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“Painting deals with paradox,” wrote the artist Fritz Bultman in a notebook he titled Time and Nature, “For paradox offers us a tantalizing choice that is purely human and it is as a human document, not as a stylistic development, that art has a reason for existence.”
For Bultman, who unfortunately missed his photo-op as one of “The Irascibles” (the group of Abstract Expressionist painters made famous by a 1951 photograph in Life magazine), the paradox in painting was bridging nature and art. On view now at Edelman Arts is an exhibition of some of Bultman’s most important work, offering a rare opportunity to experience the artist’s struggle with this elusive paradox. The exhibition marks the first exhibition of Bultman’s work held in New York in nearly a decade. (The last exhibition was held in 2004 at Gallery Schlesinger, Bultman’s primary advocate since 1982.)
Fritz Bultman (1919–1985) was among the artists associated with the first generation of the New York School. He split his time between Provincetown and New York and counted among his close friends icons like Hans Hoffman, Lee Krasner, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Tony Smith, and Jack Tworkov.
In 1950, Bultman signed the historic letter protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s indifference to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of advanced art. Labeled by the press as “The Irascibles,” the group included almost all the artists who would achieve international acclaim as Abstract Expressionists. Unfortunately Bultman was studying sculpture in Italy at the time and missed the photo shoot for Nina Leen’s famous photograph, published in the January 15, 1951 issue of Life magazine. His absence from the iconic group portrait undoubtedly denied him a more prominent place in the history of post-war American art. Robert Motherwell proclaimed that of all the painters of his generation, Bultman was “the one [most] drastically and shockingly underrated.”
Fritz Bultman was born into a prominent New Orleans family and surrounded by artists, authors, and musicians; his education in the arts began at a very early age. Even before entering high school Bultman studied with a teacher who was passionate about modern art. But his true artistic education began when Morris Graves arrived to stay at the family estate. “There was a whole magic about everything he did,” recalled Bultman in a 1968 interview with the historian Irving Sandler, and the two took to drawing birds at Audubon Park.
In 1935, Bultman went to Germany to study in Munich. He had hoped to enroll at the Bauhaus, but the Nazis closed the school so he scuffled around to another school only to be expelled for studying a book on Cézanne. Luckily Hans Hofmann’s wife Miz scooped him up. Hans was already in New York when Miz took Bultman in. “I learned a great deal from her,” Bultman recalled. Bultman returned home and headed to Chicago to attend the new Bauhaus school there. But when it too closed he looked up Hans Hoffman and headed for Provincetown.
What Hofmann would instill in Bultman was one of his signature theories, born out of an argument Hofmann had with Jackson Pollock that Bultman witnessed in the summer of 1944 in Provincetown. Hofmann criticized Pollock saying, “You do not work from nature. This is no good, you will repeat yourself. You work by heart, not from nature.” To which Pollock famously said, “I am nature.” Hoffman believed that lasting inspiration emanated from nature and not from the heart alone.
At Edelman there are eleven paintings by Bultman that span a decade from 1952 to 1962. Two paintings, “Interior-Game” (1952) and “Game” (1953), are decisive works full of angst that pit structure against chaos, nature against experience, red against black. “Tree” (1953) lends itself more to the gritty impasto paintings of French surrealist Dubuffet than to the gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism to which Bultman was so closely linked. These works continue the artist’s interest in myths and symbols, though less overtly than his more celebrated works from the late 1940s.
Bultman recalls watching the burning of the swamps in the delta as a young boy. “What appears to be a sheet of water will be burning with very high flames against a blue sky,” adding that he found the sight, “terribly exciting. I don’t know anything else that seems to me as beautiful as that […] It’s fire and water. You very seldom see them together in such close juxtaposition as you do when they are burning a swamp.”
Flames and sky (red and blue) were themes Bultman borrowed from nature and they informed his most signature works including “Rosa Park” (1958) (named after a park in New Orleans, not the civil rights activist), which is the most impressive painting at Edelman. The work has all the guts and squall found in all great painting of the period, with a surface that’s patched and rehashed by a balance of conscious choice and accident. The same can be said of Bultman’s towering “Cool Gate” (1960), which introduces a varied palette of plum and green. A stroke of black paint hustles horizontally through the middle right, breaking the verticality and focusing the eye into the center. It’s an emotional painting, one that rivals the great action painters of the time. Bultman’s work was described as having a “blood on the moon fierceness that strikes at the heart” (Art Digest, 1950), and these two paintings live up to this reputation.
To Bultman, nature was not only tangibly seen and touched, but also felt in one’s heart and head. Art was the interpretation or record of the pulse and rhythm of the human condition. “Gravity of Nightfall” (1961) is the perfect example of Bultman’s intent. Though uncomfortably squeezed by the gallery’s architecture, one can still experience the 12-foot-wide painting’s expanse. Its lyricism flows through three panels. Another work painted the same year titled “Third,” measuring eight feet across, continues a gesture that runs broadly over the length of the canvas weaving through a field of golden color.
Sculpture was an important part of Bultman’s oeuvre (sadly there are none at Edelman). “Bultman was a very consistent artist whose development took place in clear, slow stages,” writes the historian April Kingsley, noting, “he varied his medium rather than his style.” Many of his sculptures, rough surfaced bronzes with fretted edges, allude to large brush strokes that wave like streamers in the wind.
There is a nice selection of Bultman’s collages. Some more successful than others, they represent a certain compositional freedom that explores the realms beyond painting. Bultman’s collages are large and obviously take a cue from Matisse’s late cutouts. In the early 1960s, having just seen a show of Matisse at the Metropolitan Museum, he wrote to his friend Jack Tworkov, “The Matisse show has everything that one could hope for — clarity, light, sensuousness and a sense of the rare glory of living.”
Primary colors dominate the collages, which have at times a stiffening tendency towards symmetry, geometry, and repeating curves. Hoffman’s influence is more apparent here and Bultman seems to play off Hoffman’s tutorial on push and pull and the relationship of figure and ground.
Bultman had a unique style of collage as Kingsley described in her essay that accompanied Bultman’s retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1993, “He used fairly heavy paper, often torn from spiral-bound pads with the perforations retained and used compositionally. The paper was coated with gouache varied in density by his brushwork.”
Two collages at Edelman, “Holiday” and “Two J’s” both from 1962, are the most challenging. Rough, jagged, and free-form, these works more than any other liberate Bultman from the limits of the framed edge and demonstrate why they rivaled his contemporaries.
Bridging nature and personal narrative was Bultman’s life-long ambition. Part of the aim was toward the power of art to free oneself from personal demons. “Paradox then is […] compounded of denials and affirmations, of opposites. A time like the space of the stars where one has the freedom to chose,” wrote Bultman, who might have missed his photo-op, but excelled nevertheless.
Fritz Bultman: The Missing Irascible is on view at Edelman Arts (136 East 74th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 11.
Of related interest:
- The Irascibles and the New York School: James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Jack Tworkov and others on view at Leonard Hutton Galleries (790 Madison Avenue, Suite 506, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 15.