Honoring George Ortman
October 23, 2014
Laurie and I are delighted to welcome all of you tonight as we celebrate our guest of honor, renowned artist George Earl Ortman.
Let me also welcome Mr. Ortman’s guest, artist and art teacher, Lynn Braswell.
For more than fifty years, Mr. Ortman’s work has been exhibited in leading museums and galleries around the world. He is known for working with a variety of materials and for often incorporating geometric shapes into his works, and, as most of you know, he designed the magnificent banners that hang here in the Musical Arts Center, one of the most grand performance venues in the United States, and the premiere performance venue of our world-renowned Jacobs School of Music.
Last year, we celebrated the re-fabrication of the Ortman banners and their return to the MAC, and we are very pleased to have this opportunity tonight to honor their designer, not only for his important contribution to public art at Indiana University, but also, more broadly, for the influential role he has played during his more than 50-year career as an artist.
Honoring George Ortman
Our guest of honor was born in Oakland, California, where, at age five, he took art classes for children at Mills College. Recognizing his talent, his mother later enrolled him in a school for illustration and cartooning, and by the time he graduated high school he had already received about 12 years of art training.1
Upon graduating from high school, Mr. Ortman served in World War II in the U.S. Navy and the Naval Air Corps. After completing his service, he enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts—now known as California College of the Arts—on the GI Bill.
After some time there, Mr. Ortman has said that he realized that there must be more to the art world than Oakland, California, so with about $35 in his pocket, he got on a bus for New York City, where, on the advice of a former art teacher, he looked up Stanley William Hayter, the Surrealist printmaker who had founded the legendary Atelier 17 studio in Paris, and who had moved the studio to New York at the outbreak of World War II.
After studying there, Mr. Ortman went to Paris himself (arriving there with about $2 in his pocket), and studied at the Atelier André Lhote, and then returned to New York to study at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.
In the 1950s, Mr. Ortman was one of a small group of artists who pioneered an approach to art that incorporated elements of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
As prominent art historian Roni Feinstein writes in her book, Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art, “Ortman’s painting-constructions were wholly organic creations, their intention seeming to be to make every element of the composition a discreet physical entity. Other work created by Ortman around this time was often more overtly symbolic, with symmetrical arrangements of arrows, geometric forms, and other shapes seeming to embrace a secret sign system or code.”2
His work was reviewed favorably and admiringly by artist Donald Judd, who, in the early 1960s, wrote art criticism for major American art magazines. Judd wrote in 1964 that Mr. Ortman’s works were "concerned with a new area of experience, one which is relevant philosophically as well as emotionally."3
He has, over the course of his career, had more than 40 solo exhibitions across the United States and Canada.
Mr. Ortman has also devoted many years to teaching art, having taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York University, and Princeton University. He also served for more than 20 years as the head of the painting department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, one of the nation’s leading graduate schools of art, design, and architecture.
Mr. Ortman is a Guggenheim Fellow, an elected member of the National Academy of Design, and the recipient of the Lee Krasner Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
Mr. Ortman, incidentally, also has a connection to the performing arts. In 1953, he co-founded an off-Broadway theater known as the Tempo Playhouse, which introduced the work of Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet and other European playwrights to American audiences.
The Musical Arts Center Banners
Recently, art critic Robert Morgan wrote that Mr. Ortman’s paintings and way of working “recalls some strains of classical music, such as Bartók and Dvorak,”4 so, perhaps it is especially fitting that his work graces our Musical Arts Center.
Mr. Ortman has designed about 17 banners during his career, twelve of which were created in 1966 for the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis as part of a series of banners based on the Stations of the Cross. Those banners were part of a 1971 exhibit of his work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The splendid banners that now hang here in the Musical Arts Center are the third fabrication of the banners designed by Mr. Ortman for the MAC’s Dedication Week Festival in 1972. A New York firm fabricated the original banners according to Mr. Ortman’s specifications. The banners are constructed of felt, and, unfortunately, they were subject to fading from the sun streaming through the large windows of the lobby.
Around the time of the MAC’s 25th anniversary, the same New York firm fabricated replacement banners. Over time, those faded as well—to the point that they had to be taken down.
But the Ortman banners were not forgotten. Linda Hunt, a dedicated opera patron and IU staff member, remembered the banners fondly and became an advocate for their return to the Musical Arts Center.
As it turned out, because more than 40 years had passed since the construction of the original banners, the New York firm that fabricated the first and second sets of banners no longer had Mr. Ortman’s specifications. Last year, however, campus art curator Sherry Rouse—who is here tonight—approached the staff members of the IU’s Residential Programs and Services Sewing Room to see if they would be interested in taking on the complex and difficult challenge of reconstructing the Ortman Banners.
The two 21-by-21-foot banners were, by far, the largest and most ambitious project they have ever undertaken. The five staff members of the Sewing Room worked for many months to construct these banners from scratch based on photographs from IU Archives. A third, smaller banner—also designed by Mr. Ortman and repaired by the Sewing Room staff—flies outside the MAC on performance days.
We celebrated the return of the banners to the MAC last year, and I presented each of the Sewing Room staff members with IU’s E. Ross Bartley Award—the highest award available to honor administrative and support staff at Indiana University.
Presenting the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion
Tonight, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to honor the artist who designed them.
Mr. Ortman, would you join me at the podium?
To recognize distinction such as yours, the university established the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion. First given in 1986, the bronze medal features the Benton Mural, which is located in the IU Auditorium. The reverse side has the Seal of the University. It symbolizes the aspirations and ideals that are the foundation of the search for knowledge.
And so, Mr. Ortman, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the trustees of Indiana University, in gratitude for your service to Indiana University through your design of the splendid banners that grace the Musical Arts Center, and in recognition of your noteworthy achievements in the arts over more than half a century, I am privileged and honored to present you with the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion.
- George Ortman, interview with Julie Karabenick, GEOFORM, August, 2010.
- Roni Feinstein, Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art, (Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008), 122.
- As quoted in Robert C. Morgan, “George Ortman,” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2, 2012.
- Robert C. Morgan, “George Ortman,” The Brooklyn Rail, March 2, 2012.