Adolph Gottlieb: Untitled, 1972; color aquatint on paper; 23 1/4 x 17 3/4 in.; gift of Yvonne Cyr Koshland, in memory of Daniel E. Koshland, Jr. Photo: Ben Blackwell. Thanks to Peter Cavagnaro for getting the image for me. Part of the current show at the Berkeley Art Museum (closing April 17th).
In the narrative about abstract art, we race through a list of famous artists, each one identified by a sentence or two about signature style; Pollock is Jack the Dripper, Rothko is identified by his stacked oblong blocks of color, Kline with Chinese/Japanese style ideographs in black and white. Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) is known, if he is known at all, by his "Burst" pieces --a large, haloed disc hovering above an exuberant tangle of vigorous strokes.
The Waste Land. 1930
Yet when Gottlieb made the first of the Burst pictures, he was fifty-four and had been painting seriously since the late 1920's--more than half his life. He had his first solo exhibition in 1930 and was the first of his colleagues to be collected by a major museum when the Guggenheim Museum purchased eleven works in 1945 and the Museum of Modern Art purchased a painting in 1946.
Gottlieb's surviving paintings--pre 1940--show his wide ranging tastes and willingness to experiment and experience what was seen as the most advanced art of the time. Like many Abstract expressionists, he had worked his way through Sloan, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso.
He was what we would call a "late bloomer. At age 54, his work went through a sea-change. W. B. Yeats, himself a notable example of the phenomenon, provided an image for it: “Though leaves are many, the root is one; / Through all the lying days of my youth / I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun; / Now I may wither into the truth.”
From 1941 through 1953, Gottlieb created his seminal "Pictograph" series, very beautiful pieces with arrangements of non-specific, evocative invented glyphs and lines, organized into schematic grids.
His "ah-ha moment" came through a synthesis of Cubist structure in the form of an organizing grid, of archaicism and "primitivism," imagery that recalled both ancient glyphs and the art of Africa and the Pacific, along with Surrealist theory and an admixture of Freudian and Jungian thought in the form of trusting to chance and the unwilled, of "tapping the sub-conscious" (in a frequent phrase of the day).
Black Emblems, 1971
Working large scale, Gottlieb created a two-dimensional pictorial space devoid of illusion. In these grids, there is no single focal point. Rather, the works are an early example of the "all-over" painting which would become a unifying characteristic of the often varied Abstract Expressionist style.
When he was interviewed in 1968, Gottlieb recalled the genesis of the series:
"[It] started with some conversations that I had with Rothko . . . Everyone was painting the American scene--Mark was painting people in subway stations . . . I said, well, why not try to find a good subject matter like mythological themes . . . I played around with the Oedipus myth which was both a classical theme and a Freudian theme . . . We very quickly discovered that by a shift in subject matter we were getting into formal problems that we hadn't anticipated. Because obviously we weren't going to try to illustrate these themes in some sort of Renaissance style. We were exploring. So we suddenly found that there were formal problems that confronted us for which there was no precedent. We were in unknown territory."
His art constantly evolved. During the late 1950s he developed a style called "Bursts" which occupied him from 1957 until his death in 1974. The monumental Bursts grew out of the imaginary landscapes, but simplify the space and color to the greatest degree possible. Depth and horizon are eliminated completely, and the focus is entirely on color and form. This style places him among the earliest of the Color Field painters of Abstract Expressionism and deeply influenced the movements that followed.
Adolph Gottlieb died in New York City in 1974. He left a legacy of art, active involvement in the art and progressive movements of his time, and a foundation that extends his legacy of giving to individual artists and promoting their interests.
American Visions, Robert Hughes