GEORGE ORTMANby Robert C. Morgan
ALGUS GREENSPON, NEW YORK | JANUARY 14 – MARCH 3, 2012
I met George Ortman at the Cranbrook Academy of Art during one of the first lectures I gave there in the late 1980s. I knew about his work through reproductions of his abstract paintings seen in old art magazines and largely through the writings of Donald Judd. The work was probably too dense for most critics to handle at the time—too involved with the appearance of a scientific code or language—even though the paintings had been shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery as early as 1961. Here, for example, is a typical analysis of Ortman in the sprite, quirky language of the pre-Minimalist Judd from Arts Yearbook 7 (1964):
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.
Given my involvement as a geometric abstract painter over the years, I have indelibly respected and admired Ortman’s block-like paintings, each built in a hybrid manner related to a kind of folk constructivism—a way of working that recalls some strains of classical music, such as Bartók and Dvorak, and to a lesser extent, the folk-style sculpture of H. C. Westermann and the faux-systemic paintings of Alfred Jensen recently shown at Pace. Ortman’s paintings verge on becoming sculpture, delimiting representation in terms of abstract signs that are more within the realm of what Samuel Beckett once called “autosymbolism,”—or privately invented symbols that become repetitive signs—as frequently found in the writing of Marcel Proust. Now in his mid-80s, Ortman continues to explore primary shapes in a denser and more inventive manner than most Minimalists with two exceptions: Ronald Bladen and early Robert Smithson. Ortman’s recent exhibition at the Algus Greenspon Gallery in Greenwich Village was special for a couple of reasons: his work is significant, but rarely shown nowadays, and if seen, there is the problem of classifying it in a way that makes sense. To actually see the work, to read it and view it as a first-hand encounter, may leave a viewer without any clear art historical or stylistic category, thus suggesting that not all art needs a category to be experienced, even within the realm of abstraction.
Ortman is one of those artists who developed a point of view based on an abstract idea of painting that others would gradually take beyond the formal limits of painting and into other areas of sculpture, performance, or installation. What I get from Ortman is a relative kind of aesthetic tenacity, an ability to stay within the flow, as his paintings move gradually from one incremental painterly idea to another without ever losing touch with the modular concept of arranged parts—squares, triangles, circles, diamonds, and arrows. Here I recommend “Woodward”(1974), an early acrylic in a uniform bright red with a nine-part grid projecting between center and top, and “Blue Diamond” (1961), an earlier, more complex oil mounted on a wood collage.
Ortman never saw a reason to push beyond the limits of his vocabulary. By the early 1950s he knew where he wanted to go and stuck with it. There is something indelibly marvelous about this kind of commitment; the fact that abstraction in art can be open to so many possibilities is reason enough to discover one’s limits and to stay within the frame. This is precisely what Ortman has done, and what Judd complained about early on. Whereas Ortman was content with his decision to work within limits by giving the formal components and colors more complexity, Judd seemed to be egging him on to move outside his familiar territory and explore the forms in three-dimensions.
I’m not sure this is necessarily a negative way for criticism to proceed, so long as the reader understands that the critic is also an artist (which is different than being the critic as artist). In the case of Ortman and Judd, I would rather insist on the separation through a dialectical push and pull. Here resides the basis for what Roman Jakobson once called “the aesthetic project” in Moscow in the early 1920s and for what abstract art in New York in the 1970s used to call “the discourse”—the life-blood of art, what this exhibition of Ortman’s paintings once again brings to the fore.