John Hultberg - Photo by Martin Ries

Art Criticism journal, vol.21, no.1, spring 2006,.
[Images, not originally in Art Criticism, have been added here]

Martin Ries





Le silence éternal de ces eapaces infini méffrace.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, iii, 206.

That space of the scientists... Their lenses are so thick that seen through them the space gets more and more melancholy. There seems to be no end to the misery of scientists’ space. All that it contains is billions of hunks of matter, hot or cold, floating around in the darkness according to a great design of aimlessness.

-Willem de Kooning

John Hultberg’s work, variously understood and misunderstood as surrealist, tormented, fractional sci-fi nightmares of a disintegrating civilization, etc., derives primarily from the “crisis personality” (Harold Rosenberg) of Abstract Expressionism which had its roots in the depression of the 1930s. The Action Painters didn’t gain a wide audience until the 1950s, just as Hultberg arrived in New York from California where he had studied with Rothko, Still, and Diebenkorn.

With a wider audience and increasing success, Abstract Expressionism was becoming The Academy. The comprehension of every great painter is made more difficult by the academicism of the moment, which of necessity he opposes. Hultberg moved beyond Abstract Expressionism in his conception of space and form.

The Renaissance-Baroque mode of seeing occurs from a fixed viewpoint; the Cubist-Abstract approach in presenting several views simultaneously is without regard for a fixed spatial frame of reference, while the New York School developed a concept of planar reduction and formal interaction on the picture surface. Making heretical use of the Renaissance convention of linear perspective, Hultberg created deep, illusionary, panorama-scapes, peopled with fragmented objects and visionary personages. His perspective, suffused in deep visceral resonances, leaps to infinity and its illusion of depth serves to enhance the sensation of closure; it awakens premonitions of something fugitive, passing and final. The horizon (or lack of one) seems to signify a future (or lack of one).

John Hultberg’s non-specific vanishing point in the total mimetic tableau represents the infinitely distant point in the underlying geometry that no longer measures distance as we are rushed into infinity or are engulfed by the artist’s black hole. Black holes are to Hultberg as gravity was to Courbet, light vibrations to Monet, spatial planes to the Cubists and expression of individual psyches to the Abstract Expressionists.

Hultberg’s space becomes time as his horizon signifies the future, and, like the Faustian spirit, is impatient with limitations and craves to be alone with endless space. His planar perspective and formal interactions on the picture surface are a new way of defining pictorial space.

After de Chirico,1953 by John Hultberg
After de Chirico, 1953, (oil on canvas, 38x49, National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection.)

Of his early After de Chirico the artist said, “This painting is so flat! I haven’t painted anything like that since.” Indeed, in After de Chirico a convergence’ of perspective lines project the center of gravity into a deep, dark square surrounded by empty, mysterious compartments congealed in polychrome viscosity. Its pseudo-surrealist clutter gives no hint of Hultberg’s incipient discontinuity of space.

Although perspective is still taught in art schools and remains the essential technique of architectural drawing, it may have made its last important appearance in painting (before Hultberg) in Giorgio de Chirico, who deliberately distorted perspective to reject measurable space and to give his views an air of unreality. In the twentieth century space lost not only its static character by being conjoined with time, but also that sensibility which had enabled man to externalize his ideas. In de Chirico everything was neat but “wrong” with his multiple, elusive and conflicting vanishing points. Hultberg’s single vanishing point becomes a point of departure where inventive views of interiors of the mind and exteriors of cities and littered highways fracture into cubistic, as well as surreal receptacles. His painterly procedures and luxuriant paintings touch the intellect and the imagination. Yet this association of intellect and imagination has integrity; it stems from the seeming inevitable judgment of proportion and placing, of constructed order and natural chaos.

During the middle 1950s Hultberg showed at the Museum of Modern Art, won first prizes at the Corcoran Biennial and the International Congress for Cultural Freedom in Rome, was included in the Whitney Annual and won a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1954 his father died, leaving him a small inheritance which enabled him to go to Paris. There he met Martha Jackson, the pioneer art dealer famous for her support of new art and her loyalty to artists. Already familiar with his work, she invited him to join her gallery. Thus began a close association of fifteen years until her untimely death. The artist recently had a traveling retrospective, and was shown in both “The Martha Jackson Memorial Collection” at the National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C. and “A Tribute to Martha Jackson” at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York.

