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By Anastasia Agapoff

Coming of age in a period of turmoil, American artist, John Hultberg's work explains what many members of his generation also felt. Having painted continuously for decades, no single term can be used to define the artist or his works. The extreme ups and downs that have marked his life have just as equally marked his art. Possessing both a dreamlike quality similar to Surrealism as well as distorted urban landscapes reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism, the artist created a style all his own.

Table of Contents


John Hultberg was born in 1922, in Berkeley, California to Swedish immigrant parents, John and Mabel. Growing up in the 1930s was difficult for many families, and the Hultbergs were no exception. As the country experienced a huge wave of poverty with the Depression, John Hultberg Sr. tried his hand at many different business ventures including investments, inventions, farming and small business ownership to support his family.1 Throughout this time, the young artist found a safe haven in writing, but was very unhappy at school. When John was twelve, his mother died. Later that year, his grandmother also died. Finding it too difficult to support all of the children on one income, the two youngest siblings, Paul and Helen were sent to live with relatives in Fresno, while the two older siblings, John and Don remained living with their father. John reverted to hobbies such as reading, writing, playing the violin and drawing to distract him from these hard times.

Hultberg graduated high school in 1938. Soon after, he enrolled in Fresno State, where he was an editor at the school literary magazine and received a B.A. in Literature. It was at this time that he also enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, a decision that would undeniably shape his view of the world.

In 1943, Hultberg left for the Navy. He later recalled his excitement at the prospect of war, stating, "I welcomed it….We were idealistic about it, something would be changed."2 He served as a Lieutenant in the Navy for three years. Upon his leave in 1946, he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco under the GI Bill. After World War II, the Social Realist art of the 1930s was passé, and Abstract Expressionism was booming. The California School of Fine Arts was one of the frontrunners of this new trend. Many veterans, including Hultberg, felt disillusioned upon coming home from the war. In art school, Hultberg found, "a spirit of wanting mute wordlessness and wanting to be apolitical [after the war]."3 It was in San Francisco, that Hultberg became acquainted with artists such as Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), Clyfford Still (1904-80), Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Frank Lobdell (b. 1921).

Hultberg impressed the critics early in his career, receiving three San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Annual Prizes, in 1948 and 1949, two for watercolor and one for oil. In 1949, Hultberg had his first solo exhibition at the Contemporary Gallery in Sausalito. He also won the Albert Bender Fellowship, which allowed him and his new wife, Hilary Blesh, to move to New York.

Once in New York, Hultberg enrolled in the Art Students League. During this time, the artist became part of a community that included Franz Kline (1910-62, Willem de Kooning (1904-97), and Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1921). Hultberg remained at the league until 1951. For the next few years, he struggled to make money, taking jobs at an antique store and later as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His marriage was also very rocky. He briefly lived in Rauschenberg's studio before reconciling with Hilary just in time for the birth of their second child. In 1954, Hultberg's father passed away, leaving him a small inheritance, which he used to travel to Paris for a year.

He showed in the Galerie Rive Droite, the Nina Dausset Gallery and the Musee Nationale D'Arte Moderne in Paris; the Palais de Beaux in Brussels; and the Museo de Arte Modern in Rome. The most career-shaping event however, came when he met Martha Jackson, the owner of a New York based gallery. Jackson and Hultberg would remain long time friends and business partners. In 1955, Hultberg won first prize in the Corcoran Biennial for his oil painting, Yellow Sky.

Hultberg returned to New York in 1956. He was welcomed and shown by major museums around the nation including, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, the next few years proved to be very tumultuous for him. He divorced his first wife, and married artist Lynne Drexler (1928-1999) in 1962. He continued to exhibit in Europe and America, and lectured in different art schools. For years, alcoholism plagued his life and was becoming more and more of an apparent problem. It was not until 1976 that he decided to quit drinking.

Over the next couple of decades, Hultberg spent more and more time away from New York. He acted as an artist-in-residence at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH. He also bought a house on Monhegan Island in Maine, a popular destination for artists during the summer months. In 1983, Drexler and Hultberg decided to move to Monhegan year round; however, the two separated that year. Hultberg moved to Portland, OR shortly after. In 1991, he was invited back to the Art Students League, this time as a professor. He remained there teaching, until his death in April 2005 from a stroke.

  1. 1. Jacks, Shirley, "John Hultberg: Painter of the In-Between." p.16.
  2. 2. Jacks, p. 28.
  3. 3. Jacks, p. 33.


Coming of age artistically among the newly emerging Abstract Expressionists, Hultberg found himself in the midst of a truly liberating but heavily biased artistic era. Abstract Expressionism ushered in the idea of painting as your mind visualizes instead of your eye. The post-WWII generation was free to express all of the emotions, fears, and hopes resulting from the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century in America. Unfortunately, there was also an extreme bias against realism and more specifically, the Social Realism that had so feverishly dominated the art world the decade before.

