George Ortman, American (1926 - )

George Ortman

Birth place: Oakland, CA

"He belongs to that small club of erstwhile neglected artists who share the distinction of having been reviewed admiringly in Arts magazine in the early 1960s by the sculptor (and then critic) Donald Judd. Other members include John Wesley and Lee Bontecou, and to some extent Ken Price; the Judd imprimatur wasn't the only reason they gained visibility, but it helped.

It is easy to understand Mr. Judd's interest in Mr. Ortman's work. The four early reliefs here indicate that Mr. Ortman was ahead of the curve in making what Mr. Judd would soon call ''specific objects.'' Mr. Judd reserved the term for three-dimensional wall and floor pieces that split the difference between painting and sculpture, usually through the use of nonart materials, and avoided the overly familiar generalness of both.

In the late 1950s Mr. Ortman's idea of painting was to cover his canvas with little circles, squares or strips of canvas, either dipped in color or left raw. This collage-quilting technique seems influenced by the separate-but-equal encaustic brushstrokes of Jasper Johns's flag and target paintings. The goal was to make every element of the composition, every color shift, a distinct physical entity; Mr. Judd was adapting this idea in his own work at the time.

By 1964 Mr. Ortman was on to something completely different. In the more recent works here he has returned to abstraction in a series of architectural sculptures. They extrude his geometric compositions into three dimensions and also bring to mind the work of Frank Gehry."

- NY Times 2006

Ortman first exhibited in the Salon de Mai in Paris in 1950. Upon his return to New York City he was invited to join the Artist' Club, a meeting place for artists whose members included early proponents of Action painting and Color Field painting. In 1953 he had his first solo exhibition at the Tanager Gallery, one of the Tenth Street a co-operative galleries that together formed an avant-garde alternative to the more conservative 57th Street and Madison Avenue galleries. In 1954, he and actress Julie Bovasso founded the Tempo Playhouse to perform contemporary European playwrights, including the first American showings of Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, and Michel de Ghelderode.

In 1954 and 1960, he showed simplified geometric constructions at the Stable Gallery. This work was viewed by Donald Judd as a precursor to Minimalism. In July 1960 he married the artist, Conni Whidden. In 1965 Ortman was appointed artist in residence at Princeton University, and was honored with a retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

In 1970 Ortman assumed the position of Head of the Painting Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. His wife of 30 years died in 1991. The following year Ortman left Cranbrook. Returning to the East Coast, he moved to Castine, Maine, where he lives and works.

In a catalogue essay for an exhibition of Ortman's work at Princeton University in 1967, American poet, Stanley Kunitz, wrote: "Ortman's work could not have been produced except for an artist of bold analytical intelligence, with a sense of the usable past and an inexhaustible curiosity about the way the thing is made, the "sacred mystery."

In Arts Yearbook 7 (1964), Donald Judd wrote: "Some of George Ortman’s reliefs are three-dimensional enough to be objects. They seem to be games or models for some activity and suggest chance … They suggest probability theory. They are one of the few instances of completely unnaturalist art. They are concerned with a new area of experience, one which is relevant philosophically as well as emotionally."

Studied: Ariz. State Univ.; Calif. Col. A. & Cr.; Atelier 17, NYC; Acad. Andre Lhote, Paris, France; Hans Hofmann Sch., NYC

Exhibited: Carnegie Int., Pittsburgh, Pa., 1960, 1964 & 1970; "Toward a New Abstraction," Jewish Mus., New York, 1963; Tokyo Biennial, Japan, 1964; "100 Years of American Art," 1964 & "Two Decades of Geometric Abstraction," 1965, WMAA; Gimpel-Weitzenhoffer Galleries, NYC, 1970s. Awards: Guggenheim fel., 1965; first prize for Religion in Art, Birmingham Mus. Art, 1966; first prize, NJ State Mus. Second Ann., 1967.

Work: MoMA & WMAA; Walker Art Ctr., Minneapolis, Minn.; Albright-Knox Art Gal., Buffalo, NY; Milwaukee Art Ctr., Wis. Commissions: relig. banners, Christian Theol. Sem. Indianapolis, Ind., 1966; mural, comn. by Bd. Educ., NYC, 1967; Reredo, Unitarian Church, Princeton, NJ, 1968; banners, Indiana Univ. Opera House, 1971; Oracle (three panels), Mfrs. Hanover Trust, 1971.

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