BURST OF BRILLIANCE: Adolph Gottlieb’s Southwestern Epiphany
Posted on March 29, 2014
“It was like being at sea,” said Adolph Gottlieb. The artist had just spent a year in the Desert Southwest- from 1937 to 1938- and returned to his hometown of New York City with a radically altered style. “There’s… a tremendous clarity of light and at night the clouds seem very close,” he continued. This was a very different type of “sea” than the one that carried Gottlieb on his inaugural artistic journey. When he was 17 he dropped out of high school and caught a merchant ship to Europe. He spent two years there, including six months in Paris where he audited art classes and visited the Louvre every day. Back in New York, he studied at The Art Students League and befriended Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Milton Avery. Together they founded the abstract expressionism movement, working to develop color field painting and other innovations. They remained close until Gottlieb decided to strike out on his own to Tucson, Arizona. It was an endeavor that would markedly separate him from his contemporaries, even after his return to the East. Gottlieb’s New York friends called the style he had developed in Arizona simplistic, but the artist refused to look back. He distanced himself from his colleagues and focused on developing a Surrealist style. Experiments with automatism and surrealist biomorphism helped him create an abstract symbol system for his gridded Pictographs series. Finally, in the 1950’s, he started work on two series that would become his most well-known work. Both series are represented in our collection, and their very existence seems linked to the bare, elegant vistas of the Desert Southwest.
Around 1950-51… I was finally getting away from the pictographs and looking for something… So it was necessary to find other forms, a different changed concept. So finally after a certain period of transition I hit on dividing the canvas into two parts, which then became like an imaginary landscape… What I was really trying to do when I got away from the pictographs was to make this notion of the kind of polarity clearer and more extreme. So the most extreme thing that I could think of doing at the time was dividing the canvas in half, make two big divisions and put something in the upper division and something in the lower section.
The color and texture of the land mass in “Green Foreground” recalls Gottlieb’s sea simile. In this period the artist was consolidating surrealist and abstract expressionist theories by approaching the two movements as different sides of the same coin (hence a “polarity”). Our lithograph implies a fantastical landscape, but works just as well as a flat, wholly abstract composition. If we imagine ourselves exploring this terrain, it would look much like Gottlieb’s surroundings in the Southwest, albeit with a greener tint.
After doing the imaginary landscapes until say 1956, in ’57 I came out with the first Burst painting… There was a different type of space than I had ever used and it was a further clarification of what I was trying to do. The thing that was interesting that it was a return to a focal point, but it was a focal point with the kind of space that existed in traditional painting. Because this was like a solitary image or two images that were just floating in the canvas space. They had to hold the space and they also had to create all the movement – that took place within the rectangle.
Gottlieb’s Bursts are Imaginary Landscapes that have further dissolved into abstraction, though their compositions still root them somewhat in reality. In “Crimson Ground” two discs rise (or set) like a sun and moon from a monochrome tangle with the most ephemeral of horizon lines.
When I started doing the Bursts I began to do part of the painting horizontally. It was necessary to do that because I was working with a type of paint which had a particular viscosity, which flowed, and if it were on a vertical surface it would just run. If it were on a horizontal surface, I could control it… I was using a combination of brushes and knives, palette knives… and spatulas… I’ve tried everything, rollers, rags, I’ve put paint on with everything.
“Crimson Ground” isn’t a painting, but it still has a painterly quality to it. The edges of the discs are uneven and textured, and the forms below are as splattered as a Pollock drip painting. This further highlights the polarity between the surreal landscape and an abstract expressionist painting. One is focused on depth, the other focuses solely on the surface. Learn more about Adolph Gottlieb on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for to-the-minute gallery updates!