While Hultberg embraced this new psychological freedom, he did not want to paint completely devoid of any recognizable images. This conflict of interest led to the development of Hultberg's own style. Retaining the individuality and emotional freedom of Abstract Expressionism, Hultberg also picked up the psychologically incomprehensible, dreamlike nature of Surrealism as well as the multi-perspective, flat geometric traits of Cubism.

Hultberg's Yellow Sky, an oil on paper from the early 1950's, won him many accolades, including the First Prize for Oil Painting at the Corcoran Biennial of 1955. Yellow Sky depicts an urban landscape from several different perspectives. Because of this the viewer's initial reaction may be one of confusion, not knowing where to begin and where to end. The bottom half of the composition is full of complicated lines and shapes, while the top half is cleaned up showing fewer shapes and colors. Hultberg uses many yellows, browns, and oranges, as well as black and beige. His colors are rarely muted or blended. Each brushstroke of color exists as an entity entirely of its own.

Referred to as apocalyptic, melodramatic, surreal, visionary, dreamlike and filled with stress and paranoia. John Hultberg's style can really only be known as "Hultbergian." Having experienced the early loss of his mother, alcoholism, troubled marriages and a number of career highs and lows, the artist's complexities become apparent through his works. A complicated man producing complicated art, no one true effect or feeling is expressed through his works.


  • 1922 Born in Berkeley, California
  • 1938 Graduated from high school in Concord, CA
  • 1939-43 Attended Fresno College, CA and receives a B.A. in Literature
  • 1943-46 Served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy
  • 1947 Enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (studied on GI Bill)
  • 1949 First one man exhibition at the Contemporary Gallery in Sausalito, CA
  • 1949-51 Attended Art Students' League, New York City
  • 1954 Hultberg's father died; he left his son a small heritance that he used to go to Paris, met Martha Jackson
  • 1956 Returned to Europe to exhibit work
  • 1957 Lecturer, The Brooklyn Museum Art School, Brooklyn, NY
  • 1958 Lecturer, Skowegan School of Art, Skowegan, ME
  • 1959 Returned again to Europe
  • 1962 Bought house on Monhegan. Married to artist, Lynne Drexler
  • 1964 Artist-In-Residence, Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
  • 1966-67 Artist-In-Residence, Honolulu Academy of Arts
  • 1969 Martha Jackson died
  • 1971 Artist-In-Residence, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH
  • 1982 Elected member of the National Academy of Design, NYC
  • 1983 Hultberg and Drexler move to Monhegan to live year round. Their separation follows.
  • 1985 Hultberg moved to Portland, ME
  • 1987 Guest Artist-In-Residence and Lecturer, University of Illinois, Champaign, Urbana, IL
  • 1991 Began work as faculty of the Art Students League, NYC, until his death
  • 2005 Died in Manhattan

  • Art Students League of New York, NYC
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • Guggenheim Foundation, NYC
  • Honolulu Academy of the Arts, Honolulu, HI
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
  • M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA
  • Monhegan Island Museum of Art, Monhegan, ME
  • Museum of Modern Art, NYC
  • Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
  • Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME
  • San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
  • State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
  • University of California Art Museum, Berkeley, CA
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC

  • 1947-48 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
  • 1948 Phillips Andover Academy, Mass.
  • 1949 Los Angeles Centennial
  • 1949 Contemporary Gallery, Sausalito, CA
  • 1952 Museum of Modern Art Penthouse, NYC
  • 1953 Korman Gallery, New York
  • 1954 Nina Dausset Gallery, Paris
  • 1954 Galerie Rive Droite, Paris
  • 1955 Whitney Annual
  • 1955, 1958 Corcoran Biennial, Washington, D.C.
  • 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1972 Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
  • 1956 Institute of Contemporary Art, London
  • 1957 Galerie Rive Droite, Paris
  • 1957 Swatsoff Gallery, Boston
  • 1957, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1994 Galerie du Dragon, Paris
  • 1957, 1960 Phoenix Art Center, Phoenix, AZ
  • 1959 Washington University, St. Louis, MO
  • 1959 William Rockhill Nelson Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
  • 1959 Galleria dell’Ariete, Milan
  • 1959 Main Street Gallery, Chicago
  • 1961 Picadilly Gallery, London
  • 1961 David Anderson Gallery
  • 1962 Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, CA
  • 1962 Gallery Moos, Toronto, Canada
  • 1962 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1963, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1978 David Anderson Gallery, New York
  • 1964 Galerie Anderson-Mayer, Paris
  • 1967 Honolulu Academy of Arts
  • 1968 Whitney Museum of American Art Annual, NYC
  • 1972 Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
  • 1974, 1985 Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
  • 1985, 1987, 1989 Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 1989 Gallery 127, Portland, ME
  • 1989 University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME
  • 1990 The Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York
  • 1991, 1992, 1993 Art Students League, Instructor's Exhibit, NYC
  • 1992 Elaine Wechsler, New York
  • 1993 Elaine Wechsler, New York
  • 1993 National Academy of Design Biennial Exhibition, NYC
  • 1994 Denise Bibro Gallery, New York
  • 1994 June Fitzpatrick Gallery, Portland, ME
  • 1996 The Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME
  • 1998 Bergen Museum of Art and Science, Paramus, NJ
  • 1998 Anderson Gallery, Buffalo, NY
  • 1998 Caldbeck Gallery, Rockland, ME
  • 1998 Gregory Gallery, NYC
  • 1999 Silvermine Galleries, New Canaan, CT
  • 2001 National Academy of Design Biennial Exhibition, NYC
  • 2002 Aucocisco Gallery, Portland, ME
  • 2003 Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Loretto, PA

  • 1948 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Annual Watercolor Prize
  • 1949 Albert Bender Fellowship, Los Angeles Centennial Exhibition
  • 1949 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Annual Oil Painting Prize
  • 1949 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Annual Watercolor Prize
  • 1949 Honorable Mention, Los Angeles Centennial Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum
  • 1955 First Prize for Oil Painting, Corcoran Biennial, Washington DC
  • 1955 Honorable Mention, Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 1955 First Prize for Painting, the International Congress for Cultural Freedom, Rome
  • 1956 Guggenheim Fellowship for painting
  • 1957 Hallmark First Prize for commission of paintings to appear in Fortune Magazine
  • 1962 Norman Harris Medal, Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1963 Ford Foundation Fellowship
  • 1964 Ford Foundation Fellowship for Painting
  • 1969 Awarded special recognition for painting at "Festival International de la Peinture," Cagnes-sur-Mer, France
  • 1971 National Academy of Design "Altman Prize" for Landscape Painting
  • 1971 Awarded Residency at the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH
  • 1974 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
  • 1981 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Painting
  • 1982 Elected Member of the National Academy of Design, NYC
  • 1982 Shatalov Prize for Painting, National Academy of Design
  • 1985 National Academy of Design "Altman Prize" for Landscape Painting
  • 1985 Vera List Foundation Grant, New York
  • 1988 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship for Painting
  • 1989 Ranger Fund purchase prize for painting, National Academy of Design, New York
  • 1992 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship for Painting
  • 1993 Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Fellowship for Painting
  • 1997 Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Fellowship
  • 1998-2001 Lee Krasner Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement in Art
  • 2000 Elizabeth Foundation for the Visual Arts Fellowship
  • 2001 Nominated Awards Juror National Academy of Design, NYC
  • VII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Agar, Eunice, "Monhegan: An Artist's Island," American Artist, v.51 May 1987. p.46-51.
    2. 2. Gerrit, Henry, "John Hultberg at Denise Bibro," Art in America, v.82 no.10, Oct. 1994. p.140.
    3. 3. Hultberg, John, "Breaking the Picture Plane: Reflections on Painting," Art Criticism, v.17 no.1 2001. pp.6-45.
    4. 4. Hultberg: Oeuvres Recentes, Galerie Anderson-Mayer/Galerie du Dragon, Paris 1964.
    5. 5. Jacks, Shirley and Harry Rand, John Hultberg: Painter of the In-Between, Clinton, NY: Hamilton College, 1985.
    6. 6. "John Hultberg," 8/4/06.
    7. 7. "John Hultberg (1922-2005)," 8/4/06.
    8. 8. John Hultberg: Landscape in Retrospect, NYC: Martha Jackson Gallery 1972.
    9. 9. John Hultberg: Paintings, Collages and Lithographs, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1967.
    10. 10. Keyes, Bob, "Study in Contrasts," Portland Press Herald, Feb. 6, 2005. p.E1.
    11. 11. Keyes, Bob, "‘Opera Man’ Supplies The Key To John Hultberg's Art," Portland Press Herald, Sept. 15, 1996. p. 1E.
    12. 12. Ries, Martin, "John Hultberg's Abstract Perspectivism," Art Criticism, v.21 no.1 2006. pp 7-12.
    13. 13. Saxon, Wolfgang, "John Hultberg, 83, Painter Prominent in the Avant-Garde," The New York Times Obituary, Apr. 25, 2005. p. B8.
    14. 14. "UB Anderson Gallery Presents John Hultberg: Vanishing Point," 8/29/06.