Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, November 11, 2004

"Adolph Gottlieb: Pictographs, 1941–51" at PaceWildenstein through December 23 (32 E. 57th Street, at Madison Avenue, 212-421-3292)


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Adolph Gottlieb Division 1948
oil on linen, mounted on masonite, 10-3/4 x 15 inches
COVER: January 7, 2005: Pictograph 1946
oil on canvas, 34 x 26 inches
Courtesy PaceWildenstein

PaceWildenstein has done it again: Its revisionist exhibition of Adolph Gottlieb’s abstract-surreal “Pictographs” of the 1940s, borrowed extensively from institutional collections, follows on the heels of the important (and hugely popular) examination last winter of Mark Rothko’s work from 1949.

The Gottlieb show also follows the Jewish Museum’s condensed centenary retrospective last year (he was born in New York in 1903) — and is a significantly more attractive tribute. The Jewish Museum borrowed almost entirely from the artist’s estate, but unlike some painters (Picasso, for instance) there is no evidence that Gottlieb held back his best.

Gottlieb is a significant figure in mid-century American art, a canonical abstract expressionist, and a substantial painter. But he is not an original of the daemonic force of Pollock, de Kooning, or his close friend Rothko. Surprising, rich, and rewarding though this exhibition is, it helps confirm this.

Gottlieb told Irving Sandler that when, during the war years, he and his future Abstract Expressionist peers were struggling to find their voices, Abstraction was their father, Surrealism their mother — “we were the bastard offspring of both.” Determined to forge a distinctly American style that drew on the lessons of European Modernism without aping its forms, Pollock, Rothko, and Gottlieb turned to “myth-making” — a kind of archaic primitivism — to lay bare layers of the collective unconscious.

Surrealism offered a similar solution, but the Americans resented the mimetic realism of artists like Magritte and Dalí, whose oneiric imagery seemed literary and contrived — too like the homegrown realists and regionalists they were striving to distance themselves from. Young Jews like Gottlieb and Rothko were equally suspicious of ethereal, pristine abstraction that lacked the tragic dimension, the existential struggle, that characterized their outlook.

Jung appealed more than Freud because in his notion of a suprapersonal unconscious myth was both more generalized and universal. For Freud, myth was metaphor; for Jung, it was reality. The whole thrust of abstract expressionism is toward something tangible, substantial, present.

Gottlieb’s compositional solution was what he called the “pictograph.” These consist of a loosely sketched grid filled in with archetypal forms. In his decade’s worth of pictographs, which began in 1941 and was over by 1951, there is enormous diversity in the way this grid is demarcated. Sometimes — as in the canvases “Night Forms” and “Hidden Images” (both of 1950) — there is a neat regimentation of boxes with thick, deliberate outlines. At other times, it’s implicit, denoted by color or by lines that are active in describing the fill-in forms. The Whitney’s “Vigil” (1948), with its totemic smiley faces and wiggling, serpentine arabesques is an example.

On the subject of totems, there seems to be a taboo in the Gottlieb literature against mentioning Uruguayan modernist Joaquín Torres-García, who was already active in Paris in the 1920s. His work borrows its palette of earthy browns and dirty, grayish blues from analytical cubism. It is similarly reliant on an irregular checkerboard arrangement filled in with signs, scenes, and signifiers. But Torres-Garcia’s are more overtly occult, culturally specific, and decoratively consistent than Gottlieb’s, whose pent-up rawness and diversity eventually developed into a personal, abstract style Torres-García didn’t achieve.

Harvard professor and curator Harry Cooper, in a scholarly and useful catalog essay, does acknowledge a range of other influences — including Klee, Miró, Pollock, Dubuffet and Henry Moore. One of the punchiest, most assured works, “Pictogenic Fragments” (1946) has a surprising affinity with Marsden Hartley’s 1914 “Portrait of a German Officer.” This may just be the sword against black juxtaposed with nearby reds and golds recalling Hartley’s Iron Cross and German flag. But if there is even an unconscious influence, it signals an unexplored connection between one of America’s truly mystical mavericks and its most seminal art movement.

The great range of painterly treatments in Gottlieb’s pictographs could never be described as serene. But early in their run he favored a smooth, allover underlying ground, as in the pinky-brown “Eyes of Oedipus” (1941) or the nursery blue in the Judith Rothschild Foundation’s “Pictograph” (1944). The chocolaty browns and blacks of “Demon of the Night” (1946), lent by San Francisco MoMA, has an almost and uncharacteristically glossy sheen.

Later, however, the brushstrokes become increasingly agitated, the grounds more lively and layered. In the Metropolitan Museum’s “T” (1950), there is a graffiti-like violence of scratches and incisions. “Plutomania” (1951) signals the end of the pictograph, as the ground becomes more dynamic and self-involved than the relatively calming, superimposed black-and-white gridlines.

Something similar happens in the altogether softer “Interior Garden” (1951). Pulsating lozenges or shapes of yellow, green, light blue, and contrasting reds transgress the faint white gridlines — actually, you could say they register contrapuntally against them. The exploding red asterisk, with its black heart, anticipates the sun motif that would dominate Gottlieb’s later work.

In a perverse way, the strength of this show is to prove the relative marginality of the artist. While the later Gottlieb is hinted at in the latest works here, Mr. Cooper points out that, as a full-blown Abstract Expressionst, Gottlieb had to abandon his compositional device and reinvent himself. The beauty and marvel of Rothko’s career, as “The Year 1949” demonstrated, was how his earlier explorations fed his mature style.

Early Rothko is fumbling, awkward, and tentative compared with early Gottlieb, but mature Rothko is galvanizing and dynamic. Gottlieb, by having a stronger, more striking proto- than mature style, has something in common with Richard Pousette-Dart and William Baziotes. But before you formulate any hare-and-tortoise rule for abstract expressionists, remember de Kooning, the hare who was always a winner.


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