Published: July 15, 2001 By

[1]   The artists who emerged as the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s were as a group notoriously macho and homophobic. For Fritz Bultman (1919-85), a young painter associated with this first generation of the New York School, such attitudes could only have added to his persistent state of discomfort. In a prior article surveying Bultman’s production in the 1940s I suggested that his interest in the Greco-Roman myth of Actaeon, referenced in about a dozen works, was tied to his struggle with homosexual desire (Firestone, “‘Missing Irascible;'” also see Gibson, 11-12). Since that publication I have been given carte blanche by the artist’s widow to use all of his papers in her possession (Appendix A), which in conjunction with related materials maintained by the Archives of American Art (Appendix B), enable an in-depth examination of Bultman’s utilization of the Actaeon myth. Unlike other vanguard artists who employed myth for its universal expression of the “tragic and timeless” (see Gottlieb and Rothko), Bultman’s use of myth was deeply personal. The mechanisms he employed to both conceal and allude to core issues of his identity provide an instructive example of how abstraction can veil private meanings. At the same time, Bultman’s preoccupation with the Actaeon myth presents the vexing twentieth-century problem as to the extent an artist’s work purposively refers to psychoanalytic theory or unconsciously substantiates it. Apart from these issues my interest in Bultman comports with Robert Motherwell’s judgment that of all the painters of his generation, Bultman is “the one [most] drastically and shockingly underrated” (Kingsley et al., 9).

[2]   The most familiar version of the myth that obsessed Bultman is found in Ovid’s  Metamorphoses, a Roman work of the early first century CE (Bultman used the spelling Acteon but the Latin spelling Actaeongenerally is preferred). In Ovid’s account Actaeon and his hounds, after a successful morning of hunting, wandered into unknown woods where he happened upon Diana, goddess of the moon, chastity, and the hunt, attended by nymphs as she bathed. Irate at this intrusion, she transformed Actaeon into a stag by splashing water on him, whereupon his dogs tore him to pieces (1, bk 3: 174-251). Later variations of the myth, rather than depicting him as the victim of cruel fortune, make Actaeon responsible for his own destruction. In Roman wall painting of the first century CE, Actaeon’s position on a rock looking down on Diana introduces the possibility of voyeurism (Leach, 313-315, 321); in the following century Apuleius’s novel,  Metamorphoses, leaves no doubt (2, bk 2: 4; also see Heath, 104-05). By the nineteenth century a popular version of the myth had Actaeon boldly advancing toward Diana after he first spots her, instead of turning back (Berens, 91). It was this Actaeon as sexual transgressor, as we shall see, with whom Bultman identified.

[3]   Bultman, who will be unfamiliar to most readers, was born and raised in New Orleans, the son of a successful funeral parlor director. As a teenager he was afforded the opportunity to study for two years in Munich, Germany where he had the good fortune to board with Miz Hofmann who had not yet joined her husband Hans in the United States. Upon his return in 1937 he enrolled at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and in the following four years he studied with Hofmann at his schools in Provincetown, Massachusetts and New York City. It was probably through Lee Krasner, a Hofmann student, that Bultman met and developed a friendship with Jackson Pollock in the early 1940s (Friedman,Pollock, 88; Rushing, 169). After his year-round move to Provincetown in 1945 Bultman stayed in touch with the New York art scene by occasional visits to the city and the attraction of Provincetown as a summer art colony for a number of avant-garde artists. He exhibited in New York at the Hugo Gallery and in 1950 he was one of eighteen painters who signed an open letter to theNew York Times objecting to the system of conservative juries used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to select a national exhibition of contemporary painting. Labeled in the press “the Irascibles,” this group included almost all the artists who would achieve international acclaim as Abstract Expressionists. Unfortunately, Bultman was studying sculpture in Italy at the time of the photo shoot for the famous photograph of them published in the January 15, 1951 issue of Life magazine (Friedman, “‘the Irascibles'”). His absence from the iconic group portrait undoubtedly denied him a more prominent place in the history of mid-twentieth century American art.

Mythological Representation in The Hunter

[4]   Fritz Bultman, The Hunter, 1949. Oil on celotex, 60 x 48 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Kathyrn E. Hurd Fund, 1994 (1994. 283). Photograph courtesy of Mrs. Jeanne Bultman.Bultman’s largest and arguably most important work up to “the Irascibles” episode was The Hunterof 1949, exhibited in his one-person show at the Hugo Gallery in 1950 (figure 1). This picture, which I believe is the last of the Actaeon paintings, is upon examination surprisingly representational. I see it as an image of shifting identities in keeping with a tale of metamorphosis. My approach will be to first describe how The Hunterrepresents the myth, and then trace Bultman’s ten-year engagement with the Actaeon theme to support my reading of this climactic picture.

