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

August, 2010

Beginnings, done in November 1949, was the first time I cut shapes in the picture plane. The large plane is sky, the other three are levels in the earth. This construction is suggestive of growth.

Beginnings, oil on masonite, dowels, thread,
64 x 46 cm (25 x 18 in), 1949

The objects in the cutout shapes are compositions made with 1/8″ dowels and thread. Their meaning is beyond me, though perhaps not back when I made the piece.

Beginnings detailBeginnings detail

JK: One of these constructions, Fertile Plant, looks like a surrealist image with an actual enclosure below it.

GO: There’s a plant-like image and at the horizon line are doors opening as if into the earth. The box contains dowels that suggest roots.

Fertile Plant
Fertile Plant, oil on masonite, dowels,
66 x 20 cm (26 x 8 in), 1950

At the time, I was using hand tools to make my constructions, and the cutting process was quite difficult. I decided to make things easier by simplifying the shapes I was using. After all, a square or a circle is easier to cut and back with wood than a complex free form.

The use of these simplified shapes began to get me interested in the language of geometric art. I wondered where in the world these forms came from. I recall that as a boy, I used to do a lot of camping with friends. We used symbols and signs to mark our trails that American Indians had used, and back then, I had a whole scrapbook of them.

Unfortunately I was only able to bring back two of the seven constructions I made in Paris when I returned to New York. When I arrived, I found that Abstract Expressionism was going full blast. The Club had formed, and I was asked to join.

JK: The Club—a meeting place for artists and, most famously, the Abstract Expressionists—that had opened on East 8th Street in 1949.

GO: I had known several painters in New York before I left for Paris, so when I came back I renewed my acquaintance with them. The work of these painters was non-objective and abstract. I abandoned the constructions for painting for a while, but this didn’t work out. The constructions were more interesting to me than anything else, so I returned to them.

JK: In 1953 you had your first solo exhibition at the Tanager Gallery, one of a cluster of emerging artist-run galleries on 10th Street in the Lower East Side.

GO: This was a very tough time for American artists. You had all these GIs coming back from Europe and graduating from art schools with very few places to show. We were all poor, and no one was buying art. We were receiving no critical attention. The few uptown galleries there were at that time were primarily showing European artists.

The Tanager Gallery was begun by a group of artists who knew each other in Italy—Angelo Ippolito, Fred Mitchell, Bill King, Lois Dodd and Charles Cajori. One day I was walking home from my job at a bookstore and I went in. They soon invited me to become a member. The Tanager was the first co-op gallery in the 50s, originally on 4th Street, then it moved to 10th Street.

A turning point for the co-ops came when the Tanager gallery received critical attention from a major reviewer, Stuart Preston of The New York Times, for a one person exhibition by John Grillo. In 1953 I had a show at Tanager with sculptor, Calvin Albert. I exhibited prints and two constructions.

JK: At this time you were meeting people involved in theater.

GO: I was then married to the actress, playwright and teacher, Julie Bovasso. Actors always seem to be talking about how bad American theater is, so one evening I suggested that we build our own theater and put on plays we thought should be performed. Julie and I found a loft, raised what money we could, and founded Tempo Playhouse on St. Marks Place. We decided to open with Jean Genet’s play, The Maids. It was well received. The critic, Richard Watts of the New York Post, listed it as one of the 10 best productions of the year—quite an honor for a theater that could seat only 120 people!

JK: How did your engagement with the work of these playwrights who rejected the realist tradition and focused on the essentials of the human condition influence you?

GO: We put on the Genet play, two plays by Ionesco, and one by Ghelderode. At that time I also became acquainted with the play, Waiting for Godotby Samuel Beckett. We weren’t able to acquire the play, but reading it opened new doors for me. Beckett, who was a scholar as well as a superb writer, made a lifelong study to find what was truth, what in our education and experience was real and true.

The play showed me a way to work with allegory in my constructions. I could then think in terms of a dictionary of symbols and signs that I could use to express my ideas.

JK: In 1957 you had a solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery.

GO: I showed a number of constructions that were quite surreal. They had drawers and doors and parts that moved. They invited participation by the viewer.

JK: Let’s look at a few of these constructions.