Running to Paradise, 1968 by John Hultberg
Running to Paradise, 1968, oil on canvas, 50x68, collection, David Anderson Gallery,N.Y.

1968 was the year Nixon was inaugurated, American troops reached peak levels in Vietnam, and Hultberg painted Running To Paradise. “I was thinking of the Yeats’ poem:
  As I came over the Windy Gap,
they threw a half-penny in my cap,
for I am running to Paradise.

“Everyone was fighting about the Vietnam war! I must have been upset because that’s when I put in one of my angels with wings.” Angels (even without halos) are agents of a divine will, symbols of invisible forces between the Life-Source and the world of phenomena (“And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit.” -Rev.20:1). In the deep lunar background are window-like tilted rectangles similar to the windows in Space Pollution.

Space Pollution, 1969 by John Hultberg
Space Pollution, 1969, (David Anderson Gallery)

“I heard they were putting satellites into the sky,” said the artist about this work. “I had this idea of a big window, about a hundred miles of window. I painted this before the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and when they came to the final scene... there was my painting!” Interestingly enough, in addition to the plethora of cubicles and office-looking rectangles with figures tending gadgets and instruments, there is a large, dark, empty doorway at the bottom right, like a Dantean exit of no return - without “the key of the bottomless pit.”

Martha Jackson’s sudden death in 1969 ended her long and fruitful union with Hultberg just when he was struggling to overcome alcoholism. This initiated a period of despair for the artist.

Transportation, 1970-71, by John Hultberg
Transportation, 1970-71, Baruch College, N.Y., gift of Christopher Colt

In Transportation we are projected into a terrifying cityscape with definite building shapes and what seems to be an airplane with humanoid (female?) convolutions which are echoed in the atmosphere by a chalky white fluid line of a clearly defined supine female form.

Apocalypsia, 1971-72 by John Hultberg
Apocalypsia (1971-72, David Anderson Gallery)

This painting is almost a prologue to Apocalypsia which the artist described in revealing personal terms: “These were bad times for me mentally; I was already in a state of crisis and then everything broke down... Apocalypsia... the end of the world... the end of my world as I knew it.” A dark tenuous body, outlined in electric blue pastel line, in Orant pose, gestures toward an unseen being with two dead-black, Pantocrator-Eyes in a threatening, violet colored heaven. Other eye-like orbs, as well as rectangular ones, stare out at us from the city. All in polychrome flurries of distressed, agitated strokes.

Twilight Down the Drain, 1975 by John Hultberg
Twilight Down the Drain, 1975, The Portland Museum of Art Maine, gift of David K. Anderson

Twilight: Down the Drain is a maze of squares, cubes, boxes, excavated buildings, a drive-in movie screen, silhouettes, and human figures, all with a vanishing point like the closing scenes in the movie 2001, suggesting an expanding universe or exploding galaxies. The title (the first word suggests the Twilight of the Gods) as well as the date, recall the fall of Cambodia and the end of the Vietnam War. Indeed, red predominates in the lower half of the painting and seems to connote bestiality, blood and brutality, even though it is rendered with a luminous delicacy and a certain incorporeal virtuosity. Dismembered and broken bodies (“body count”? My Lai? Phoenix Program?), balletic figures with baroque gestures litter a neurasthenic landscape. The sky is cluttered and almost as inhabited as below the horizon, while blue beings merge into a shattered blue heaven, which seems distressed by the vagaries of time. Just as red connotes physicality, blue beckons our spirit with vibrations of faith into infinite distance. Blue is a receding color and contracts like nature in winter when germination and growth are hidden in darkness. The technique of representing optical configurations of space (blue heavens as well as red earths) is basic to the history of Western visual art. But here orthogonals no longer measure physical distance, they are submerged in a vanishing point as though swallowed by an awesome black hole. Perspective becomes a Faustian striving toward eternal silences and infinite spaces, and the vanishing point suggests that time and space are abandoning us.

