In a pamphlet accompanying Adolph Gottlieb’s 1954 retrospective, Clement Greenberg wrote, “Picasso, of all people, was struck by Gottlieb’s pictures when he saw them in reproduction, said so, and incorporated them in his big Kitchen painting.” The series of works that so struck Picasso in 1948 was Gottlieb’s “Pictographs,” made mostly between 1941 and 1952. Given the success of the 1954 exhibition, which included 20 paintings, Gottlieb’s first mature and effectively established style was being assimilated by other abstract painters; the artist needed to discover a way out of the danger of empty repetition. After completing the series, Gottlieb moved on to the new compositions of the “Imaginary Landscapes” and “Bursts” paintings, which were recently shown at Pace in an exhibition of 20 large-scale works, made between the mid-1950s and Gottlieb’s death, in 1974.
March 1 – April 13, 2019
New York City
The evolutionary thread from the horizontal landscape format to the vertical format of the “Bursts” is immediately clear. Gottlieb was, however, a restless but focused artist, and some compelling anomalies are also included in the exhibition at Pace. The works remain of their time, yet they in no way appear as period manifestations, they remain as fresh and vital today as any recent painting—their very oddness and strangeness of color and composition remains surprising. Paintings have the quality of re-estranging themselves repeatedly over time. We might think we know this kind of historical abstract painting well enough—but this is a mistake, as it turns out. Such works change with context and the passing of years: quite literally as we age and re-experience them, but also as we gain distance from the moment of their making and have subsequent works with which to compare them. This brings to mind Henri Focillon’s text “The Life of Forms in Art,” in which he posits that artworks are never static, but rather that form, as it is apprehended, is in a constant state of becoming.
Likewise, Gottlieb believed that painting was experientially direct, and could affectively communicate emotion. This directness did not mean, however, that Gottlieb felt that his paintings contained a rebus that could be explained; rather his paintings were to remain undecipherable. Blue at Noon (1955) looks as artless as a hand-drawn map and as mobile and complex as the semiotic pileup it is. Different signs and structures coexist in an almost all-over grid, all within a background of blurred arabesque, and against the blacks and blues of the composition—an arrow, a circle, a T-shape, and paint wiped off the end of a brush, as if onto a rag. It is a marvelous painting, and connects loosely back to Gottlieb’s “Pictograph” paintings compositionally in its reference to a partial grid across the whole canvas.
Another painting that retains something of the “Pictographs” is Descending Arrow (1956). On a dark pink zone and pale pink horizon, a black geometric form breaks the logical horizontal of that horizontal line as this line, in part, follows the shape itself. Below, a black arrow points perpendicularly into the painting’s bottom edge. Descending Arrow is both a simple and confounding painting. Spatial placement, sign, landscape, a sinking feeling, gravitational pull—what does this painting mean or indicate? It is questioning, asking, engaging curiosity and emotion. Again, that is the point—these paintings are not encoded with specific meaning. Groundscape (1956) and Lake (1971) both comprise lower sections that read like land (or sea) with floating discs and ovals above. Groundscape’s lower section is a tangle of black, white, and yellow gestural marks on a gray ground. The marks are interlaced: they drip, trace in faint lines, or boldly cross each other. Three oval shapes, one red and two black, face us implacably above the roiling zone beneath.
The “Blast” paintings take these apparently opposite qualities and present them as simultaneous, equal, and coexistent combinations. The Crest (1959) is a typical painting of this group. On an earth-red ground, a dark grey oval, softened at its edges to meld with the ground color, is in contrast to a dark yellow gestural accumulation below. This lower shape reads like an aggregate of brushed and palette-knifed paint whipping out splatters and scrapes of color at its extremities. One can think of the work of Miró and Calder here or even the physical and frontal immediacy of some late Picasso portraits. There are iterations of this composition here, some with only a disc and no gestural section below (Aftermath, 1959), or drips dynamically spreading up form a cursive shape below toward a variegated disc above (Burma Red, 1973), or discrete blocks of color rather than gestural shape (Icon, 1964), all of which continue to provoke in their insistence and strangeness of color combination and composition. It is so important to see works by artists of Gottlieb’s achievement re-presented, so that we can see again and decide how they look to us in the present.