A new show at Octavia Gallery is giving Fritz Bultman more of the posthumous attention he deserves.
Not that Bultman has ever been completely forgotten, especially in his native city. Born in 1919 to a prominent New Orleans family — the Bultman Funeral Home on St. Charles Avenue was a civic institution for more than a century — Bultman studied art in Germany and Chicago before establishing himself in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he died in 1985.
During his lifetime, Bultman was regarded as one of the most important members of the group of postwar abstract artists known as the New York School, members of which also included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. His work is part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, among many other institutions, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, which presented a retrospective of Bultman’s work in 1993.
Bultman also enjoyed a high reputation among his fellow artists. Robert Motherwell called him “one of the most splendid, radiant and inspired painters of my generation” — not to mention “the one (most) drastically and shockingly underrated.”
Along with Motherwell, Bultman was part of a group of artists (known as “The Irascibles”) who cosigned a notorious open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950 protesting what they viewed as the institution’s lack of support for “advanced” art like Abstract Expressionism. Several of those artists, like Pollock and de Kooning, would eventually come to be regarded as towering presences in the history of modern art.
But over the years, Bultman’s name has been eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries. One popular theory holds that Bultman’s historical importance suffered as a result of his not being included in an iconic photograph that accompanied a 1951 article in LIFE magazine about the artists who had signed the letter to the Met. (Bultman was out of the country the day the photograph was taken.) Another claim is that Bultman’s natural reticence and dislike of art world drama caused him to avoid the controversy that his fellow Irascibles courted — and thus avoided their notoriety as well.
Whatever the cause for Bultman’s relative obscurity these days, the Octavia show is a rare opportunity for audiences to acquaint (or reacquaint) themselves with the range of his work.
The 16 works in the exhibition at Octavia range from the late 1930s to the 1980s, making the show a compact but mostly comprehensive chronological retrospective of Bultman’s art. They include oil paintings on various media as well as a selection of the paper collages Bultman created in the later decades of his career. (Bultman also created sculptures, but none are included in the current show.)
The earlier works in the show most clearly show Bultman’s affinity with this fellow Abstract Expressionists. “Grey Still Life #1” (1945) and “Maize Bird” (1947) for example, are abstract compositions that still bear traces of figuration — much like some of Jackson Pollock’s pieces from the same period.
Soon, however, and in the company of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Bultman would abandon figurative representation entirely. “King Zulu” (1960) relies on texture, vivid colors and bold forms rather than specific detail to convey its subject matter. And the intriguing “Continuous Translation” (1968) functions as a kind of seductive Rorschach test with its sinuous curves arrayed on a receding depth of field.
The collages in the exhibition show Bultman at his most subtle, and occasionally at his most unintentionally familiar. The large-scale “Cut Out” (1971) is a bravura display of color and form and shows Bultman taking the collage medium in new directions. But “Additions” (1981), while appealingly rhythmic and colorful, could be mistaken for a late period Matisse.
But even when his work begins to look like something you’ve seen before, Bultman remains an artist ripe for rediscovery. Kudos to Octavia for providing that opportunity.
Fritz Bultman at Octavia Art Gallery
WHEN: Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Feb. 24
WHERE: Octavia Art Gallery
454 Julia St., New Orleans