Survey show sizes up Gottlieb

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 20, 2002 at 12:35 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- A survey exhibition at the Jewish Museum of 31 major paintings by Adolph Gottlieb, a leading American abstract expressionist, makes it abundantly clear why his work is included in almost every museum in the world that boasts a modern art collection.

This very selective exhibition originated in Valencia, Spain, and was shown in Madrid and Wuppertal, Germany, before coming to New York, where it can be seen through March 2. All the work displayed are on loan from the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation of New York, whose director, Sanford Hirsch, organized the exhibition.

The paintings cover the years 1934 through 1973, the year before Gottlieb's death at the age of 71. They constitute the first major show that portrayed the artist in the city where he was born, lived and worked since the huge retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in 1968.

Together with Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, Gottlieb propelled American painting to the forefront of the international art scene after World War II and established New York rather than Paris as the world's art capital. It was a time when abstraction was the clear, universal language of art, unlike our own postmodern era with its deafening multicultural babble.

To some, Gottlieb's work may seem dated, but a visit to this exhibition will convince art lovers of the power of his work, which dealt with metaphysical dualities such as good versus evil that reflected cold war anxieties. The throbbing discs of glowing color above explosive flurries of brush strokes that became his mature vocabulary express these concerns.

"Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil and times are out of joint, our obsessive images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality," he wrote in 1947. "To my mind, certain so-called abstraction isn't abstraction at all. On the contrary it is the realism of our time."

Drawn to art at an early age, Gottlieb left home at 17 and worked his passage to Europe where he visited the museums and galleries of Paris, Germany, and parts of Central Europe for two years before returning to New York in 1923. He was impressed with recent works by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and other members of the school of Paris.

He enrolled in classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, studying figurative and narrative art, and his early paintings were conservative in nature -- portraits of family and friends and urban scenes. The show at the Jewish Museum opens with some of these flat figurative paintings of the 1930s, but by 1941 a painting titled "Oedipus," consisting of boxed-in Picassoesque facial features, showed evidence of avant-garde tendencies.

Compartmentalized compositions developed into pictograph imagery laid out in a linear grid pattern that includes faces, animals, and enigmatic signs and symbols that recall American Indian tribal art. A whole series of these paintings are on display culminating in a 1948 canvas with black figures on a red ground that seems playful despite its title, "The Terrors of Tranquility."

Gottlieb broke out of confining grids in the early 1950s, letting play of lines take over in a big black and yellow composition containing starbursts and a black arrow titled "Labyrinth #3," one of the handsomest paintings in the show. Starbursts later were transformed into glowing ovals of color hovering over planes of dark color that gradually evolved into angry throbs of brighter colors.

These paintings come on like a punch in the nose and have such titles as "Ascent," "Levitation," and "Exclamation." By the 1960s, Gottlieb had edited this format down to simplified glowing orbs on brilliant color imposed on backgrounds of yellow, blue, and green and introduced vertical dabs of several colors in place of explosive blobs of one color.

Canvasses got bigger and imagery even more refined in Gottlieb's last years. His canvasses seem freer of symbolic meaning and more decorative, making use of saturated primary colors that are quite striking. After suffering a stroke in 1970, the artist used a paler palette for backgrounds onto which nervous brushwork images in black acrylic were applied.

The last painting in the exhibit is titled "Burst" and depicts a glowing red sun on a wan gray field of color, below which floats what appears to be floral offering made up of drips of black enamel. It seems a fitting benediction to a career that contributed much to modern art history, leaving behind a body of work that has the special beauty of mystical metaphors to engage viewers for generations to come.

The show is accompanied by an attractive catalog in English and Spanish ("Painting Reality: The Art of Adolph Gottlieb," Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, 137 pages, $25 softcover).

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