[5]   Central to the composition and the conception of the painting is an animal form in the middle. Its originating importance is evident in a preliminary drawing (Appendix B.3) in which this figure is almost fully developed while the left side has only the remotest resemblance to the finished work (figure 2). Fritz Bultman, Notebook Page (Drawings for The Hunter), 1949. Ink and tempera on paper, 7 7/16 x 4 1/8 in. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Lee Stalsworth.In the painting the central form can be read as either an antlered animal or a dog with gaping jaws. As such it represents both the stag that Actaeon became and one of the dogs that destroyed him. The double identity of the animal carries over to the red stick figure on the left. This figure can be construed to be in the position of an archer, the primary role Bultman assigned Diana when he first became fascinated with the Actaeon myth. A red arrow, associated with her attributes of quiver and bow, diagonally extends from the figure towards the upper right. A series of concentric yellow strokes, divided by a broken vertical line of the same color, encircles the upper portion of the figure, suggesting the phases of the moon appropriate to the moon goddess. At the same time, however, the red stick figure seems to display an erect male member (which also can be said of the animal form), a feature clearly present in several drawings leading up toThe Hunter. Read as Actaeon, then, the stick figure appears to recoil from the animal form in its guise as an attacking dog. Moreover, the entire left side of the painting, with its numerous branching projections, may serve to represent the antlers of a large stag. As the figural presence on the left side oscillates between the two hunters, Diana and Actaeon, the significance of the painting’s title is compounded.

[6]   The upper right quadrant of the painting was transferred without change from the preliminary drawing. In the corner there may be a representation of a blood-red, crescent moon. Below it is what appears to be a plant form that resembles an ear of corn on a stalk, which probably provided the basis for the picture’s original title, Maize — The Hunter. According to Bultman’s wife he made a habit of gathering corn stalks from his Provincetown garden to use as visual stimulation in his studio, and seven of the fourteen works exhibited at the Hugo Gallery in 1950 had the word maize in their titles (Appendix A.5). The remaining prominent element in the painting is the ambiguous white sign that converges with what has been identified as Diana’s arrow. More than anything it looks like a skeleton key, perhaps inferring a meaning waiting to be unlocked. This meaning, like the picture’s subject, can be understood as sexual, which is not only one of the symbolic connotations of the key, but also the arrow. The nature of this sexual content is revealed in Bultman’s notebooks which contain numerous references to the Actaeon myth and to his homosexual inclinations. The notebooks give us access to a resourceful use of myth and related iconographies which express his discomfort with a gay identity that for both familial and societal reasons could not be made evident in the finished works. Additionally, the notebooks indicate that Bultman chafed under the authority of his father, a conflict I also find conveyed by his use of the Actaeon myth.

Identification with Actaeon: Punishment for Sexual Transgression

[7]   The punishment Actaeon received was what Bultman wished for himself. In a notebook postdated “N.Y.C. 1938?,” but possibly dating from the early 1940s, he melodramatically wrote,

I have always wanted to die violently — but be the deus ex machina of my demise — no not suicide, that would be too cold, too mental, and to fall a hero in a war too much a part of a mass movement. It must be special, unique, and violent (Appendix A.1).

The death wish he entertained from childhood stemmed from his difficult relationships with his parents, especially his father, and frequent bouts of anxiety and depression. Later, the pairing of sex and guilt that was the legacy of his Catholic upbringing, and the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in the 1940s, no doubt exacerbated his condition. During the years Bultman studied with Hofmann in Provincetown and Manhattan he was immersed in a large, intellectually vibrant gay subculture. In the summer of 1940 Bultman met Tennessee Williams in Provincetown, who introduced him to another gay writer in New York, Donald Windham (Spoto, 81-91). In the city he socialized at George’s Tavern on Seventh Avenue below Eighth Street, a meeting place for writers and artists, many of whom were gay (Naifeh and Smith, 478-82). After his marriage in 1943 Bultman would be desperately conflicted about his sexuality for at least a decade. On one occasion he speculated about homosexuality and his father, expressing disgust about “the male function” of earning money, and wondering “to what degree was homosexuality a symptom of this nausea” (Appendix A.4). To this he added “a sense of failing in every standard [Dad] sets — with him I feel always the failure.” Reports of depression, insomnia and nausea occur with disturbing regularity in the notebooks of the 1940s.

[8]   The earliest indication of Bultman’s interest in the Actaeon myth is a sheet with two drawings found folded in a sketchbook (Appendix A.2) dating from circa 1939-40 (figure 3). The smaller drawing, set perpendicular to the main image, presents Diana and her attendants as a Picassoesque group of bathers. Overhead a full moon cut in half by a diagonal line anticipates Diana’s moon symbolism in The Hunter. Her attributes 
 Fritz Bultman, Drawings of the Actaeon Myth, ca. 1939-40. Ink on paper, 9 5/16 x 11 3/4 in. Bultman Papers, New York.of bow and quiver with a single arrow lie on the craggy shoreline too distant from the goddess for her to use against an intruder, a detail described by Ovid. At the right we see an imposing rock formation suggesting that Bultman was familiar with representations of the myth in Roman wall paintings, Apuleius’s novel, or both. The remnant of a tree or a branching plant rising from the rock recurs in simplified form in the upper right quadrant of The Hunter. The large drawing depicts the transformed Actaeon (except for a hand and perhaps the sex organs) mortally wounded by Diana’s arrows, the new moon of the maiden-goddess reflected in the pool of blood at his feet. Even as the life drains from his body drop by drop, Actaeon nevertheless manages to remain sexually aroused. Is his excitement charged by the lingering memory of Diana’s nakedness, or the phallic penetration of the arrows, or both?