Arctic Sea Smoke, 1980-85, by John Hultberg
Arctic Sea Smoke
(1980-85, Anita Shapolsky Gallery)

Arctic Sea Smoke is fundamentally a duo-chrome in blue and white. The splintered indigo atmosphere seeps into the cool arctic crust; there is no horizon, no vanishing point. Cubicles, squares, geometrical configurations (looking like Carl Andre‘s tidy rectangles gone awry) litter the ground and merge osmotically into the sky. A single figure becomes a negative shape within a doorway. Is he entering? exiting? pausing? in the same Dantean door as in Space Pollution? Symbolists tell us doors and windows signify birth and death; indeed, black and dark blue are associated with death, in contrast to white, related to timelessness.

Village Life 1985 by John Hultberg
Village Life (1985, Anita Shapolsky Gallery)

Village Life is not so much a village as a celestial-space-as-container; not so much life as a profusion of people, dispossessed and rootless, running to infinity. A confusion of caryatid shapes, torsos, eyes, heads, and masks, principally in browns, are shown below a pentecostal sky which sears the human spirit. Village Life seems to refer to the cosmic catastrophe that William Blake had in mind when he wrote of the “angry religion of the stars.” Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.” (Tractatus nr. 6.432)

Crumbling City, 1985 by John Hultberg
Crumbling City
(1985, Anita Shapolaky Gallery)

The blue-white combination is repeated in Crumbling City, but here is a reversal of colors: cloud-like whites and blues are in the earth strata while sulphuric oranges and warm, humus grays are in the upper atmosphere. A large elliptical ring (similar to the windows in Space Pollution and Running To Paradise) hovers at the horizon line and a totem-body on the right gestures toward it. Other, smaller silhouetted physiques in the foreground enter from the left and wander into perspectival avenues leading to the ellipse above a dispersed acropolis. According to ancient Eastern thought, the three dimensional space of heaven is a lid which prevents man from penetrating the mysteries of the other world. Today we distinguish between our own scale and order to which our minds are accustomed, and those remote phenomena which ordinary standards fail to measure in regions where, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, there is “no hospitable city for the mind of man.”

Mother Earth, 1986 by John Hultberg
Mother Earth, 1986, The Estate of John Hultberg

But Mother Earth is a cathartic representation, with no perspective, no orthogonals, no vanishing point and no figures except for the supine female form in the sky, which is painted with luminous and serene blues and swaths of cumulus whites. She is repeated twice again, osmotically, in the earth below. All three are reminiscent of the womanly outlines in Transportation and Apocalypsia. But here the emphasis is on the disposition of the figure, not so much in space as of space. Once experienced, it is an effect difficult to deny.

The artist’s new works are adventuresome, assured and provocative; each contains references to the earlier paintings, endowing Hultberg’s diverse work with unity. The paintings of the 1980s look back to the painterly architectonics of Abstract Expressionism, providing a cogent link between the 1950s and the l980s. They carry far fewer allusions to other styles or artists than do most Second Generation New York School painters. They are themselves.

Pascal once asserted: “What is Man... a Nothing in comparison with the Infinite... an All in comparison with the Nothing. He is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.”

Today cosmologists worry whether the expansion of the universe will continue forever. Will galaxies continue to fly away from us, or in some millennia “bounce back” in a reversal of the cosmic expansion? If the cosmos is closed, everything within would be reduced to insignificance and our fate to non-existence. Or is space a realm without intrinsic dimensions, with no reality of its own? Perhaps it prevails solely as a by-product of human consciousness.

Platonists consider space-time itself as bare of all things, of all forms. And what of all these Hultberg shapes... heads, boxes, geometric shapes, hands, industrial parts, etc.? Rather than getting in the way of Platonic pure form, these “things” are part of Hultberg’s manipulation of forms to lead the mind beyond Platonic form, His art confronts space and fills the infinite void with tangible things of interior and exterior meaning.

John Hultberg - Photo by Martin Ries Hultberg is eminently a man stamped by the Atomic Age just as he was a child molded by the Great Depression. He is concerned with Man in comparison with the Infinite and with the Nothing, and it is heartening that a thoughtful, erudite and painterly mind is still at work. Most of his works (and Hultberg is an excellent graphic artist as well as poet and writer) are visions of the tribulations of our day and give pleasure and meaning to Platonists and non-Platonists alike.



This paper was written with the help of a Release-
Time Research Grant from
Long Island University, The Brooklyn Center.


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