George Earl Ortman was an American oil painter and sculptor whose career spanned from 1949 until his death in 2015. He is considered a great influence and pioneer in moving the art world from Abstract Expressionism towards the new Minimalist Movement. While influenced by the challenges to the status quo that both the Dada and Surrealist Movements brought to the art world, he wished to push artwork past mere abstraction through the painted images and alter the canvasses themselves. His most well known art works are his geometrical shape based paintings with collages of items that were embedded within holes in the cut canvasses.
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Ortman was born in Oakland, California in 1926 to a electrician that at one point worked for Thomas Edison. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Ortman’s artistic journey began at the age of five when he was enrolled in art classes at Mills College where his father was employed.
At the age of eight, Ortman was then enrolled in a school for illustrating and cartooning. Following high school, Ortman attended the California College of Arts and Crafts before moving to New York City to make engravings and etchings at the print workshop Atelier 17. After apprenticing for the Cubist Andre Lhote in Paris France, Ortman would come back to New York to finish studies at the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts.
The artist was greatly influenced in the early years by the Surrealist painters Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, and Roberto Matta. During an interview with the online art site Geoform, Ortman notes that these four painters had developed “new space to express their vocabularies.” Ortman in the same interview notes that, while the Surrealists of the time wanted audiences to believe their work was not bound by rules or reason, the rigorous experimentation of space within the movement had to be a deeply disciplined approach.
In 1949, Ortman produced his first official work of art “Beginnings” which combined an oil painting with painted dowels and thread attached through the holes cut into the canvas. The use of college items attached to oil paintings through holes cut into the canvas became Ortman’s signature style. Ortman would shed much of the amorphic trappings of the modern art and Surrealist Movement for a more mathematical composition. Four years later, Ortman debuted his first solo exhibition at the Tanagar Gallery, one of the many art houses that sprang up during the 50’s and 60’s along Tenth Street in Manhattan.
By the 60’s, Ortman had begun to produce what he would refer to as his “imitations,” remakes of famous paintings such as Leonardo’s The Last Supper and Botticelli’s Primavera done in Ortman’s own geometrical style. In 1963, Ortman was featured in the exhibition “Toward a New Abstraction” at New York’s Jewish Museum. This was followed by an appointment as an artist of residence at the prestigious Princeton University. In that same year, the Walker Center in Minneapolis honored Ortman with a retrospective.
In 1970, Ortman took on the job of the head for the graduate art department at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Ortman stayed in that position for over thirty years.
He still maintained an active art career, including another of his “imitations” in the 1980’s, recreating Georges Seurat’s “The Poseurs” with his signature geometrical shapes.
In the twilight of his life, Ortman’s artwork was featured at the Mitchell Algus Gallery, including a lost 1959 piece named “Tales of Love,” which New York Times journalist Roberta Smith hailed as a “lost masterpiece.” George Earl Ortman passed away in 2015 at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of avant garde and influential art that inspired artists and movements in his wake.
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