[9]   This rescripting of Actaeon’s fate can be Fritz Bultman, Notebook Page, ca. 1945. Ink on paper, 11 7/8 x 7 13/16 in. Bultman Papers, New York.explained by a conflation of themes. In later notebooks several of Bultman’s drawings raise issues of bisexuality, homosexuality, and the pain of prohibited sex, including an image of the martyred St. Sebastian (figure 4), which is typologically related to his alternate version of the Actaeon myth. St. Sebastian, frequently pictured in the history of art as an androgynous youth, has been an image of homoerotic desire since the Renaissance. A subject not unfamiliar to gay artists in the modern period, it was used by the late-nineteenth century photographer F. Holland Day, Marsden Hartley, and possibly Jasper Johns. As Jonathan Weinberg has noted, “[St. Sebastian’s] ‘miracle’ of surviving a shower of missiles [is] converted into a fantasy of anal intercourse” (‘It’s in the Can,’ 44). Bultman’s drawing of St. Sebastian confirms this meaning, albeit painfully. As I will argue presently, Bultman merged the characters of Actaeon and St. Sebastian in an act of self-identification to express his own martyrdom to art and his sexuality.

[10]   In a notebook inscribed with the date 1940 Bultman wrote on two subjects at length, Actaeon and homosexual desire. At one point he envisioned Diana stalking victims by moonlight:

What is the hunt that we persue [sic] tonight Diana? What orbits of light will blind our eyes, what parallel do we cruise Diana? Whom shall we meet that will by vision of us transfigure himself Diana? Acteon is dead but lives in each hunter. The hunter that turns himself into the hunted, his heart the love, the hate, the image of the hunted (Appendix B.1).

Significantly, Bultman evoked the activity of gay cruising to describe Diana’s hunt; her victims, like Actaeon, were out cruising too. In a later refinement of this idea, he expanded on the method and locales of cruising: “This demi-moon dame — Diana cruising the parallels of night — following streets to the rivers — taking a lifetime to circle a square” (Appendix A.3). In the 1940 notebook he revealingly observed in connection with Actaeon that, “The seeds of one’s metamorphosis and one’s own destruction lie plainly in one’s way of life.” In the next entry Bultman voiced an extended lament about an unrequited love for a male friend. Then he returned to the Actaeon myth, playfully rhyming the cause of his death: “Curiosity killed the cat, rat ta tat tat, poor dear, poor deer.” Bultman attributed Actaeon’s demise to his [sexual] curiosity, again suggesting that he may have been aware of Apuleius who refers to Actaeon’s “curious gaze” (Heath, 104). Clearly, it was not a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Actaeon’s desire that destroyed him.

Symbolic Affinity Between the Actaeon Myth and the Oedipus Complex

[11]   The Actaeon myth initially may have attracted Bultman’s attention as a story of sexual transgression, but it is likely that at some point he linked it to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, with which it bears a remarkable symbolic affinity. Common to the Actaeon myth and the climactic moment of the Oedipus complex are revelatory sight followed by violent punishment, realized in Actaeon’s death and imagined as castration by the child. Joseph Campbell in the late 1940s made this very connection in a discussion of the universal mother-goddess known to earlier cultures, who he contended still dwells within us to this day. According to Campbell,

The remembered image is not only benign however; for [there is] the “bad” mother too — [for example]… the desired but forbidden mother (Oedipus complex) whose presence is a lure to dangerous desire (castration complex) — [who] persists in the hidden land of the adult’s infant recollection and is sometimes even the greater force. She is at the root of such unattainable great goddess figures as the chaste and terrible Diana — whose absolute ruin of the young sportsman Actaeon illustrates what a blast of fear is contained in such symbols of the mind’s and body’s blocked desire (111).

Although I have not located a specific reference to the Oedipus complex in Bultman’s notebooks, they do demonstrate a familiarity with Freudian concepts in his many attempts at dream interpretation and self-analysis. Moreover, Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex and his related ideas on homosexuality were commonplace in intellectual communities of the 1940s (Lewes, 63), and Bultman would have had great interest in any explanations that helped him understand his own situation. The first discussion of what later would be known as the Oedipus complex occurs in The Interpretation of Dreams, a book Bultman almost certainly read (4: 260-64). His interest in Freud’s ideas will later be demonstrated by the type of psychoanalytic therapy he chose in the early 1950s.