GO: Time Piece was one of the first constructions I made after returning from Paris.

Time Piece
Time Piece, oil on wood with clock, cork balls,
56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 1955

This was the first time I incorporated a readymade object. The work suggests the idea of nature contrasted with the machine.

Time Piece detailTime Piece detail

 Another construction from this time, Harmony, brings together male and female. Here, the roundness, curves and sensuousness of the female and the angular, solid, bold presence of the male are in visual harmony.

Harmony, oil on wood, dowels, eggs,
56 x 56 x 10 cm (22 x 22 x 4 in) 1956

JK: We see a life’s journey symbolically represented in the construction Journey of a Young Man.

GO: The journey begins in the far left panel with a single egg that symbolizes innocence. The man grows in awareness, conforms—one eye, then comes the central target-like circle with a hole symbolizing disillusionment.

Journey of a Young Man
Journey of a Young Man, oil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster, eggs, 102 x 279 cm (40 x 110 in), 1957

Next comes chaos, then full awareness, and finally a return to innocence in the final panel, again with a single egg. This was not the best of times for me. I was very poor, Julie and I were divorcing, and life was rather grim. The innocence with which I had begun my journey had taken many blows, and I wanted to express that in the construction.

Journey of a Young Man details

JK: In the same year you represented life’s journey in a far more simplified fashion.

GO: Yes, Stages of Life was also made in 1957. It was the first work in which I limited the shapes to a purely geometric vocabulary. I had replaced drawing with simple geometry and a harder, more mechanical surface. In my very earliest use of geometric forms, I was simplifying shapes so that they would be easier to fabricate. Here, I wanted visual simplification. I wanted to eliminate all that I felt unnecessary and to express life’s patterns and repetitions.

Stages of Life
Stages of Life, oil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster, 64 x 142 cm (25 x 56 in), 1957

The first of the three large squares has a triangle with a floating ball inside a square opening, the second large square contains a square with a floating triangle inside a circular opening, and the third square has a circle enclosing a cube floating within a triangular opening.

Stages of Life detailStages of Life detailStages of Life detail
Stages of Life details

JK: And this sculptural piece?

GO: Cube, made at the same time as Stages of Life, was the beginning of the use of primary colors in my work.

Cube, oil on canvas mounted on wood, ping pong
balls , 25 x 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 x 10 in), 1957

JK: In 1957 you were also in a group exhibition with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, at Leo Castelli’s gallery. Some writers have noted links among your work and theirs, for example:

“In many ways, Ortman’s work is a missing link between post-war abstraction and the geometric art of the 1960s. As such it fits neatly beside the occult assemblage of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in a progression away from Abstract Expressionism towards something both concrete and revelatory.” (Mitchell Algus, 2006).

What do you think this link was?

GO: Leo Castelli’s gallery opened in 1957. The season of 1957-58 was an important year. I showed in November of 1957 at the Stable Gallery and Louise Nevelson showed in December at the Grand Central Modern Gallery. Jasper Johns showed in February of 1958 at the Leo Castelli Gallery and Robert Rauschenberg showed there that May. These four exhibitions were a departure from Abstract Expressionsim, and in a few years the mood in New York changed. These shows opened up a whole new world of experimentation for artists. Many continued the development of new forms and media, and this would lead to the development of Pop art in 1962.

JK: Your constructions continued to become more geometric and minimal, anticipating the Minimalist movement of the 60s.

Squareoil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster,
ping pong balls, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1958

GO: I did a group of largely white on white constructions that featured the square, the circle, the triangle, the star, the diamond and the cross. I showed these constructions at the Stable Gallery in January, 1960, and they met with a great deal of success from both critics and other artists.

Crossoil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster,
ping pong balls, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1958
Collection of Yale University Art Galleries, New Haven, Connecticut

Again I was trying to do something innovative plastically, and I concentrated a lot on surface treatment. I put smooth plaster surfaces next to rough areas collaged with pieces of canvas. I cut into the surface and floated objects in the openings. Over the series, these works grew more simple and minimal—as can be seen in Circle

Circle, oil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1958

… and Triangle.

Triangle,oil on canvas mounted on wood, plaster,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1958
Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York

JK: You were also making brightly colored geometric constructions.

