Paul Hultberg was born in Oakland. Early on, he exhibited artistic inclinations and was nicknamed “the artist.” He took classes at Fresno State College and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He developed an interest in mural painting and, in 1948, went to Mexico City to study at the Instituto Politecnico Nacional with Jose Gutierrez, a renowned muralist who had worked in the studio of David Alfaro Siqueiros. Gutierrez was researching the use of various plastic-based paints that could withstand the natural elements and their application to mural painting.
With the knowledge he acquired from Gutierrez, Hultberg returned to Los Angeles and started his own mural-painting business in the late 1940s. He continually explored methods to create large works that would be integral to the design of buildings. In the early 1950s he took a position at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he taught painting and drawing. There he met Walter Rogalski, a printmaker. They undertook a yearlong experiment, using painting and printmaking techniques with enamels.
After experimenting with the medium on a small scale, Hultberg started applying the technique to his murals. This was to lead him to a whole new and unusual method of creating art. Woodrow Carpenter, president of Thompson Enamels, succinctly described the process: “Starting with thin copper sheets, a design was drawn with a brush and thin adhesive, enamel powder sifted on, and then all un-adhered enamel was brushed off leaving bare areas. The panel was fired in a furnace of his design.” Each panel was laid on heat-resistant bars, below which was a cart equipped with gas torches. The cart was moved from one end of the panel to the other to fuse glass onto the metal. According to Carpenter: “The enamel was fused to the copper while the bare areas oxidized. Upon cooling the panel was rolled flat. The oxidation popped off leaving a glass design on a background of various colors of copper oxide. When a resist was used on portions of the bare copper un-oxidized areas remained after the firing and were silver plated.”
In 1956 Hultberg moved his family to Gate Hill, an artists’ cooperative near Stony Point in Rockland County, New York. In the same year he submitted a multipanel work, Burnt Sun
, to the Syracuse Ceramic National. The work gained national recognition. Hultberg was hailed as an innovator in the field, and his work was compared to that of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock. The comparison was apt as Hultberg worked in a spontaneous, intuitive manner, allowing the interaction of various elements to take place with the least interference from the artist.
In the 1959 exhibition Enamels
, held at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York, five of his large-scale works were shown, including a seventy-eight-by-ninety-six-inch four-panel screen, the largest work in the show. In 1969 his work was included in Objects: USA
, the watershed traveling exhibition curated by Lee Nordness. Hultberg received numerous architectural commissions, including one for the historically significant Pan Am Building in New York.