[12]   According to Freud, the male child’s increasing erotic desire for the mother, and the concomitant fear of castration by the father, culminates in the intensification of castration anxiety at the sight of the mother’s genitals, which are perceived as mutilated. The shock of this experience triggers a complex set of defense mechanisms, which in conjunction with the child’s constitutional disposition to either active or passive sexuality, determines his later selection of partners. Heterosexuality is explained by an identification with the father. At the least Bultman would have been familiar with two explanations of homosexuality that had gained general currency. In one the person who will become homosexual wards off castration anxiety by seeking a compromise figure in the form of a feminized man, in the other he attempts to preserve the relationship with the mother by remaking his ego in her image. Another explanation known as the “negative” Oedipus complex has the advantage that it also plausibly accounts for bisexual object choices. In this formulation the threat of castration is allayed by an unconscious erotic attachment to the father, a response that does not necessarily exclude the mother. Each of these explanations entails homosexual object choice driven by extreme castration anxiety (Lewes, 34-47 ff). Thus, as I read Bultman’s Actaeon scenario, Diana, the stalker who metes out punishment to gay cruisers, has identities as both mother-goddess and the authority figure who represents the castrating father. The figure on the left side of The Hunter, then, not only oscillates between Diana and Actaeon, but also between the goddess and the father, which symbolically instates the triangular relationship of the parents and child.

What the Notebooks Tell Us: Underlying Meanings, Symbolic Characters, Concealed Imagery

[13]   The violence of the Actaeon myth, and the emotional pain it represented for Bultman, are not apparent in two 1941 versions ofActeon Mask Still Life, his first identifiable Actaeon paintings, one of which is reproduced here (figure 5). 
 Fritz Bultman, Acteon Mask Still Life, 1941. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in. Collection of Alan Sacks, New Orleans.Rather, dynamic interaction of planes, bold linearity, and scumbled surfaces reflect the formal instruction Bultman received as Hofmann’s student from 1938-42. The subject of the paintings, a mask Bultman made to wear to a Provincetown Art Association masquerade, is undetectable, yet it is filled with signification. The mask declares Bultman’s identification with Actaeon, the sexual transgressor and victim of a violent, exquisite death. While the concept of the mask in his case alluded to aspects of a socially unacceptable identity, it serves the primary purpose of concealment. As Jonathan Weinberg has demonstrated, the mask as a metaphor for concealed sexual identity was in use at least as early as the beginning of the twentieth century (Speaking for Vice, 157-58). The personal meaning of the mask necessarily was confined to Bultman’s notebooks and perhaps a few friends. Moreover, what little the Actaeon mask may have been able to disclose is negated because the mask itself is concealed within the geometry of the painting. Concealment, in effect, is doubled by the presence of a mask that has been abstracted beyond recognition. This masking of a homosexual or bisexual identity is clearly demonstrated in the genesis of a 1945 painting titled Mask of Acteon to be discussed later in this article (figure 9).

[14]   The Actaeon paintings are as opaque to obvious meaning as certain images in the notebooks are revealing,
 Fritz Bultman, Notebook Page, ca. 1945. Ink and pencil on paper, 11 7/8 x 7 13/16 in. Bultman Papers, New York.particularly several in a notebook dating from about 1945 (Appendix A.3). The first striking image one encounters is introduced at the top of the page by Bultman’s description of his black, suffocating moods which he compared to the sensation of “being devoured [like] Jonah and the whale” (figure 6). Underneath this bleak note a cartouche with undulating lettering, surrounded by sexually suggestive fish imagery, announces “The Male Female Fish Wombedan,” an hermaphroditic mermaid who swims in an ejaculatory sea of its own making. This creature had personal implications for Bultman that went beyond Freud’s notion of a universal bisexuality which varies only in degree in each individual, or the Jungian ideal of the union of male and female attributes. By juxtaposition of word and image he links his despair with a troubling sexuality. Husband, future father of two sons, he awakened from a dream one night in 1945 to record “a sense of guilt because of harboring homosexual ideas” (Appendix B.2).

[15]   Eight pages after the bisexual “Wombedan” the pain and guilt of homosexual desire is made explicit in the image of St. Sebastian (figure 4). In the intervening pages of notes and drawings Bultman considers “the bisexuality of lower sea orders,” “the ocean as the mother of all life,” boats as maternal symbols with “prows like the full stomachs of carrying mothers,” and the boat as a temporary womb that “absorbs the fears, the anxieties of the land that holds the [earth] wanderer in a frozen trance….” The ship as a maternal symbol, and the fantasy of returning to the womb as an escape from anxiety, are ideas found in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (5: 354, 460-61). Clearly, the idea of a primordially natural bisexuality, and a return to an imagined origin, was a comfort in the face of life’s tribulations and societal punishment of sexual difference. To explicate the drawing Bultman wrote,

The eye of the wanderer is the sign by which he is known — they [the eyes] cannot loose the vision of the Death. On land the wanderer becomes the martyred arrow pierced St. Sebastian whose eye is never closed, no rest, nothing escapes these senses of perception/reception, the eye that never closes, the ear that hears the constant accusations.

Not only is this wandering St. Sebastian another projection of the artist’s tortured psyche and his sense of victimization, but the skeleton may also have expressed his disgust with the sensate flesh that tormented him.

[16]   Bultman’s Actaeon and St. Sebastian Peter Paul Rubens, Rape of Ganymede, 1636-38. Oil on canvas, 71 1/4 x 34 1/4 in. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.were one in the same, connected in pain by the faculty of sight, both victims of the archer’s bow, tumescent in the throes of death. Yet, with his legs drawn up and arms raised, the figure of St. Sebastian also suggests the air-borne Ganymede whose youthful beauty enticed Zeus to swoop down as an eagle and carry him off to Mt. Olympus, forever identifying Ganymede with homosexual desire (see Saslow). Along with a nod to Picasso in the skeletal figure of St. Sebastian, and the eye with two ears that brings Miró to mind, a work by Rubens may also be referenced on this page. Rubens’s erotic placement of quiver and arrows in the Rape of Ganymede, as well as the general position of the figure (figure 7), are not unlike Bultman’s more agonized treatment of St. Sebastian. That Bultman would have alluded to Rubens’s painting, or was conversant with the variations of the Actaeon myth, Roman wall painting, Freudian theory, and readily conflated mythological and religious characters, is not at all surprising, because, although largely self-educated, he was one of the most widely read artists of his generation. As April Kingsley observed, “His library would serve as the perfect model of what the erudite mid-century artist would ideally have been reading” (Kingsley,The Turning Point, 100).

[17]   The importance of the eye for the St. Sebastian page, in text and image, returns us to Freud who asserts in “The Uncanny” that there is a “substitutive relation between the eye and male member which is seen to exist in dreams and myths and phantasies” (17: 231). He also postulated a universal castration anxiety arising from the child’s erotic striving for the mother which means that in the eye-penis equation ocular anxiety can be interpreted as a manifestation of castration anxiety (Rubin, 206). The St. Sebastian page is loaded with ocular anxiety, and the clamp-like device on his offending organ is surely a form of castration. If these images are a product of Bultman’s unconscious they are a remarkable demonstration of Freud’s thesis, but it appears that he deliberately used Freud’s formulation of the substitutive relationship between eye and penis to represent his feelings of anxiety and guilt. Nevertheless, the representation of St. Sebastian as a skeleton introduces the possibility that Bultman was tapping a deeper, more fundamental castration anxiety that lay beyond his conscious recognition. As Laurie Schneider Adams notes in connection with Van Gogh’s Skull with a Cigarette, “the reduction of the figure to a skeleton [not only] bespeaks an extraordinary depressive content,” but “being a detached body part the absent skin revives the oedipal fear of castration” (57).

[18]   While Freud emphasized the symbolic connection between the eye and the penis, he and other psychoanalysts recognized that the eye also could represent the female genitalia and sexuality in general (Siegel, 1: 106). The radiating lines of the pupil in the eye at the top of the St. Sebastian page and its counterpart with radiating lines that receives the concentrated barrage of arrows locates one source of St. Sebastian’s ocular anxiety in the act of anal intercourse. Bultman’s drawing makes explicit the connection between eye and anus that Jonathan Weinberg postulated in his discussion of Jasper Johns’s target imagery. Weinberg wrote,

Yet isn’t the target a surrogate for another body part? Johns later suggests as much himself, making the obvious pun on ‘bull’s eye’ even more obvious in the later eyelike drawing Broken Target. But if the target is the artist’s eye, or his entire face, as when we speak of the face of a target, it is also his anus (“It’s in the Can,” 43).

It is telling that immediately adjacent to the anal barrage of arrows Bultman uses the words perception and reception interchangeably to describe the function of the eye. In practical terms, the anus is the male vagina. According to Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, “The genitals can be represented in dreams by other parts of the body… the female orifice by the mouth or an ear or even an eye” (Siegel,2: 116). Freud’s association of the ear with a sexual orifice is pertinent to Bultman’s drawing and text in view of the emphasis he placed on ears and hearing.

[19]   His guilt about his homosexuality was unrelenting (“the eye that never closes, the ear that hears the constant accusations”), but when Bultman expressed hope “That the homosexual pattern is cleared up and relegated to its proportionate place in my personality,” he added, “(Do I want it eradicated?) Resolve this dilemma” (Appendix A.6). This is because he believed, like many others, that his capacity for understanding and sensitivity, and by extension his creative insight, was attributable to the feminine dimension of his personality. On the mixed blessing of homosexuality he wrote,

I will speak of the cauldron of homosexuality…. It carries with it these gifts — these sufferings — this particularly human quality of understanding and of suffering — the nature thru which ALL action passes…. This understanding is the first compensation for the pain…. (Appendix A.7).

Bultman’s words resemble those in the gay classic written by Edward Carpenter earlier in the century: “That delicate and subtle sympathy with every move and phase of feeling which makes the artist possible is also very characteristic of the Uranian (the male type), and makes it easy or natural for the Uranian man [homosexual] to become an artist” (109). For Bultman the pain of sexual difference came with the territory of being an artist. The price one must pay, as St. Sebastian so graphically tells us, is nothing short of martyrdom.

[20]   In the same notebook that contains the “Wombedan” and St. Sebastian, Bultman, using the metaphor of a tree, diagrammed man’s base origin in nature, his own human predicament, and the desire for transcendence by employing a rough scaffolding of lines overlaid by an amalgamation of fantastic images (figure 8). In his words, it is

The image of the artist — springing from the earth — the trunk, yes a tree trunk, his penis follows the direction of earth flowing finally back (sex is essentially horizontal), his arms — one embraces the supporting wife mother whose arms touch his heart and hold his head — the head that is able to reach above into the higher purer blue of heaven. On his shoulder perches the spirit bird — the falcon, the gift of the farther father — from his head goes the spirit arm that unconsciously periodically holds and releases the bird.

