Cutting observations: The coupages of John B. Guttman in New Paltz

The Tower of Babel by John B. Guttman.

The Tower of Babel, the Elting Library Fair, David and Bathsheba, rebellious New Paltz college students – what do they have in common? All were subjects for the art of John B. Guttman, on exhibition in the Fireside Room of the Education Building of the New Paltz Reformed Church this Friday and Saturday.

In retirement in the late 1960s and ‘70s, John Guttman (1901-1982) put his wit, sharp intelligence, keen sense of design and manual dexterity to work in creating marvelous, nearly magical coupages – works of art in finely cut black paper – that addressed the human condition and behavior as found in the Bible and in New Paltz, his adopted home. Born in Germany, Hans Bernhard Guttman spent his boyhood and early manhood in Vienna, Austria before emigrating to New York in 1926. There he graduated from the Night School of Art at Cooper Union and studied oil painting at the Art Students’ League.

In 1932 he became a US citizen and Americanized his name to John B. Guttman. For some 40 years, Guttman worked conscientiously but out of the public eye as a designer, primarily for the Arrow Manufacturing Company in Hoboken, a firm specializing in jewelry boxes. In 1941 Guttman purchased a pleasant 19th-century Greek Revival-style farmhouse on Libertyville Road in New Paltz, although he continued to work in New Jersey until retirement, except for a six-month stint in the Army in 1942/43.

Also in 1943 he married Helene Seitz, German-born like her husband. Helene Guttman advertised her services as a masseuse at their home, which they called Pine Tree Farm. John Guttman tended his wooded property meticulously, placing fallen sticks in well-ordered piles. However, in his coupages he had no desire to create conventional views of the nearby Wallkill River or Shawangunk Ridge.

John Guttman used his art to criticize actions that he thought foolish or evil, including those that harmed the Earth and its inhabitants. In Pollution, the Earth is overwhelmed with a jumble of trash, pipes spewing foul liquid and, on the horizon, smokestacks and oilrigs add to the grim darkness. The only figure is skeletal Death playing his dreadful bagpipes. In another work (in a private collection and unfortunately not in the exhibition), the artist portrayed nose-pinching villagers trying to fend off the stench rising from the sewage treatment plant unwisely located on the banks of the Wallkill, not far from the Reformed Church and old stone houses of Huguenot Street.

In four coupages lent by the Elting Memorial Library, Guttman put aside sharp criticism in favor of celebrating, with affection and mild amusement, some of the public gatherings of his adopted small town: the crowds at New Paltz Farm Auction (a sale of miscellaneous oddities, no Huguenot treasures), at the Ulster County Fair, the Plutarch Church Strawberry Festival and the Elting Memorial Library Fair. Anyone familiar with the Library Fair over the past 30 or 40 years will recognize the human types and incidents immortalized in this coupage: the older woman in charge of the jewelry table, which attracts two vivacious and beauty-conscious young women; the volunteer trying to bring order to the book table; the girl at the baked goods table whose backside has met a cactus spine borne by a careless youth; a hippie sitting under a tree and reading a book (not yet paid for?).

Nothing is known about Guttman’s religious beliefs during his boyhood and young manhood. With the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, in 1939 he succeeded in bringing to America his mother Elsa Guttman, described as “Hebrew” in an immigration document. His father had died about 1914.

New York City’s Marriage Bureau was the site of his 1943 marriage, but in 1949 the Reverend Gerret Wullschleger of the New Paltz Reformed Church officiated at his mother’s funeral. In 1969 Guttman described encountering Dominie (Pastor) Wullschleger at an Armistice Day parade soon after World War II and being deeply moved when the Dominie told him, “No, I don’t believe armies and religion go together.” Guttman remained impressed with Wullschleger’s “tact, wisdom and courage” in handling controversies small and large, from how loud the carillon should ring to whether the church should take a stand on “sex education” or “political conditions” that had resulted in world poverty and disease.

Through Dominie Wullschleger’s influence, Guttman became a devoted member of the Reformed Church and used his talent to benefit the church in bulletin covers and fundraising efforts. The struggle of a pastor (after Wullschleger’s retirement) and church leaders to provide for its financial needs is perhaps slightly exaggerated in Church Stewardship (1979), where the pastor leads his flock along a tightrope while pointing to the church’s many obligations with little in the way of income. (And who is that devilish creature “with his tail gracefully bent into a $ sign?”)

The Reformed Church is fortunate to own several dozen coupages, most inspired by this man of faith’s knowledge of the Bible. In works like The Tower of Babel, Guttman combined the Biblical and contemporary. In the Genesis story, men arrogantly begin to build a great tower to Heaven, but are stopped by Yahweh, who sends down languages and so causes confusion among the builders. In place of ancient people confused by multiple languages, Guttman presents a catalogue of noisy, two-person conflict from a dominant Eve confounding Adam to modern Americans where “mother and son don’t understand each other.”

The artist is said to have been a keen admirer of beautiful women, as well as happily married to Helene. Attractive women regularly appear in both his Biblical and secular works. In David and Bathsheba, King David, not satisfied by the lovely women around him on the royal rooftop, is so drawn to the shapely Bathsheba bathing in a tub across the way that he is about to fall off the roof, while his crown also falls from his foolish head.

The artist was acutely aware of his own aging and the conflict between his generation and college students of the 1960s and ‘70s. In Generation Gap #1, according to his notes, “the young accuse the older generation of being two-faced and sitting on its money bag…. The church is snobbish…. The college faculty is domineering and boring.” The division continues in Generation Gap #2, where “the older generation is puzzled by youth’s lack of responsibility in sex, drinking and drugs, its love of strident repetitious music…student demands for an affluent, easy life.” Still, in a community event like the Library Fair, old and young, both in fact and in Guttman’s art, could come together in something approaching innocent good times for all.

The exhibition, organized by Reformed Church members Cheryl Alloway, Joan Kelley and Bill Rhoads, will be open, free of charge, on Friday, May 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, June 1 from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Fireside Room of the Education Building of the Reformed Church at 92 Huguenot Street in New Paltz. An illustrated catalogue of the exhibition will be available for $1. On Friday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m. there will be an informal discussion in the Fireside Room of John Guttman’s life and work led by Bill Rhoads, a professor emeritus of Art History at SUNY-New Paltz.

Exhibition of the coupages of John B. Guttman, Fireside Room of the New Paltz Reformed Church, 92 Huguenot Street, New Paltz, 255-6340. Informal discussion of the artist’s life and work on Friday, May 31, 7:30 pm, led by historian Bill Rhoads, free; Exhibition will be on view this Friday, May 31 from 7-9 pm and Saturday, June 1 from 2-4 pm in the Fireside Room.

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