Little known during his life, Franz Jozef Ponstingl’s powerful, beguiling paintings and drawings are getting their due.
Franz Jozef Ponstingl teetered on the edge of oblivion for decades. He taught himself to make paintings and drawings that look like covers of science fiction books yet to be written. He spent his time making art, not marketing or promoting it. A Salvador Dalí fan, he created surrealist works when the prevailing fashion was for Pop art and minimalism. After serving in the Air Force during World War II and Korea, he eked out a living through occasional interior design work and the generosity of family. He lived mainly in rural Pennsylvania and California, far from the hub of the 20th-century art world. And once, in the late 1960s, he hauled everything he’d made up until that point to his local Salvation Army and left it there. He died in 2004, having enjoyed little success as an artist.
But oblivion, it seems, does not want Franz Jozef Ponstingl. Salvation Army employees realized the trove was special and tipped off Bert Baum, a local art dealer who had a gallery in Sellersville, Pa. Baum bought it all and mounted a solo show of Ponstingl pieces in 1971, stapling the unstretched canvases to the walls and broadly likening them to the imagery found in Fellini films. The show didn’t sell out, but it sold well, and it represented the high point of Ponstingl’s career while he was alive. In recent years, however, the artist has been receiving a lot more attention, including museum shows. “Rediscovering Ponstingl: Visions of the Extraordinary” was held at the Baum School of Art in Allentown, Pa., in 2016, and “Unpacking the Future: Important Works by Franz Josef Ponstingl” took place in 2018 at the John F. Peto Studio Museum in Island Heights, N.J. Currently, the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., is presenting “Ponstingl: Dreams of Past Futures.” On view through June 20, the exhibition features 25 of the artist’s paintings and 9 of his drawings that date to the 1960s and 1970s.
Fascinating as Ponstingl’s backstory is—who doesn’t love a tale about discovering an underappreciated artist?—no one would care to hear it if his work lacked the power to command attention. Laura Turner Igoe, curator of American art at the Michener and curator of the current Ponstingl show, says his work demands attention because “the themes still resonate strongly today. He was concerned with the atrocities of war, environmental degradation, technological advancement—issues people are thinking about and concerned about today.” She adds, “A lot of his work, to me, recalls mutated DNA structures. He shows people morphing into something more robotic and distorted. He was affected by the aftermath of Hiroshima. He was stationed near there during World War II.”
John Munice, who is almost certainly the leading collector of Ponstingl’s work, understands why the paintings and drawings bewitch viewers, and recounted how that bewitching quality once frustrated his plans to win at auction. A little over a decade ago, after he’d learned about the artist but had yet to acquire one of his works, he attended a sale at Rago Arts and Auction in Lambertville, N. J., which included a Ponstingl piece. Munice had hopes of bringing it home, partly because the artist’s profile was so low. But another pair of bidders kept raising their paddles and ultimately forced him to bow out. Later, he congratulated the winners and asked them how they liked their Ponstingl. As it turned out, they had no idea who the artist was; they just loved the work and had to have it.
Munice has since acquired about 50 Ponstingls, and he loaned most of the pieces on view in the Michener exhibition. He picked up roughly half of the collection in two separate bulk purchases: a group of 13 in 2006, and another group of 19 in 2007. Gathering that many Ponstingls is more challenging than it might appear, because the artist preferred to work big, telling others, “I don’t like postage stamps.” One of the canvases on view at the Michener measures 50 by 68 inches. That untitled 1966 painting, which centers on a red industrial-looking structure emerging from a pale blue wall of curious hieroglyph-like symbols, reflects one of the artist’s recurring themes. “It makes you think about how we communicate and build language. The red figure almost emerges from language. It’s about how ideas become concrete and tangible,” Igoe says, noting that the symbols don’t appear to correspond to an actual language, real or invented. “At the center bottom, there are little figures behind the initial layer of hieroglyphs, like a civilization back there, hiding behind it. It’s amazing. It’s a little dystopian, a little threatening, and it puts the viewer ill at ease. It’s not a happy civilization. It’s machine-based, technology-based. There’s something threatening and ominous about it.”
Ponstingl drew as well, and it’s unclear if he meant his sketches to serve as preparatory drawings for paintings or if he turned to drawing whenever his living quarters were too cramped to permit him to paint on the scale that he preferred. Some paintings definitely started out as drawings, however, and the Michener exhibition displays an unfinished, untitled canvas created between 1970 and 1972 alongside its corresponding drawings to give insight into Ponstingl’s artistic process. “He clearly abandoned that work, and we’re not sure why,” Igoe says. “I like how it takes a traditional still life and makes it bizarre. It takes the familiar and makes it unusual.”
Sadly, not a lot of archival material survives for Ponstingl. Munice, who has spoken with Ponstingl’s brother, John, and others who knew the artist, says he kept records, but much seems to be missing. (It’s possible that the artist brought his records to the Salvation Army along with his artwork.) “He documented everything,” Munice says. “He had a dream book, a composition book where he would write his dreams down. That’s gone.” Bert Baum did not produce a printed catalogue for the 1971 show. Murals that Ponstingl painted for two venues in Washington, D.C., have long since vanished. Also gone is the place on his sister’s property, a chicken coop transformed into an artist’s studio with 12-foot ceilings, where he painted in the late 1970s and early ’80s, “lost in tea and cigarettes and cheese sandwiches,” as Munice says.
If anything, the scanty amount of information about the artist, combined with the strength of his paintings and drawings, makes him that much more intriguing. And as with any great artist, Ponstingl rewards those who take the time to really look at his work. “I’m still noticing things I didn’t notice the first time in his paintings,” Igoe says. “There’s a lot of depth and detail.”
And just as viewers are drawn to his beguiling images, Ponstingl himself could not resist the compulsion to create. “Throughout all his odd jobs, he always came back to painting,” says Munice. “He always came back to art.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley