For a half-century, the German artist Ursula Schultze-Bluhm made work that could astonish viewers. One critic proposed that she “would not have been allowed to paint in the Middle Ages” and “would have been burned.”
Her sinuous, wildly colored compositions, which she built with patterns of dots and lines, suggest deep-space marvels or activity under a microscope, with mysterious beings that dance, fly and metamorphose. Monstrous faces float across a black expanse in “Nightmares” (1961), while “The Unicorn” (1983) has the mythical animal growing from the thigh of a strange, humanoid entity. “The more fantastic, the more real they are,” she once said of her work.
Ms. Schultze-Bluhm, who went by just Ursula in her professional life, participated in big shows, like the quinquennial Documenta in Kassel, Germany, along with art giants like Andy Warhol. But after her death in 1999, at 77, “museum exhibitions did not materialize,” Renate Goldmann, the director of the Van Ham Art Estate, wrote in an email.
Today, “most of the younger generation don’t even know her name,” Stephan Diederich, the curator of the collection of 20th-century art at the Museum Ludwig said by phone.
On March 18, the Ludwig will try to remedy that; as the TEFAF Maastricht fair winds down in the Netherlands, across the border in Cologne, Germany, the museum will open the first Ursula retrospective in three decades. Running through July 23, it takes its name (“Ursula — That’s Me. So What?”) from the title of her last self-portrait, from 1995.
Occupying the Ludwig’s largest exhibition space, the show will be a major celebration in Cologne, the city that Ursula called home for decades. It arrives as some in the art world aim to bring attention to long-marginalized women.
At last year’s Venice Biennale, about 90 percent of the artists in the main show were women, an unprecedented share, and many were historical figures. Chus Martínez, the head of the Institute Art Gender Nature at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel, Switzerland, said that she hoped Ursula’s work would be reclaimed “as they are reclaiming also Hilma af Klint,” the pioneering Swedish abstract painter and mystic who died in 1944. A 2018–19 af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York set an attendance record.
Even when Ursula was actively exhibiting, she faced difficulties in winning acclaim. “It was always much easier for her husband, as a male artist,” said Dr. Diederich, who curated the Ludwig show with Helena Kuhlmann, a curatorial assistant. Dr. Diederich got to know Ursula in the 1990s when the Ludwig did a show focused on the art of that man, Bernard Schultze, a German abstract painter whom Ursula married in 1955. “She often was seen, let’s say, only as his wife,” he said.
In 1968, the couple moved from Frankfurt to Cologne, where they shared a studio. Ursula handled admin for both of them, once confiding to a collector-friend that she had to “steal the time from myself for my own creative work, which makes me unhappy.” She and her husband nicknamed each other Spider and Bear, and in her artistic pursuits, Spider was utterly independent. “I never had any academic training, so there is very little my husband can tell me, because he sets out from other principles,” she said.
The freewheeling nature of Ursula’s art has also acted as an obstacle to acceptance in the hidebound art industry. “It’s kind of hard because she doesn’t fit into any canon,” said Ms. Kuhlmann. Her art can appear eccentric or obsessive while also bearing Surrealism’s sophisticated symbolism. The assemblage sculptures that Ursula began making in the late 1950s radiate rich psychological content. “The picture is housed in my mind and waits to be released into the outside world, onto the canvas,” Ursula once wrote.
At a moment when contemporary artists are experimenting with ways to express hybrid or fluid identities, she looks prescient. “I can see young people getting crazy about it,” said Ms. Martínez, proposing that Ursula’s art shows “what it is to transition, not only in terms of gender, but in terms of a social body that transitions, that kind of modifies parameters of, let’s say, the patriarchat” (patriarchy in German).
The midcareer British artist Emma Talbot, who appeared in last year’s Venice Biennale, paired her own richly evocative work with Ursula’s in a 2020 show after she was introduced to it by a Düsseldorf art dealer. “The thing that is really interesting to me is the way that an intelligent, logical, savvy, knowing person can also make things which tune into an unconscious language, which allows the space to not know,” she said in a phone interview.
The art market has been taking notice, too, according to Dr. Goldmann, who handles works by Ursula and her husband as part of the Cologne auction house Van Ham. They were bequeathed after his death in 2005 to a group that sells them to raise funds for the collection of the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany.
At Sotheby’s in 2021, an Ursula painting from 1967 once owned by the French dealer Daniel Cordier went for more than five times its high estimate, at €32,760 (about $39,300 at the time) — a modest sum in the art field but an impressive result nonetheless.
The couple’s estate also bequeathed art to the Ludwig, which is providing 43 of the nearly 250 pieces in the sprawling retrospective. “It doesn’t work that well to show only a few of her works,” Dr. Diederich said, “because it’s really a whole world which she creates in her work, and the public should, let’s say, dive into her work, into her world.”