GO: At this point, my vocabulary was pretty well established, and I was focused on the aesthetics of color, proportion and light on the picture plane. I felt that geometric forms plus some others like straight or wavy lines gave me great freedom to experiment. I like to use raw color—intense and almost straight from the tube.

Tales of Love
Tales of Love, oil on canvas mounted on wood, collage,
plaster183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1959

Or sometimes I’d work mainly in monochrome. I was exploring the nature of space through a combination of advancing and receding colors and protruding and recessed surfaces. With relief you can make colors do unconventional things, adding tension and the unexpected. For example, colors that normally recede can be made to advance by physically projecting them forward.

Blue Diamond
Blue Diamondoil on canvas mounted on wood,
collage, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1960

It wasn’t until I had had four exhibitions that critics began to refer to me as an artist. Earlier, they would say, “He decided …” or “Ortman worked … .” Then in 1962, it was, “The artist makes his … .” I felt pretty good about that.

Installation at Howard Wise Gallery, 1962

JK: As you continued to do constructions, you experimented widely—with color, materials, complexity and scale.

New York Totem, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
229 x 46 x cm (90 x 18 in), 1961
Collection of the Guggenheim Museum of Art,
New York, New York
Southern Totem, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
229 x 46 x cm (90 x 18 in) 1960

GO: At first I used color intuitively. Later, I stared thinking further about color. I admired Odilon Redon’s use of color for its intensity and originality. I am convinced that he was a collector of butterflies and moths. And I admired the Synthesists’ liberation of color from representation. Gauguin’s free use of color released the imagination.

Dyce Head, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1963
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine
Diamond, oil on canvas mounted on wood,
137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 1964
Collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Oracle was the first construction in which I thought of color symbolically. Here, the yellow represents innocence, the red passion, and the blue spiritual search.

Oracle, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood, aluminum, 244 x 366 cm (96 x 144 in), 1968

At this time, I was also exploring new innovations on the picture plane in my constructions. I was working with modules, slanting planes and three-dimensional pieces.

Window, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood,
175 x 152 cm (69 x 60 in), 1967

Motown is a free-standing work with a see-through structure. It was made as a maquette for a large work that was to be installed at the Federal Building in Detroit. It was to be 12′ high, 20′ long and 6′ deep. The maquette was selected, but unfortunately, there was a change in the project’s chief designer, and it was never built

Motown, spray painted plastic, 71 x 112 x 13 cm (28 x 44 x 5 in), 1971

Castine Red is part of a modular series of work exploring color.

Castine Red
Castine Red, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1973

JK: Here we see yet another experiment in relief construction.

Quartonacrylic on canvas mounted on stretcher
and wood, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1974

You were also experimenting with metal, as we can see in the announcement card from your 1967 solo exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery.

Ortman 1966
Announcement card image for Recent Works by George Ortman,
Howard Wise Gallery, 50 West 57th, New York, January 1967
photo taken in Ortman’s Princeton studio

GOLighthouse and Metallurgy were among the first constructions I made with metal. Metal definitely unleashed a different mood—in contrast to working with painted canvas mounted on wood, it reflected technology and the industrial age.

Lighthousealuminum on wood,
229 x 102 cm (90 x 40 in), 1964
Collection of the Des Moines
Museum of Art, Des Moines, Iowa
Metallurgy, aluminum fabricated on wood,
122 x 183 cm (48 x 72 in), 1964
Collection of the Whitney Museum of Art,
New York, New York

JK: And you continued to make free-standing sculptural works like Wall or the two totem-like works shown below it.

Wall, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood,
152 x 183 cm (60 x 72 in), 1974

GO: I worked on tall columns from the 1960s onward. These columns suggest totems, with each section reading as a separate unit. The totem form interested me because of it is allegorical prospects, a progression of symbols on a tall form. Some of the shapes in the columns below are letter forms.

Column I
Column I, acrylic on canvas mounted on wood,
216 x 30 x 30 cm (85 x 12 x 12 in), 1971
Z I, acrylic on aluminum fabricated on wood,
183 x 36 x 15 cm (72 x 14 x 6 in), 1975

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