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

August, 2010

JK: You also made many works based on da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper.

GO: This was the painting that I spent the most time studying. It is a magnificent piece. I began shortly after the Seurat Imitation. I found Les Poseuses a most complete and realized painting plastically. I now wanted to work with themes, with allegory, and The Last Supper was the painting to learn from.

Da Vinci used four events written about in the Gospels, The Holy Communion: this is my blood, one of you will betray me, they turned and argued with each other, and I am the way. The use of the figures’ gestures and the capturing of the actions like a photographic snapshot communicate the event.

Da Vinci’s construction of the painting started with a geometric plan. Employing one point perspective, he then had a frontal plane that was the table and the apostles.

The Last Supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1495-98
Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

As may be seen in my study, the apostles were posed in such a way as to be in frames of diamonds.

Study from da Vinci
Study from da Vinci (The Last Supper), pencil on paper,
76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1985

Here are two studies of individual groups of figures.

Study from da Vinci
Study from da Vinci
Study from da Vinci (The Last Supper), pencil on
paper, 56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in), 1986
Study from da Vinci (The Last Supper), pencil on
paper, 56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in), 1986

JK: And here is a study with the figures omitted.

GO: The painting is readily identifiable even without the figures because of the one point deep perspective with the table that runs across the picture establishing a frontal plane on the deep space.

Study from da Vinci (The Last Supper), pencil on paper,
76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1985

And here is my abstraction of the painting.

Time After Time
Time after Time (After da Vinci), acrylic and oil on canvas, 178 x 305 cm (70 x 120 in), 1986

And this is a study based on the painting.

Study from Time after Time
Study from Time after Time (After da Vinci), acrylic on paper,
50 x 51 cm cm (19.5 x 20 in), 1986

While working on this project, I learned that some scholars believed that the table was U-shaped rather than the long table portrayed by da Vinci. So I decided to do some paintings with a U-shaped table and, using da Vinci’s diamond structure, draw the apostles in different poses. This is a study for the painting.

Passage
Passage, pencil on paper, 76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1986

And here is the painting. I attempted to create an interior close to the period and to dress the apostles in the manner of biblical times.

Pass
Passage, acrylic and oil on canvas, 178 x 305 cm (70 x 120 in), 1987

JK: Below is a large non-objective paintings you made based on the U-shaped table composition.

GO: And also using da Vinci’s spatial plan.

Passage
Passage, acrylic and oil on canvas, 178 x 305 cm (70 x 120 in), 1987

JK: As well as two smaller studies you made based on your larger work.

Study from Passage
Study from Passage, acrylic on paper, 71 x 74 cm (28 x 29 in), 1987

GO: Yes, these studies are done from Passage, my painting with the U-shaped table.

Study from Passage, acrylic on paper, 69 x 76 cm (27 x 30 in), 1987

This image was taken in my Cranbrook Academy of Art studio when I was working on the da Vinci project.

Cranbrook studio
George Ortman with works based on da Vinci’s
The Last Supper, Cranbrook studio, 1987.

While working on this project, the writings of Samuel Beckett were also of much interest to me. I feel that working on the da Vinci and rereading Beckett led directly to constructions based on urban America.

JK: Previously, you had taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1960 to 65, at New York University from 1963 to 65, and at Princeton from 1966 to 69. From 1970 to 91, you were head of the Graduate School Painting Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, not far from Detroit.

GO: Yes. My late wife, the painter, Conni Whidden, and I moved to Bloomfield Hills and took up residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1970. This was just three years after the riots, and Detroit was rapidly declining. People were leaving the city and moving to the suburbs. The environment in Detroit was not good.

Cranbrook is a rather special place. Twenty miles north of Detroit, it was built in 1930. It houses a boys’ school, a girls’ school, a nursery school, a science museum, an art museum, and a graduate school of the arts. All of this is on 600 acres, and it was designed and built by Eliel Saarinen. It is quite spectacular.

The art school has nine departments and one teacher for each. It is a two year program, so the students and teachers get to know each other quite well. I was provided with a house across the street from the school and my studio. My wife’s studio was in the house.

I found teaching very challenging. There are lots of people who say that you can’t teach art. There is truth in that, but you can talk to the student and show the student both art that has been done in the past and art that is being done currently. And you can, if you see something you feel is original in the student’s work, encourage it. But I believe the genius in a work of art is memory, that is, the broad and deep memories that are evoked from experience—and you cannot teach that. So we would talk a lot about the student’s art and about artists both past and present. It is interesting to hear observations from bright young students, and it is very exciting to watch them get excited about their ideas and get overheated at Friday critiques.

During my time as a teacher, I met many talented and dedicated young men and women. Many I am still in contact with. Many have become good friends.

