George Ortman’s math doesn’t always add up. His colorful geometric relief paintings, while seemingly well behaved, are anything but. Diamonds, octagons, arrows, and the occasional obtuse angle—all made of canvas, wood, and plaster—nearly align in these surprisingly relaxed constructions of less than fastidious manufacture. Ortman’s inclusion in Donald Judd’s 1965 Minimalist sermon “Specific Objects” promised a legacy that never quite materialized, perhaps due to Ortman’s ambivalence in a moment that asked artists to abandon both painting and sculpture. Yet Ortman’s independent aesthetic has given his equivocal oeuvre “something new,” as Judd noted in a review from 1963.
Journey of a Young Man, 1957, reveals Ortman’s bumpy transition away from youthful Surrealist influences through a symmetrical tableau that recalls the seven stages of life as the Bard outlined them in As You Like It. A Lee Krasner–esque swath of pink paint seeps down onto seven horizontally arranged panels, each perforated by a structural opening that contains symbolic objects (the first and last are, pleasantly, eggs), quite unlike the soul-sucking voids featured in the oft-compared reliefs of Lee Bontecou. A particular midcentury American vernacular permeates the exhibition: an offbeat abstraction reminiscent of works by contemporaries Paul Brach, I. Rice Pereira, and Alfred Jensen. A key work from that milieu, the coyly titled Blue Diamond, 1961, is particularly arresting, with its interlocked symbols and shapes and its conflation of a formal vocabulary with a sauvage handmade quality that muddies any possible ties to Minimalist gestalt tendencies. To further illustrate Ortman’s unique position, Algus Greenspon has adroitly included studies on paper of Paolo Uccello’s masterwork Battle of San Romano, ca. 1438–40, a work whose play of form and perspective resonates with Ortman’s own. In the back gallery, recent works from 1997 to 2011 complete Ortman’s latest turn. His bravura gestures of illusionism have been neatly refined, resulting in intricate reliefs as winsomely curious as their mystic progenitors.