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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fritz Bultman

The Irascibles: from left rear: Willem De Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne; next row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jimmy Ernst, Jackson Pollock, James Brooks, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin; foreground: Theodoros Stamos, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.
One of the biggest components of success in art, as in most other vocations, is being at the right place at the right time. That's not the same as "pure luck" but it's a close cousin. It goes without saying that being in the wrong place at the wrong time, if not the same thing, is a reasonable corollary. Fritz Bultman had the misfortune to fall into both categories. It's a long story, but here's the gist of it. The year was 1950. The New York School of Abstract Expressionism was struggling to gain respect in the art world. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a show they titled: "American Painting Today--1950." A group of up-and-coming artists (seen above) felt slighted and signed a letter to the museum protesting their conservative mindset. Somewhere, somehow, the group picked up the label "The Irascibles."

Fritz Bultman (1940s)
Fritz Bultman, along with his mentor, Hans Hoffman, and all those listed with the photo above, signed that letter. Although the group had much in common, they were really a group who weren't really a "group" except for the click of a shutter. The list of names reads almost like a "Who's Who" of Abstract Expressionism as they all posed in their dignified business attire for a Life magazine photo in support of their cause. Notice, there was only one woman, portrait artist, Hedda Sterne (though she is featured quite prominently). Notably missing from the photo are Bultman and Hoffman. Not all of those pictured became rich and famous abstractionist but a significant number of them did (including Hoffman). Bultman didn't. He and others have long postulated that had he been in the photo, he would have become much better known. Name recognition, and group association, especially where Abstract Expressionism was concerned, were very often keys to success.

Rosa Park, 1958, Fritz Bultman
Bultman was an ocean and a continent away in 1951 when the photo was taken. He was in Florence, Italy, studying the art of casting bronze with an eye toward becoming a sculptor (the field of Abstract Expressionist painting was becoming crowded, even then). Hoffman's whereabouts at the time is unknown, but in any case, his stature in having instructed most of the New York School during that era insured him all the recognition he would ever need. Bultman, however, was just one of many. Though it's unlikely his missing such an important "photo-op" had anything to do with it, upon his return to the U.S., Bultman went into a severe, four-year bout with depression, during which time he worked little. This period, 1952-56, was, of course, "prime time" for the Abstract Expressionists. Despite this, Bultman is considered one of the few Abstract Expressionist painters to have effectively integrated sculpture into his work.

Barrier (the Big Bird), Fritz Bultman
Mardi Gras, 1978, Fritz Bultman collage
In later years, Bultman, a New Orleans native, was instrumental in bringing Modern Art to the South. He studied in Paris during the mid-1960s where he broadened his art to include collage and stained glass. Though Bultman's work was never to headline that of the New York School, it is virtually indistinguishable from that of those who did. Critics and those who write about such things have often faulted Bultman's disinterest in what they term "art world politics." It's impossible to say which of these factors may have played the greater role in Bultman's career as a secondary abstract expressionist. Fritz Bultman died of cancer in 1985. Being in the right place at the right time is more than luck. It also takes intuitive foresight and planning along with a keen eye for self-promotion. Therefore, budding young artists: try not to miss any photo ops.

Fritz Bultman, (1970s), a photo-op he didn't miss.


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