JK: You did a group of constructions, some of them quite large, based on your impressions of Detroit.

Motown Rhythm & Blues
Detroit, Rhythm & Blues detail
Motown Rhythm & Blues detail
Motown Rhythm & Blues, oil on canvas, glass, plaster, sculpted
metal, nails, cord, graphite,183 x 203 cm (72 x 80 in), 1990
Motown Rhythm & Blues details

In works like Motown Rhythm & Blues, I wanted to reflect the violence going on in Detroit, the decadence and decay, the decline of religion. There are two reliquaries in this work—a gloved hand trying to reach up above broken glass and crosses—one studded with nails. The hands are taken from The Last Supper.

Detroit, Rhythm & Blues detail
Detroit, Rhythm & Blues detail

With The City at 4:00 AM, I made a more openly structured piece, perhaps like a skeleton. Again, the reliquaries refer to the decadence and collapse of the city. With this work I was trying to take an image or an object from a scene and use it to recreate a sense of place.

The City at 4:00 AM
The City at 4:00 AM detail
The City at 4:00 AM detail
The City at 4:00 AM, oil and acrylic on canvas and wood, eggshells, ashes,
graphite, cord, ping pong balls, board,
239 x 239 cm (94 x 94 in), 1991
The City at 4:00 AM details

Jefferson Avenue is also part of this series that I made during my last years at Cranbrook.

Jefferson Avenue
Jefferson Avenue, oil on canvas and wood, graphite, collage,
152 x 137 cm (60 x 54 in), 1990
Collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan

JK: And this very large work, Life Styles?

GO: This piece is more autobiographical. Individual areas refer to the various styles of my work over the years—the geometry and symbols, the early constructions, the use of allegory.

Life Styles
Life Styles (5 panels), oil and acrylic on canvas and wood, glass, plaster, graphite, sand,
208 x 427 cm (82 x 168 in), 1991

JK: Here are a few detail views from this complex and ambitious work.

Life Styles detailLife Styles detail

JKAllegory is also another very large work from this period.

Allegory
Allegory, oil on canvas, wood, mixed mediums,
351 x 406 cm (138 x 160 in), 1992

GO: Allegory begins with the lower left panel, Beginnings—the beginnings of life, ritual, religion, followed by Birth, upper left panel—the spread of religion.

Beginnings, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
117 x 122 cm (46 x 48 in), 1992
Birth, acrylic on canvas 117 x 122 cm (46 x 48 in), 1992

Schism, upper right panel, indicates dissolution, and Holocaust, below it, destruction.

Schism, acrylic on canvas, 117 x 122 cm (46 x 48 in), 1992Holocaust, oil on canvas and wood, sand, graphite,
117 x 122 cm (46 x 48 in), 1992

JK: You moved back to the East Coast in 1993 to work both in Castine, Maine and New York City. How did this relocation from the Midwest affect your art?

GO: My works since 1960 have been architectural, that is, the art of designing and erecting physical structures. However, when I returned to New York, the change was dramatic. Certainly the environment had been one of buildings in the 1960s, but during the 90s and the last decade, New York City has become a mecca for architects from all over the world to have the opportunity to realize their ambitions. Their influence is quite apparent in sculpture and vice versa.

I made about 30 smaller constructions.

Yagul
Yagul, acrylic on Bainibridge board, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1994

These works seemed to come more or less automatically. They would usually begin with a shape or form, then this would suggest something else.

JK: Many of these constructions are very colorful.

Mikado
Mikado, acrylic on Bainbridge board, 91 x 97 cm (36 x 38 in), 1997

GO: There is no reason for the selection of colors other than they pleased me.

Zapatec
Zapatec, acrylic on Bainbridge board, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1994

I think these pieces are about color and light.

Sun Dance
Sun Dance, acrylic on Bainbridge board,
91 x 97 cm (36 x 38 in), 1997

JK: From 1992 through 1996, you worked on a large, four-part piece called A Portrait of Samuel Beckett.

GO:I began to work on the Beckett piece at Cranbrook.The ideas for the Birth and Life panels came quickly, but it was several years before I could resolve the Death panel. The fourth panel, Legacy, contains references to what I felt were his finest theater pieces.

Birth, oil on canvas on wood, graphite, nails, egg,
91 x 84 cm (36 x 33 in), 1992-96
Life, oil on canvas mounted on wood, acrylic, plaster,
91 x 84 cm (36 x 33 in), 1992-96
Death, oil on canvas, paper, ink, plaster, glass, sand,
eggshells, wood, graphite, cigarette butts,
91 x 84 cm (36 x 33 in), 1992-96
Legacy, tree branch, cord, graphite, ink on paper, photographs,
sand, 91 x 81 cm (36 x 32 in), 1992-96
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