Supported against his earth bound prick his other arm holds the cloth, the Veronica image — The creation of the artist.

Inherent in the figure is both the X cross of the homosexual and the tree man of which I have though[t] so much lately — workmen in heavy shoes and dirty dungarees — their chests and heads and shoulders emerging like the devine [sic] from the bestial — the glory of live skin — centaurs (Appendix A.3).

Bultman conjures an Fritz Bultman, Notebook Page, ca. 1945. Ink and crayon on paper, 11 7/8 x 7 13/16 in. Bultman Papers, New York.image of primal male sexuality embodied in the tree man, centaurs, and the manual laborers who arouse his desire. Welling up from the basic sexual instinct is the central conflict of Bultman’s life, homosexuality, which makes the coexistence of family and art nearly impossible. Martyrdom again is the theme, evoked in no less a figure than Christ, the quintessential artist who left his impression on Veronica’s veil. The X-cross of the homosexual, the sign of opposing natures, is the cross the homosexual must bear. Bultman idealizes the wife-mother, and consequently the idea of family, as a path to a higher existence in the presence of God (the farther father) symbolized by the falcon spirit bird. At the same time, his art, the product of his homosexuality which is represented by Veronica’s veil, also reaches up to the spirit bird. This visualizes an irresolvable conflict, one whose complexity was reduced to a completely abstract black and white painting titled Mask of Acteon(figure 9). As signaled by the title, this reduction of the drawing served to mask an incriminating content.

[21]   Bultman moved easily from a construct that used Christian symbolism to a title which referenced classical mythology. He was able to do this because, on the one hand, Actaeon, who epitomized his romanticized conception of the artist, was a martyr who died in the pursuit of his vision. Fritz Bultman, Mask of Acteon, 1945. Oil on celotex, 50 1/2 x 39 7/8 in. Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Gift of the artist.As he wrote around 1948, “The honor of Acteon’s martyrdom was a crown of horns” (Bultman Sketchbook, Windham Collection). On the other hand, he recognized in Actaeon the sexual transgressor who brought his horrific punishment on himself. The impossibility of reconciling these divergent views of Actaeon with Christ underscores the confusion and conflict that made his life increasingly unbearable. None of this, of course, would be known without the notebooks Bultman preserved. Mask of Acteon would be seen only in terms of its formal structure and the elemental contrasts of black and white which look ahead to the restricted palettes of artists such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Bradley Walker Tomlin in the late 1940s, and the work Franz Kline began in 1950. Bultman’s painting raises the question of how many seemingly formalist works of modernist abstraction conceal private meanings that the artists who made them did not wish to divulge?

[22]   Not all of Bultman’s paintings were preceded with drawings that contained recognizable images; Fritz Bultman, Acteon, 1946. Oil on canvas, 40 x 34 in. Kendall CampusArt Gallery, Miami-Dade Community College, Miami. Gift of the Estate of the Artist.some were conceived as completely abstract from the beginning. Since a preliminary study for Acteonpainted in 1946 has not materialized, it is not possible to determine whether its structure had a precise meaning for Bultman (figure 10). The imposition of the irregular geometric outline over the lighter, solid configuration could suggest a process of one thing becoming another, a metamorphosis appropriate to the title, but this would only be speculation. What we see in addition to an inventive interplay of shapes is a coarse application of paint and the use of dismal gray color that makes for a challenging if not ingratiating picture. One is tempted to find in this color the impenetrable gloom of Bultman’s many dark moods despite well-informed admonitions that psychological readings such as this are too simple. Certainly, if Hans Hofmann, the teacher to whom Bultman always remained devoted, could write “[the] influence of colors is inescapable…. red projects a feeling of intensified, heightened life…. [and] orange arouses a feeling of joy,” it is possible to conclude that the color ofActeon expresses a very different kind of emotion (82).

[23]   Another Actaeon painting, Dog of Acteon of 1947, bears a title that is initially perplexing because the hunter had far more than one dog (figure 11). Fritz Bultman, Dog of Acteon, 1947. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in. Private collection.According to some ancient sources he had fifty, thirty-three of which Ovid cites by name, although only a few usually were depicted in representations of the myth on Greek vases and in Roman wall paintings. But how to account for one? The simplest explanation is that the encounter between Diana and Actaeon, according to ancient authors, occurred on a hot summer day, the time of year when Sirius, known as the Dog Star, rises with the sun to announce the onset of summer’s scorching heat. Consequently, an association between Actaeon and Sirius is easily made (Fontenrose, 42-43). There is, however, another possible explanation of Bultman’s singular dog. In one version of the myth in which Diana presented Cephalus’s wife Procris with an incredibly swift hound named Laelaps, the dog was eventually lifted into the heavens to become the constellation Canis Major whose alpha star is Sirius. The catasterism of this dog, which coincidentally bore the name of one of Actaeon’s dogs, furthers the association of both Sirius and the constellation with Actaeon. Bultman could have read in a number of books on myths and stars that “In the early classical days… it [Canis Major] was simple ‘Canis,’ and represented ‘Laeleps,’ the hound of Acteon, or that of Diana’s nymph Procris” (Olcott, 96). Here, then, either by simple association of season or the overlap of names, we arrive at Bultman’s dog of Actaeon. Once the basis for Bultman’s title is understood, the composition reveals itself as the constellation Canis Major with Sirius as the radiant eye of the dog (figure 12). Canis Major. Graphic by Robert Carter, University of Georgia.In configurations of the constellation Sirius usually is the dog’s snout, or an object held in his jaws, but in Bultman’s painting it is the radiating eye we find in his notebooks, the eye that has seen too much. His obsession with the Actaeon myth not withstanding, the impetus for painting Dog of Acteonmay have been a novel in progress by his close friend Donald Windham. Written between 1942 and 1948, and published in 1950, The Dog Starcontains numerous allusions to the Actaeon myth, a subject which, according to Windham, Bultman introduced to him (Telephone interview).

