Imitations and Constructions: New Drawings and Elegies for Detroit
The Mitchell Algus Gallery presents an exhibition of new drawings and constructions by George Ortman, opening on Wednesday September 9 and continuing through October 17, 2015. A reception for the artist will be held on the opening day from 6 to 8 pm.
The geometric constructions George Ortman produced in New York in the 1950s and 1960s are pioneering works of post-war abstraction. Recognized by Donald Judd in his 1965 essay Specific Objects, Ortman developed a new type of art, neither painting nor sculpture, that rendered immaterial the distinctions between image and object. Cited alongside figures such as Lee Bontecou and H.C. Westerman, Ortman set the stage for the reductive aesthetics that became codified as minimalism. Yet despite Judd’s imprimatur, Ortman’s art was “minimal” only in its consummate forms, and then only for a brief period of time from the late 1950s to the early 1960s.
Rather, there is an analytic and symbolic genealogy to Ortman’s constructions that differs fundamentally from the perceived formalist agenda of minimalism. This should have been obvious from a close reading of Judd’s essay, but such accurate, contextual understanding of Judd’s ideas waits proffering. The heterodox track Ortman took in realizing his reductive constructions is outlined in the myriad drawings he produced analyzing and reconfiguring the formal structure of master paintings. Ortman’s studies methodically evaluate and reconfigure master paintings to reveal geometries that can be used in his constructions. The artist called his analyses of master works Imitations. Early Imitations considered paintings by Gauguin, Matisse, Botticelli, and Uccello, among others. In the 1980s Ortman made Imitations based on da Vinci’s Last Supper and Seurat’s The Models. Continuing this lifelong interest in masterworks as a formal and intellectual foundation for his art, Ortman, now 89, has in the past few years produced many new drawings based on works by Bosch, Fuseli, Goya, Courbet, Velazquez and Picasso.
George Ortman (b. 1926) was chairman of the department of painting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside of Detroit from 1970 until his retirement in 1992. During this time the artist was witness to the decay wracking of the city of Detroit. He began a series of large elegiac constructions commenting on this decline, constructions that he continued to work on from the late 1980s through the early years of his retirement in the 1990s. Two of Ortman’s Detroit elegies are shown here: Motown Rhythm & Blues from 1990 and A Portrait of Samuel Beckett. This latter construction, while similar in tone to Motown Rhythm & Blues, also alludes to Ortman’s founding of the Tempo Playhouse with the actress Julie Bovasso in New York in1953. Championing the Theater of the Absurd, Tempo was the first company in the United States to present plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet. The current exhibition illustrates George Ortman’s continuing interest in the synthesis of aesthetic and philosophical inquiry.