DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       Fall 2002  



Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition

October 11, 2002 to March 2, 2003, at the Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10128

ERIC GELBER writes...

Adolph Gottlieb Mariner's Incantation 1945
oil, gouache, tempera, casein on canvas, 39 13/16 x 29 7/8 inches
copyright Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/
Licensed by VAGA, NY NY




It might surprise us to learn that Adolph Gottlieb considered himself to be a conceptual artist. It is hard for us to imagine any painter as a conceptual artist. Don't conceptual artists make their statements with pickled sharks and soiled beds? This survey at the Jewish Museum includes early paintings heavily influenced by Milton Avery and Giorgio de Chirico, several of the pictographs of the 1940s (Gottlieb's most interesting phase), transitional works from the early 1950s, and examples of the trademark minimal and large canvases he painted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this review I will focus on the pictographs, which in my opinion are among the best pictures painted by an American in the twentieth century.


Whereas Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko to a certain extent abandoned drawing and primarily used color for their expressive ends, Gottlieb didn't discard figuration and the spontaneous act of drawing, even though color was still integral to his work. Klee, Matisse, and Miró influenced his use of color, primarily in the way color is connotative as well as formal. The automatism of Miró and Klee greatly influenced him as well, but he offset this spontaneity with the self conscious application of a grid. Instead of painting emotionally charged backdrops for the psyche or what I would call "dream screens," Gottlieb painted subtle associative clusters. Gottlieb resisted the purging of the object. He didn't strive for stylistic extremes, and never gained the notoriety that Newman, Rothko, Reinhardt, and Pollock did. Newman and Rothko made an art of empty spaces and shifting planes. They avoided figuration (you could compare their pictures to walls or windows). Their zips and hovering bars of color with blurred edges call attention to the formal qualities of the work: the meeting of two colors, the edges of the canvas, the wall the painting is hung on and the room it is hung in. Even in such minimal works by Gottlieb as Icon, 1964, shapes are the center of attention; the empty space surrounding them is little more than a backdrop. The self conscious drips and smudges which litter the background are nice to look at, but are little more than vestiges of Abstract Expressionist dogma. In the pictograph paintings the background colors and the foreground shapes hold equal emotional weight.

Marvin P. Lazarus Adolph Gottlieb inf ront of his painting, Spray 1959
gelatin-sliver print
copyright Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/
Licensed by VAGA, NY NY

In the painting Levitation, 1959, two individual images, an irregular spherical shape with a soft halo around it and an expressionist, jagged edged clump become mysterious metaphors. Gottlieb plays with contrasts in these works. Soft and round vs. explosive and pointy. The richly colored sphere hovers, glows, vibrates, and continually shifts. It is mesmerizing because it is isolated and richer and darker in tone than the background. It is a setting sun and a gunshot wound. The burst paintings are different from color-field works because they tease us with their associations. Gottlieb's late minimalist works are dialectic, in the sense that the individual parts interact with one another, add up to something, but that something is completely ambiguous. That is just what Gottlieb wanted. All specific references to primitive and archaic art disappear from the late work. The shapes are more generic: spheres, rectangles, gestural patches of paint. Gottlieb's universalizing instinct took over. His archaeological interests faded, but he still relied upon modernist ambiguity, a private sign language to undercut the imperialism of semiotics.

The pictographs contain playful images; shapes that could have been drawn by a child, or an adult who is experimenting with drawing styles. I see the seeds of Twombly and Condo when I look at Pink and Indian Red, 1946. Child-like forms and archaic forms mix in this composition. Gottlieb didn't attach a mystical or spiritual value to the art of the past but appreciated its vitality. He didn't long for a return to an idyllic pre-industrial world. He didn't have a bone to pick with a conservative academy that demanded realism and polish. Where Picasso included African masks in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon perversely in order to shock the viewer, Gottlieb flavored his pictographs with archaic forms in order to expand the context of current American painting, and to show that humans could express themselves using the most anonymous signs.

A typical pictograph includes a hand drawn grid with shapes placed in its compartments, often overlapping or disrupting the frames. This highly effective format was perhaps derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics or (as Gottlieb claimed) the compartmentalized compositions of the Trecento and Quattrocento. In the typical way of reading, the eye goes from left to right before moving to the next line. Our eyes look for some sort of narrative progression when we look at the shapes in the grids. The pictographs are text in the sense that they are recorded messages. They are so rich because they demand syntactic and semantic interpretation. We wonder what the signs are, in relation to what they stand for, and what the formal relations between the signs are.

Adolph Gottlieb Icon 1964
oil on canvas, 142 x 98 1/2 inches
copyright Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/
Licensed by VAGA, NY NY

In the pictograph Mariner's Incantation, 1945 shapes are isolated from one another, separated by a white line grid. Due to the proximity of the images and our familiarity with the conventions of picture writing or the absorption of words by pictures found in comic strips and graphic novels, we search for a narrative progression. Are the four abstract faces seen in the second horizontal row of images the same face seen at different angles or times, or are they different entities altogether? The convention of the comic book, the framework it uses to represent experience is employed in this painting. It has an unconscious influence on the viewer. A two headed face is placed next to a two headed fish. Right above the two headed fish there is an outstretched hand and above the hand there is a face. How do we add up these images? The vertical lines run evenly up and down the canvas, but the horizontal lines do not line up. You get the feeling you are watching four different film strips, running from the top to the bottom of the canvas. The gorgeous greens and blues in the background conjure up images of the sea. The work is an existential triumph because it is a validation of Gottlieb's individual personal identity. By using simplified or universal forms he allows viewers to project their own subjectivities into the painting. Gottlieb was the first painter to present his abstractions in the curio cabinet format. Nevelson and Cornell would soon follow.

Gottlieb worked in the pictograph format for roughly a decade. Scholars have patched together biographic snippets in an attempt to trace the origin of the shapes that repeatedly appear in many of them. But what conclusions can we draw after we discover that some of the shapes in the pictographs are culled from African masks that Gottlieb owned or objects he might have come across during his regular visits to the Natural History Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art? I do not think the pictographs are simply anagogic images. I think they represent an attempt by the artist to establish the function or power of images, rather than specific meanings. Gottlieb chose his images because versions of them have appeared in the designs or drawings of almost every pre-industrial culture. Gottlieb imbued his dots and dashes, jagged edges and spirals with the same psychological value as the faces, fish, hands, and eyes which appear in the same compositions. Along with Pollock's stenographic pictures, the pictographs are among the first American paintings to give design elements like stippling, dots, dashes, spirals, wavy lines, and jagged edges as much emphasis as any other discreet shape.

The forms in the pictographs appear to be telling a story or describing specific events or feelings. After all, writing was in its beginnings a form of drawing. Pictures were used to transmit thoughts. As Will Durant noted, "Every letter known to us was once a picture." The pictographs are "thought pictures" or hieroglyphics but no one knows what they communicate. Gottlieb didn't know what they meant and this is why they captured his imagination for so long. He appreciated the mystery and expressiveness of signs regardless of their context. He was concerned about the disappearance of a common cultural ground, the decay of archetypes, their replacement by empty logos. Throughout the three main stylistic phases of his painting career, Gottlieb believed that by using symbols he could convey psychological truths.

ERIC GELBER, assistant editor at artcritical.com, is an artist and critic. He has also contributed to Sculpture, Artnet and other publications.


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