[24]   Windham’s novel, which opens with the memorable line, “The dog star rose with the sun and the day was hot as soon as it was light,” tells the story of Blackie Pride, a fifteen-year old youth who runs away from a detention farm to return home after his best friend Whitey Maddox commits suicide. The book is a tale of transgressive behavior and progressive self-destruction. Only hinted at in the novel is Blackie’s homoerotic attachment to Whitey, who first befriends him in a creek screened off from the field where the juvenile farmhands were supposed to be working . Subsequently they steal away each day to swim naked in the creek, an allusion to Diana’s pool. Although no physical relationship is suggested between the two boys, Blackie’s naive attraction is expressed when, in an unmistakable reference to the Actaeon myth, Windham tells us that Blackie “had pursued his hero with his senses, as the hunter pursues with dogs to get nearer the animal nature of the creature he hunts, and he had captured Whitey with his eyes” (45). Windham, like his friend Bultman, was able to overlay the Actaeon myth with homosexual meaning. The numerous allusions to the Actaeon myth in The Dog Star not only indicate that Bultman and Windham shared a deep interest in the story, but at least in one respect, Blackie, who wished to die violently, resembled Bultman. For his part, Bultman must have thought about his friendship with Windham as he painted Dog of Acteon, in which, after all, the Dog Star figures so prominently.

The Centrality of Oedipal Conflict in The Hunter

[25]   In the 1949 notebook that contains the preliminary drawing for The Hunter (Appendix B.3), Bultman wrote, “When I rejected the homosexual ‘life’ I really now [sic] I was rejecting only the shallowest aspect — the casual physical surface of it (the chance meetings, the violent but casual sexual experience).” It is not clear whether he was referring to the sudden intensity of these meetings or actual physical violence, but either way they were analogous to the chance encounter between Diana and Actaeon. Each encounter would risk the possibility of punishment, and revive the fear of the castrating father. In actuality, Bultman’s father, whom he described to B.H. Friedman as “rather tyrannical,” was intimidating enough (Friedman, “In Memoriam,” 78). Bultman still felt very much the child trapped in “a pattern of dependence” by a father who insisted on “a retaining of parental authority” (Appendix A.4). This childish dependence, he came to believe, was at the root of his homosexuality. He wrote in the early 1950s, “I do feel that homosexuality is a clinging to childhood and I would be very happy to be rid of its dividing force in my life….” (Appendix A.6). In this line of reasoning homosexuality is symptomatic of inhibited development, an idea he derived from Freud, who stated in “A Child is Being Beaten,” “whenever we find sexual aberration in adults — perversions, fetishism, inversion [homosexuality]… investigation will reveal… a fixation in childhood” (17: 182). When Bultman found himself on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown in the early 1950s, he attributed it largely to the classic Oedipal struggle between fathers and sons. He pleaded to be “freed for once of the fear of approval and disapproval of my father and Hans [Hofmann] — the material and spiritual fathers,” and he “wonder[ed] about the degree of identification with my father and Hans that has precipitated this collapse” (Appendix A.6).

[26]   All this points to Oeidpal conflict as a central issue in The Hunter (figure 1). That Bultman’s father was profoundly implicated in his obsession with the Actaeon myth is given weight by a photograph he knew and kept throughout his life (figure 13). Photograph of Anthony Fred Bultman II, ca. 1890. 5 3/4 x 4 in. Courtesy of Mrs. Jeanne BultmanIt pictures his father, Anthony Fred Bultman II (Fritz was number Three), as a young boy around the year 1890 with a small dog, a hound, whose head he playfully frames with a pair of antlers. The conjoining of hound and antlers can be understood to conflate the hunter, stag, and dogs of the Actaeon myth, and it presages the merger of animal forms at the center ofThe Hunter. Since it is improbable that Bultman did not recognize the association between the Actaeon myth and the photograph, the question is, did it occur to him before, during, or after the execution of the paintings, and what did he make of it? If the connection occurred afterwards, then the theme of the paintings either had to be coincidental or the product of his subconscious, neither of which I believe was the case. More likely, he made an association between the photograph and the Actaeon myth early on, which would have suggested the need to account for the presence of his father. Even a rudimentary understanding of the Oedipus complex and its outcomes would have enabled Bultman to relate the photograph, the myth, and the theory. To the extent he was familiar with the “negative” Oedipus complex, given his difficulties with his father, he probably would have been resistant to the idea that the young boy in the photograph might be the unconscious object of his desire. With The Hunter, Bultman’s last and most figurative painting on the Actaeon theme, it is possible that he said all he could about the encounter of the hunter and goddess, although it also may be that its underlying meaning had risen too close to the surface for him. There remains the possibility, although not the likelihood in my opinion, that Joseph Campbell’s analogy between the Actaeon myth and the Oedipus complex, published inA Hero with a Thousand Faces the same year The Hunter was painted, was a revelation for Bultman. Such an epiphany might explain the dramatic character of the picture as well as the cessation of work devoted to a subject whose significance now had become even more troublesome.

