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Fritz Bultman

The art and life of Fritz Bultman evolved in three of the most vital American art centers of the twentieth century: New Orleans, New York City, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Fritz Bultman

Courtesy of Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Skin of the Negress. Bultman, Fritz (Artist)

The art and life of Fritz Bultman evolved in three of the most vital American art centers of the twentieth century: New Orleans; New York City; and Provincetown, Massachusetts. His academic studies in Germany and his architectural training at the New Bauhaus in Chicago brought him into contact with the principles of Bauhaus design principles as well as modern art and architecture in Germany. Raised in New Orleans, and recognized as a significant artist and teacher in New York, Bultman was also a resident and central figure in the Provincetown art colony in the summer resort community at the tip of Cape Cod.

Bultman possessed an openness to expressing his vision in diverse media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, and the stained glass for which he became especially well known. In addition to his interests in architecture and design, his eclectic tastes may have been nurtured by his exposure to the principles of the Bauhaus, a school of design in Weimar Republic-era Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts and had a profound modernist influence upon art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, and industrial design in the first half of the twentieth century. This became evident with his unique role as a painter and sculptor in the Abstract Expressionist movement, marked by his search for expressive forms in stone, bronze, and other materials.

Fritz Bultman was born in New Orleans on April 4, 1919, to A. Fred and Pauline Bultman. His father operated the Bultman Funeral Home (also known as the House of Bultman), which had been the family business since the nineteenth century, hosting services for prominent New Orleans residents including Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Located on St. Charles Avenue and bordering the Garden District, the funeral home connected the family to the unique history and social traditions in the wealthiest neighborhood of the city.

Bultman demonstrated an interest in art from an early age. When he was thirteen years old, artist Morris Graves lived for a time with the Bultmans and became Fritz’s art teacher from 1931 to 1932. Graves took the young Bultman to New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo, where they sketched birds and animals. Bultman then studied art in the French Quarter at the New Orleans Arts and Crafts Club, where he was supported by leading artists in a location at the bohemian center of the city.

In his junior year of high school, Bultman traveled to Germany, hoping to study at the Bauhaus, but he was unable to enroll because the school’s programs were closing due to pressures from the rise of the Nazi Party. He studied instead at the Munich Preparatory School, and while there met and was befriended by Miz Hofmann, the wife of artist Hans Hofmann. This friendship established a foundation for his later art studies with Hofmann, a leading figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. A. Fred Bultman refused to support Fritz’s desire to attend art school following high school graduation, preferring instead that his son become an architect. Fritz enrolled in classes at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, becoming one of the relocated institution’s first American students. Directed by original Bauhaus veteran Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the New Bauhaus operated under that name for one year (1937–38), then was renamed the School of Design (1939–1944) and later titled the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology (1944–present).

Bultman went to New York City during the last years of the Great Depression, entering that art world during a time of significant turmoil as Regionalist, American Scene, and realist artists battled for dominance with emerging modernists, surrealists, and abstract artists. During these years, the federal government’s New Deal art programs, operated under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration, employed many artists in New York at a time when many European artists and intellectuals were migrating to America as Europe prepared for war. In addition to Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, influential Bauhaus veterans who came to America to teach included Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at Harvard and Josef and Anni Albers at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina.

Bultman studied with one of the most influential of these European artists, Hans Hofmann (whose wife had befriended him in Munich). Hofmann (1880–1966) operated his own art school in Munich, then came to New York and taught at the Art Students League and elsewhere before he opened the Hans Hofmann School in New York (1933) and a summer school in Provincetown (1934). Bultman studied with Hofmann in New York and Provincetown from 1938 to 1942. During these years, he learned of the historic ties between the cultural worlds of Provincetown and New York. Hofmann became a dominant influence in the New York art world, and taught many leaders of the Abstract Expressionist generation. Bultman later said of his teacher, “Hofmann’s presence did so much to set American painting in motion. No one else gave it the courage for multiple developments.”

After completing his studies with Hofmann, Bultman became an increasing presence in the art worlds of New York and Provincetown. In Provincetown he met Jeanne Lawson, trained as a model and dancer, who came to model for one of Hofmann’s classes, and on Christmas Eve, 1943, they were married at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In 1944, with funding from Jeanne’s mother, they bought a house and property near Hofmann’s studio in Provincetown. In 1945, the year he and Jeanne moved to live full-time in Provincetown, Bultman commissioned his classmate at the New Bauhaus, Tony Smith (later known as a sculptor), to design a modern studio structure for him. He rented the studio for a time to Hofmann, who used it as his teaching studio. Hofmann maintained schools in New York and Provincetown until 1958, when he closed them and returned to painting full-time. He and Bultman remained friends until his death in 1966. The Bultmans made many artistic acquaintances in New York and Provincetown. One of them was Tennessee Williams, who Bultman first met in 1940 and who later visited the Bultman home in New Orleans in 1958, where he wrote the play Suddenly Last Summer.

Bultman knew many of the leading artists of the emerging Abstract Expressionist generation, including Jackson Pollock, and was regarded as a member of an increasingly significant New York School of artists. In 1950, he joined a group, soon called the “Irascibles,” in signing a letter to the leaders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, protesting the conservative nature of a planned exhibition of contemporary American art there. However, he did not appear in the famous photograph of this group, published in Life magazine on January 15, 1951, which became a milestone in the emergence of the New York School of art in the 1950s and ’60s. Though Bultman was an intimate part of the group, he was in Italy on a grant to study sculpture when the image was taken.

Fritz and Jeanne Bultman moved back to New York City in 1952, where they bought and restored an historic house. He became increasingly active in the city’s art scene during the 1950s, the critical years in the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of such artists as Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, and others in the “Irascibles” group. Bultman also taught at Pratt Institute in New York from 1950 to 1959. He expanded his teaching to Hunter College, where he remained from 1960 to 1969.

In 1962, perhaps influenced by Matisse and his use of cutouts, Bultman began to construct abstract collages using scraps of paper and more formal materials. Collage became a primary medium for Bultman over the next two decades and reflected his interest in stained glass, which he designed on an architectural scale. During this period, beginning in 1963, during the Civil Rights era and the struggle for integration and voting rights in his native South, he and Jeanne organized a group of artists, curators and critics, including Robert Motherwell, Dore Ashton, and others, to build a modern art collection at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1964 and 1965, he and Jeanne spent a year in Paris after he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and she studied at the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School.

In 1968, he served as a co-founder of the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. During the 1970s, he worked with stained glass, often with technical assistance from Jeanne. The largest Bultman glass project, measuring 54 feet in width and consisting of 3,000 pieces of glass, was created for Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 1981. Additionally, he designed a major stained glass windows series for the Bultman Funeral Home in New Orleans (the large paper collage studies for this work are now in the collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art). In 1977, he was involved in the founding of another arts institution in Provincetown, the Long Point Gallery.

Active throughout his life as an advocate for Provincetown and its arts scene, he died in the community on July 20, 1985. He was the subject of a major exhibition, “Fritz Bultman: A Retrospective,” at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1993; the exhibition “Fritz Bultman: Collages,” at the Georgia Museum of Art in 1997; the exhibition “Fritz Bultman: Irascible,” at Gallery Schlesinger in New York (2003–2004); and focused exhibitions at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (2003, 2009). Jeanne Bultman survived him and continued to advance his legacy until her death in their Provincetown cottage on December 18, 2008. Artist Robert Motherwell offered this reflection on Bultman’s legacy. “After forty years of acquaintanceship with Fritz Bultman and his work, I am still convinced that he is one of the most splendid, radiant and inspired painters of my generation, and of them all, the one drastically and shockingly underrated.”