New York

Fritz Bultman

Hunter College, The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery

Whereas Jedd Garet represents one form of the “new abstraction,” Fritz Bultman represents an important branch of the “old abstraction.” The new abstraction builds on already achieved abstract forms, often cynically, or else with a certain constructive determination and an acute sense of the absurd. Bultman’s kind of old abstraction builds on the human figure. Curated by Robert Huot, this small memorial retrospective (Bultman died in 1985) consisted of a selection of paintings, drawings, collages, and bronzes.

The key to Bultman’s work lies in his drawings from the female nude model, in which the body is refined through abstraction of its details. Its organic character remains undisturbed, and it is that organic character which is presented abstractly, as a familiar end in itself, in the paintings and collages. Two of the paintings, though abstract, are figures in disguise. They retain their allusion to the human in their titles, The Nurse and The Chauffeur, both 1968, and convey the sense of the organic not only in the painted curvilinear forms but also in their embodiment as shaped canvases that curve away from the wall at the top, as if to encompass the spectator. These paired works—they are the same size and shape, but mirror images of each other—are shown on opposite walls, with a bronze sculpture, Barrier, 1971, in between (as the artist intended). With their abstract physicality, these paintings relate to our own figures, drawing us into an “organic” relationship with them. They have none of the casually detached air of Garet’s works, which in effect say, “I’m playing, and you can join me if you wish, but if you don’t it doesn’t matter:”

Bultman’s obsession with the organically curved becomes repetitive in the paintings and the collages, where he deals with eroticism in a rather tame way. It is as though the effort of abstracting curves from the female body exhausted him, an exhaustion that he tried to camouflage by brightening the works with easy color. His bronze sculptures are, I think, more interesting. Coat of Male, 1963/72, is particularly ambitious, with its horns and other phallic elements, one a quite obvious, flattened penis. Though labored in its primitivism—it looks like some sort of masked native figure, dancing for art tourists—it has a certain irreducible vigor. Similarly, Barrier has a genuinely aggressive density to it. The organic here is not just a matter of passively voluptuous curves but of mobilized, fierce matter, self-assertive and asserting itself against us. In his two-dimensional works Bultman is retelling the myth of the figure in slightly novel terms and wants to charm us with a certain courtly abstractness, however Americanized its Old-Worldness. In the sculptures he is more in touch with instinct—abstractly expressionistic, in the deepest sense. Here, where there is a sense of untamed energy, of letting go and dropping some of the control, abstraction still has some incalculable life in it.

Reviewed by Donald Kuspit.