BURST OF BRILLIANCE: Adolph Gottlieb’s Southwestern Epiphany

“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.

IMAGINARY LANDSCAPES

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.

BURSTS

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!

FOCUS ON THE FIGURE: A Daub of Flesh

Vermeer and de Kooning - Matthews Gallery blog

“Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented,” said Willem de Kooning. The quote is a nod to the Dutch masters, who developed the medium to accurately evoke the semi-translucent glow of human skin in the crisp light of 17th century Delft.

By the mid-1900s, de Kooning was using the same medium to very different ends. His nudes unraveled across the canvas, their mottled flesh mimicking the dark tones of a bruised peach or the sickly hues of a jaundiced child.

The abstract expressionist encoded in painted skin the darkest sexual desires and terrors of the modern world, but he wasn’t blind to the way the inherent qualities of oil linked him to a much different time and place.

Our new exhibition FOCUS ON THE FIGURE, running December 2 to 9, holds a similar philosophy at its heart. The use of figures in art stretches back to prehistory, and new explorations into the subject have always looked to the past in one way or another.

Pierre Auguste Renoir - Odalisque - Matthews GalleryPierre-Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) etching Odalisque refers to Turkish concubines, but that wasn’t necessarily the artist’s intended title. Renoir submitted a painting of a nude called Diana to the Paris Salon in 1867. The erotic depiction of the Roman goddess offended the judges and the painting was rejected.

Three years later the artist used the same model for a painting called Odalisque and made sure she was fully clothed. The second work, stripped of its mythological significance and given an exotic twist, was accepted to the Salon.

Harold Frank - Blue Nude - Matthews Gallery

In this etching with the same title Renoir refuses to hold back. The nude Odalisque is so tenderly rendered her skin looks as soft as butter. “When I’ve painted a woman’s bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished,” the artist said.

Harold Frank (1917-1995) was born in England and grew up in New York, where he drew inspiration from American modernism and abstract expressionism. His take on the female figure in Blue Nude features quick, expressive brushwork that was no doubt inspired by de Kooning.

Both artists incorporated drips and splatters of paint into their compositions to create spacial ambiguities in the picture plane. Is Frank’s nude standing in a corner or floating in a color field? The answer seems to change with every glance.

Jamie Chase - Turning Points - Matthews GalleryJamie Chase immerses a figure in a vibrant yellow atmosphere in Turning PointIt brings to mind both Mark Rothko and Nathan Oliveira, but Chase’s influences stretch farther back in art history.

Chase grew up in San Francisco and attended art school there for a short time before dropping out to travel Europe. He lived in various cities and educated himself on the masters before returning to San Francisco in the early 1970s. There he painted murals for a bookstore, drawing inspiration from ancient Egyptian art, European cave paintings and Native American art.

Come trace the history of the artist’s impulse to capture the figure at the exhibition this December, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more news from the gallery.

Top 10 Art Books of 2012, Part 1

Our favorite art books of 2012 span centuries and movements, and include names both new and familiar. Follow the adventures of Paul Cezanne, meet Vivian Maier and her many subjects, and discover the (real) secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci in our first five selections: 

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Cezanne: A Life, Alex Danchev- Critics called Paul Cezanne’s paintings unfinished, but the artist himself insisted they were “unresolved.” A biographer who wishes to capture the spirit of the revolutionary post-impressionist must play to the distinction. Danchev doesn’t try to solve the riddle of the man who diagnosed himself mad, who hid his wife and child from his family until he was 40, and who spent his final years in wild seclusion. With the aid of more than 100 images—including a series of self portraits—and excerpts from Cezanne’s favorite readings, the raconteur gives us a beautiful, perplexing glimpse through one of the most influential sets of eyes of the 19th century and beyond.

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Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade: 1940-1950; Todd Herman, Christopher Rothko and David Anfam- Though Mark Rothko’s journey from the figurative to the abstract happened rather rapidly, The Decisive Decade presents it as a careful, scientific evolution. An early canvas showing a trio of figures begets a painting of three figures merged into one, which bears a fascinating resemblance to the horizontal planes of color for which Rothko gained renown. The full sweep is a tribute to the artist’s deliberate genius.

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Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Richard Cahan and Michael Williams- Amateur street photographer Vivian Maier’s now famous body of work was discovered before her death in 2009, when the contents of a storage locker she couldn’t pay for were auctioned off. It wasn’t until her obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune that real estate agent John Maloof, who had purchased thousands of her negatives, discovered her identity. Cahan and Williams shine some light on the mysterious artist through interviews with Maier’s confidantes, but it’s the work itself, mostly captured on the streets of New York and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, that bring her into full focus.

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Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King- Perhaps the most shocking secret of The Da Vinci Code is that, had Dan Brown done more digging, he wouldn’t have needed to rely so much on fiction. King introduces us to an aging, depressed Leonardo and the seemingly impossible project he took on at the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. There are many secrets to uncover, from the true identities of the Apostle models to the significance of the food Leonardo chose for the table. No symbologist needed.

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Lucian Freud Portraits, Sarah Howgate with Michael Auping and John Richardson- As ever, the severe portraits of Lucian Freud cast a captivating spell in this new collection. New to the game is a series of rare, revelatory interviews on everything from the artist’s process to his famous grandfather, conducted in the last years of his life.

Click here to browse our next five selections, and check out our Twitter and Facebook pages for more art musings.