“Radiant” was the word Robert Motherwell used to describe the work of Anthony Frederick “Fritz” Bultman III (1919-1985), a painter and sculptor who once stood among the front ranks of the Abstract Expressionists — indeed, was one of the “Irascibles” whose 1950 protest letter to the Metropolitan Museum caused an uproar in art circles. Later, forever independent, he turned to luminous collages whose joie de vivre summoned the legacy of Matisse. Collaborating with his wife, Jeanne (Lawson) Bultman (±1918-2008), he turned some of those collages into brilliant stained-glass windows, including the one shown below in the house the Bultmans shared off Miller Hill Road. The nearby studio, pictured above, is an artwork in its own right; designed and built by the Minimalist sculptor Anthony Peter “Tony” Smith (1912-1980).
Extraordinary buildings were in Bultman’s blood. He was born in New Orleans to a family that operated a renowned funeral home known as the Bultman Mortuary Service, at St. Charles and Louisiana Avenues, in the Garden District. His grandfather, Anthony Frederick Bultmann (with two 2 n’s), had prepared the body of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, for burial. Anthony Frederick Bultman Jr. (1885-1964) continued the business. (The House of Bultman endured until the catastrophic damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.) Bultman Jr. also worked with Peter Hunt, sowing the seeds of an otherwise unlikely New Orleans-Provincetown connection.
While studying in Munich in 1935, Fritz first encountered Hans Hofmann, forging what was to be an important bond. Two years later, following Hofmann to László Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus school in Chicago, Bultman met Tony Smith. In 1938, he set out to Provincetown to study with Hofmann, who was then teaching in Charles W. Hawthorne’s Class Studio at 25 Miller Hill Road. In New York, Bultman lived for a while with Tennessee Williams, who wound up spending time in New Orleans as the guest of Fritz’s sister, Muriel Bultman Francis (±1909-1986), an art collector and philanthropist of high standing in New Orleans. Williams was inspired to use the Garden Room of the Bultman home on Louisiana Avenue — “with its strange tropical aura,” as Jeannette Hardy and Lake Douglas wrote in Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess — as the setting of Suddenly, Last Summer and as a “metaphor for the relationship between Violet Venable and her son, Sebastian.”
Fritz’s life was to be forever changed by the arrival in 1941 at Hofmann’s school of a strikingly beautiful model, Jeanne Lawson of Hastings., Neb., by way of the Traphagen Fashion School in New York. Jeanne and Fritz were married on Christmas Eve 1943 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, after which his parents helped the young couple buy and fix up a sprawling property along Miller Hill Road. Her mother also offered financial assistance in lieu of staging a big wedding in Hastings. Several letters from this period in the Bultman Collection at the Provincetown History Preservation Project attest to the young couple’s optimism, even in the closing months of World War II, about their new home in Provincetown.
“We are so enthusiastic that we can’t wait to move in and live here,” Bultman told his parents in an August 1944 letter. “There is so much that can be done to that piece of land that it will be a constant source of joy.” Nine months later, Jeanne described the construction of the studio in a letter to her in-laws: “Fritz feels very satisfied in the way Tony [Smith] builds, that he is so thorough & does every single thing so exact & right. They are going to set up the framing, build it all on the ground & then lift it into place — roof, rafters & all. Then they can fill in from there. They seem to be going about things in a very sensible way & have figured out how to use all the second hand lumber that we got. In fact we need very little new lumber. The stove & chimney place will be built in later, as they are not needed this summer & only get in the way for Hans’ school, as he needs every bit of space.”
Yes, the first artist to use Fritz Bultman’s studio was not Fritz Bultman at all but his mentor, Hans Hofmann, who’d lost the lease on the Hawthorne Class Studio and had not yet purchased the Frederick Waugh studio at 76 Commercial Street. So this was where he conducted his summer school in 1945.
If any artist’s career can be said to have a transformative year, 1950 was the year for Bultman. In March, his work was hung alongside that of Picasso and Motherwell in a show called “Black or White” at Samuel M. Kootz’s important and influential gallery on East 57th Street in Manhattan. (Kootz would soon open his own Provincetown gallery at 481 Commercial Street.) Three months after this show opened, Bultman quite literally was front-page news in The New York Times as a member of a group of 28 artists — 18 painters and 10 sculptors — who announced publicly that they woud “reject the monster national exhibition to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next December, and will not submit work to its jury.”
“The organization of the exhibition and the choice of jurors … does not warrant any hope that a just proportion of advanced art will be included,” they continued. “We draw to the attention of these gentlemen [the director and associate curator of American art] the historical fact that for roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization” Bultman was in good company. One-third of the 18 painters who joined the boycott had — or would have — a Provincetown connection: Bultman, Hofmann, Motherwell, Weldon Kees, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. When it came time for this phenomenonal ad hoc protest movement to be documented by Life magazine and christened the “irascibles,” however, Bultman was studying sculpture in Italy and missed being in the famous group portrait by Nina Leen.
Around the 50th anniversary of the protest, in 2010, the author of the blog My Dog-Eared Pages asked the Bultman scholar Evan R. Firestone if Bultman’s absence from the photo had affected his success as an artist. Firestone answered: “I think Fritz would have been somewhat better known in the ’50s if he was in the Irascible photo, but he would not have attained the fame of most of the others in the photo. Much of Fritz’s painting in the ’40s was strong and tough, but not particularly ingratiating. There was a hiatus in his production in the early to mid-’50s, and afterwards his work became increasingly Matissean, especially the collages — which I greatly admire — but the art world had moved on.”
In the early 1960s, the Bultmans were involved in efforts by Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Mississippi, to create a distinguished art collection. Later in the decade, Jeanne was credited by the Fine Arts Work Center as being one of its founders. “She considered herself as a mere bystander, not an artist,” the center said in its obituary, “yet she was a noted stained-glass maker whose largest commission (1981) was the 54-foot-long Bultman stained-glass mural at Kalamazoo College, consisting of more than 3,000 pieces of glass duplicating the adjacent collages created by her husband.” Bultman was among the founders of the Long Point Gallery, an artists’ co-operative at the old Eastern School House, 494 Commercial Street.
An exquisite portrait of the Bultman property was conjured in a reminiscence by Keith Althaus, who spent the summer of 1973 in a chicken coop that Jeanne later converted into a stained-glass workshop.
Today, the property remains in the family’s hands. It is owned by one of the Bultmans’ two sons, Ellis Johann Bultman of New Orleans, who married Bethany Ewald of Natchez, Miss., in 1976. It dawned on the couple that the musicians who were being buried from the House of Bultman were dying far too young, having suffered from a lack of accessible health care. “It was very third-world,” Bethany told an interviewer in 2009. (Rose Stabler, “Bethany Bultman, Co-Founder of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic,” Examiner.com, 28 September 2009.) In 1998, the Bultmans founded the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic (or NOMC), to make up for this lack of care. This was followed in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, by the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation (or NOMAF), which has expanded on the clinic’s work. Bethany Bultman is the president/director of both organizations.
In recent years, Bultman’s studio has been used by the painter Rob DuToit (b 1956) of North Truro, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the Parsons School of Design and has also studied in France and Italy. He is represented by Gallery Ehva, at 74 Shank Painter Raod. Bultman’s estate is represented by the Albert Merola Gallery, at 424 Commercial Street. Motherwell, who was interviewed by The New York Times after Bultman’s death in July 1985, said: “Even at the end, after years of physical suffering, at that point it was even more radiant — a heroic effort. He really should be more widely recognized.”
Oh, and just one more thing. The Met? It now owns four Bultmans.
• Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Updated 2013-04-18