the symbols would communicate ideas.

There were a number of possible sources for the Imitations. First, I had studied at the atelier of André Lhote in Paris. Lhote painted the figure from a cubist perspective, and while there, I did some figurative work in this style. This experience may have influenced my thinking about the figure as something I could geometricize.

I also read in February, 1960 that some psychologists in St. Louis were trying to learn about their patients by giving them geometric shapes to arrange instead of the traditional Rorschach inkblot test. I found this idea intriguing—that you could learn something about the personality by using geometric shapes.

JK: And you’d always been interested in what a work of art could tell you about its creator, the culture and the times.

GO: This has been an ongoing interest. When I look at a painting, I first look at its plastics, but second and almost immediately thereafter, I want to know about the artist, about what influenced his work. I thought that I might be able to find out something about the personality of the painter by taking apart his work, breaking it down using geometry and trying to bring out its essence.

JK: You began by drawing from models.

Study from the figure
Eve II
Study, pencil on paper, 56 x 46 cm
(22 x 18 in), 1962
Eve II, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1962
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

GO: I would pose a model, do a drawing, and then pull out the geometry, as in the study above. I then made constructions like Eve I and II and Adam based on these studies.

Adam
Eve I
Adam, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1962
Eve I, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1962
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

This work led into my study of old master paintings. First I made a painting based on Matisse’s The Piano Lesson. As you can see, I turned the boy’s head into a wheel or machine shape, and I placed a small tape player behind the painting to play a recording of the human heartbeat. Matisse painted this picture in 1916 in southern France while 300 miles or so to the north, thousands of soldiers were being slaughtered daily.

Heartbeat
The Piano Lesson
Heartbeat (from The Piano Lesson), oil on
canvas and canvas mounted on wood insert,
218 x 178 cm (86 x 70 in), 1962
Installation shot, Howard Wise Gallery, 1964
The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse, 1916
Collection of The Museum of Modern Art,
New York, NY

My next attempt was based on Boticelli’s Primavera.

Primavera
Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Again, I would begin with studies, looking for geometric configurations among the figures.

  
Study from Botticelli Primaverapencil on paper,
56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 1963
Study from Botticelli Primavera, pencil on paper,
56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 1963

I would isolate the geometry and gradually remove the figurative elements.

Study from Botticelli
       Study from Botticelli
Study from Botticelli Primaverapencil on paper,
46 x 56 cm (18 x 22 in), 1963
Study from Botticelli Primavera, pencil on paper,
46 x 56 cm (18 x 22 in), 1963

In Primavera I found the geometry I was looking for. Here is my figurative version of the painting.

Seasons, oil on canvas, 203 x 312 cm (80 x 123 in), 1963

From the central figure of Venus, I made a number of studies and then a construction.

Study from Botticelli Primavera
Venus
Study from Botticelli Primavera, pencil on paper,
56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 1964
Venus, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
paper, 213 x 122 cm (84 x 48 in), 1964

JK: From this extensive Imitations series, let’s look at two more master paintings in which you found material for a number of paintings and constructions—first Les Poseuses (The Models) by Seurat.

Les Poseuses by Georges Seurat, 1888
The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania

GO: Seurat’s painting is extraordinary—perfect composition and proportions, spatial tension and interesting color experiments. I remember talking with Stanley Hayter about Seurat. Hayter said that if you looked closely, you’d realize how Seurat simplified his forms and composition. He designed his pictures with shapes so that, if read as flat, you would have an abstract painting. This was very advanced thinking about the picture plane in 1886.

I made drawings, once again looking for the geometry in the picture.

Study after Suerat (Les Poseuses)
     Study after Suerat (Les Poseuses)
Study from Seurat (Les Poseuses), pencil on paper,
46 x 56 cm (18 x 22 in), 1983
Study from Seurat (Les Poseuses), pencil
on paper, 56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 1982

GO: In my painting of Les Poseuses, I attempted to find a geometric scheme in the composition.

The Models
The Models (After Les Poseuses), oil on canvas,
183 x 249 cm (72 x 98 in), 1983

It was primarily in the center figure that I found the geometry I was looking for.

Study from Seurat (Les Poseuses)
Study from Seurat (Les Poseuses)
Study from Seurat (Les Poseuses), pencil
on paper, 56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 1982
Study from Seurat (Les Poseuses), pencil
on paper, 56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in) 1983

I used the geometry in the pose of the central figure to make three paintings and a construction, all with the same composition, but different colors. I used red to reflect passion, blue spiritual search, yellow innocence and green the modern woman.

Stages (After Seurat)
Stages (After Seurat), Claire, Solange, Madeline, acrylic on canvas,
each painting 193 x 152 cm (76 x 60 in), 1983

The construction, also called Solange, depicts the modern female.

Solange
Solange (After Seurat), acrylic on canvas mounted
on wood, 193 x 152 cm (76 x 60 in), 1985

This painting is an abstract conception of the structure of Seurat’s painting.

Abstraction (After Les poseuses)
Abstraction (After Les Poseuses), acrylic on canvas,
183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1983

Copyright © 2005-2015 GEOFORM. All Rights Reserved.
All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

site by Massive Ant

hi