Rambunctious Bultman: He Missed the Photo-Op

Charlie Finch, art critic for ArtNet.Com , recently described me as someone who “sees every work of art as an extension of a Color Field stretching back into the Nixon era, shunning the radical, the kinky and the original.” Just to set the record straight, it’s not the Nixon era I’m pining for, it’s the Truman era. Or at least that’s the conclusion I came to at Gallery Schlesinger, which is exhibiting the work of the American painter Fritz Bultman (1919-85). The pictures were made in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, while our 33rd President was in office-the heyday of Abstract Expressionism.

Scouring the history books, one would never know that Bultman was an integral part of that crowd. Along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and other notables, he signed the famous letter protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Painting Today-1950 , declaring it a “monstrous national exhibition” hostile to “advanced art.” Bultman was, in other words, in the thick of things. He does not, however, appear in The Irascibles , the iconic photograph of the New York School that appeared in Life magazine. The fact that he was out of town the day of the photo shoot probably did much to hinder his career, though I recall reading that Robert Motherwell thought Bultman’s lack of renown could be traced to his impatience with art-world politics.

An aversion to schmoozing is a fine thing, but it doesn’t necessarily make for significant art. How good a painter was Bultman? The little of the oeuvre I’ve seen leads me to believe that his collages-inspired by Matisse, and rambunctious-are his strongest work. Bultman’s paintings seem merely typical: pictographic symbols and elemental forms, nodding toward Cubism and whipped into shape with an automatist bravado. Ho-hum. There’s tons of that kind of thing taking up space in the storage facilities of museums and galleries. Who needs more of it?

Standing in Gallery Schlesinger, I needed more of it than I would have thought possible. I wouldn’t call Bultman a great artist; the work is various enough to make me worry about his ability to focus, and I can’t always distinguish, when looking at his canvases, between passion and impatience. That’s not to say Bultman didn’t know what he was doing. His gift for expansion and containment is estimable: Each composition flexes its muscle yet remains adamantly within the parameters of the canvas. Equally impressive is his ability to infuse often brutal gestures with a fleeting lyricism.

Sleeper (1953), with its scabby surface and scratchy incisions, is surprisingly tender. Spectator (1947) spoke to me of intimacy and enchantment, Pendulum (1951) of the body and the heavens. The primitivist stuff gives off a slight whiff of mustiness, but that dissipates quickly. You could say that Bultman deserves neither oblivion nor accolades; what he does deserve is an audience that knows a good painting when it sees one.

Fritz Bultman is at Gallery Schlesinger, 24 East 73rd Street, until March 29.

The Bigger, The Better

Art thrives on risk. There’s something thrilling about challenges met, even when the cost is a certain inconsistency (no artist ever turned everything he touched to gold). Risk guarantees nothing-but the payoff can be tremendous. The American artist George McNeil (1908-1995), whose paintings are on display at the Luise Ross Gallery, knew this full well. Watch the video included in the exhibition and see him muck about in the studio. Relish his improvisatory élan; marvel at his casualness. Then puzzle at how he could make something coherent from such an oily mess.

Though they span 40 years of the artist’s career, the paintings in the Ross exhibition (of dancing women, reclining figures, mythical creatures and symbolic landscapes) are consistent in their goal: to marry the verities of the New York School with the crude vigor of Jean Dubuffet’s art brut . (Bonnard and Mondrian are in the mix as well, though not as conspicuously.) McNeil realized his grand ambition late in life, and in doing so created an art, embracing and exuberant, that puts much of the Ab-Ex canon to shame. Pollock is callow in comparison, Rothko fussy, Kline decorative.

The small and sofa-sized canvases on display aren’t the best introduction to McNeil’s art: He was on cruise-control when painting anything shorter than the reach of his arm.The palette and imagery are there to see; the tack and textures, too. What’s missing are an expansiveness of vision and a deepening of invention-qualities generated when McNeil had yards of canvas to cover. Should someone organize a retrospective, the pensive Nocturne (1955) would make for classy filler. The rest of the work is considerable-and never enough.

George McNeil: FE=Form/Energy is at the Luise Ross Gallery, 568 Broadway, until May 3.

Rambunctious Bultman: He Missed the Photo-Op