[27]   The Hugo Gallery exhibition in January-February 1950 withThe Hunter as its centerpiece was a critical success, and marked a period of increasing visibility for Bultman. In February-March he had a painting in the “Black or White” exhibition at the Samuel Kootz Gallery that included many of the rising American Abstract Expressionists and important European modernists, and two months later his name appeared on the notorious “Irascibles” letter. That September he began a nine-month sojourn in Italy to study sculpture, which precluded his inclusion in the Life magazine group photograph. Upon his return to Provincetown the following summer Bultman began preparations for a one-person exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in fall 1952, but his emotional problems hampered his ability to work. The Bultmans moved back to Manhattan from Provincetown in order to get him psychiatric help, and from May 1952 until November 1956 he was in Freudian analysis up to five days a week with Dr. Daniel Shapiro. Bultman, who at one point wanted to withdraw from the Kootz exhibition, managed to just barely pull it off. Over the next four years his production drastically declined, and he dropped from sight as he concentrated all his energy on his therapy (Firestone, “Missing ‘Irascible,'” 16-18).

[28]   The therapy helped Bultman considerably. References to turmoil over his sexual orientation, the Actaeon myth, and conflict with his father (who died in 1964) ceased to appear in the notebooks, which decreased in number and were largely devoted to reflections on art. He was able to resume work which resulted in a rapid succession of solo shows in New York at the Stable Gallery in 1958, the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1959, Fritz Bultman, Coat of Male, 1963-72. Bronze, 74 x 42 x 25 in. Kresge Art Museum, Michigan State University, East Lansing. Gift of the Estate of the Artist.and Gallery Mayer in 1960. Increasingly he devoted himself to sculpture (Kingsley, “Opening and Closing”), and in 1962 he began making collages which would become his major preoccupation the last two decades of his life (Firestone,Collages). But did traces of the Actaeon myth persist? In this regard it seems relevant that Bultman continued to collect antlered and horned furniture and related objects almost to the end of his life, more so because his interest in such objects can be traced to the presence of horned furniture in his boyhood home in New Orleans, a fact that proposes a further link between his father and the Actaeon obsession. Consequently, it is not surprising that Donald Kuspit could describe the sculpture Coat of Male, 1963-72 (figure 14), as “particularly ambitious, with its horns and other phallic elements, one a quite obvious, flattened penis” (130). It would appear that at some level the Actaeon myth continued to exert itself on Bultman’s thinking, yet the time had long passed when the myth, uppermost in his mind, represented a transgressive sexuality that urgently demanded expression at the same time it had to be concealed.

[29]   Appendix A: Bultman Papers, Estate of the Artist, New York.

The materials in New York are comprised of notebooks, sketchbooks, business records, letters, newspaper clippings, and miscellaneous items. The notebooks were dated after the fact by Bultman, and some crossed years, which sometimes makes the dates unreliable. When this appears to be the case, it will be noted. All the notebooks are unpaginated. Bultman’s writings frequently dispense with punctuation, which has been added throughout the text where the need for clarity dictated.

A.1. Notebook, postdated “N.Y.C. 1938,” but possibly later.

A.2. Sketchbook, circa 1939-40, with several loose sheets.

A.3. Notebook, postdated on front cover “1942-3 or 1945,” and on back cover “1945.” Internal evidence suggests a likely date of 1945.

A.4. Notebook, postdated on inside cover “1947-48? Or 46?”

A.5. Hugo Gallery announcement, 30 January -19 February 1950.

A.6. Sketchbook used as a notebook, postdated “1950-51-52, 53??”

A.7. Detached pages, no date. Circa 1950-52.

[30]   Appendix B: Bultman Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

The materials deposited in the Archives of American Art, similar in nature to those in New York from which they were separated, were donated by the artist, seemingly without a systematic plan.

B.1. Notebook, postdated 1940, but possibly 1941.

B.2. Notebook, postdated 1945.

B.3. Notebook, postdated 1949.



I am deeply indebted to Jeanne Bultman for her assistance and understanding. Our many conversations about her husband provided the factual information that otherwise goes uncited in this essay. I also wish to thank my colleague Francis Van Keuren for sharing her knowledge of classical mythology with me.

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