Adolph Gottlieb. A Retrospective, at The Guggenheim Collection, Venice through January 9, 2011

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Adolph Gottlieb at the Tiller, Provincetown, 1949. The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.

Adolph Gottlieb at the Tiller, Provincetown, 1949. The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.

Adolph Gottlieb. A Retrospective
The Guggenheim Collection, Venice
September 4, 2010–January 9, 2011

Curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, Catalogue with essays by Luca Massimo Barbero and Pepe Karmel

This exceptionally important and beautifully realized exhibition is not only the first retrospective of the work of Adolph Gottlieb in Italy, it is the first full retrospective of his work anywhere in quite a few years. One can hardly say that Gottlieb is a forgotten artist, because there has been a steady flow of exhibitions following his death in 1974 through the eighties, nineties, and up to the present day, more at major private galleries rather than museums, and none as ambitious or as scholarly as this. On the other hand it appears that Gottlieb’s reputation has weakened in recent years, especially among the general public, among whom Jackson Pollock has become a sort of louche patron saint of Abstract Expressionism, or “Ab Ex,” as MoMA now encourages us to call it, more through biographical scandal and sensational controversies over his oeuvre than a serious appraisal of his work — not that the Boston College exhibition about the Matter sketches was not serious and important work. Hence, in our conversation about the show, Philip Rylands, the director of the Guggenheim Collection, was surely right in pointing out that the principle goal of the exhibition is the re-assessment of Gottlieb’s pre-eminence among the “Abstract Expressionists” — something that was never in doubt during the peak years of both the movement and his career.

The exhibition succeeds admirably in convincing the visitor of the quality of Gottlieb’s work, not only in the mature periods for which he is best known, but before and after as well. However, further issues emerge from this, above all the question of how well Gottlieb and his fellow artists are served by the familiar umbrella which covers a large group of diverse artists: “Ab Ex.” In fact, before discussing the Guggenheim exhibition, I wanted to absorb the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, which consists entirely of works from its permanent collection. It seemed important to understand just how MoMA fits Gottlieb into its comprehensive picture of the movement — if more as a diagnostic than an authority. While Gottlieb was not granted a separate room like his friend Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, the five works that represented him stood out for their eloquence, elegant technique, and conceptual sophistication. While Gottlieb dominated the rooms in which he was hung, his companions, notably Bradley Walker Tomlin and Lee Krasner, made a strong impression as well — and that is more than can be said of Krasner’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum a decade ago. By contrast Gottlieb stands up most impressively in his retrospective as one of the central leaders of the movement.

While I’d be uncomfortable calling these artists a group, the term movement is vague enough to function as a blanket term. Also, I think the designation “New York School” tells fewer lies than “Abstract Expressionism,” which goes back to a routine review of current exhibitions in a March 1946 issue of The New Yorker by Robert M. Coates, an interesting, but obscure novelist and critic who is remembered only for coining the term. Given his background in Surrealism, it is surprising to see Coates default to the common attitude of bemused skepticism, which is rather more at home in the writing of Edward Alden Jewell, who is similarly remembered for a single achievement: his publishing in the New York Times of a letter by Rothko, Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman drafted  in response to his expression of puzzlement at their work in his scathing review of a group exhibition at Wildenstein. Coates, who showed some sympathy to some of the works he was discussing (by Hans Hofmann) adopted a more extreme attitude than Jewell, who insulated his quotations from the historic statement in the bitterest sarcasm. Both writers represent the infancy of the critical reception of these artists, and it is only ironic that they contributed words (and only words, as opposed to concepts) which have survived to the present day. Greenberg and Rosenberg were far better equipped to elucidate this art, and so are we. Hence we are better off inventing our own terminology for an artistic movement in which abstraction played a dominant, but not exclusive role, and expressionism an ill-defined and ambivalent one. However, rather than seek to immortalize myself in jargon, I’ll stick with “New York School.”

Perhaps the strongest defining element is that the principal artists at the core — the more capable and articulate ones, like Newman, Rothko, and Gottlieb, knew each other and were in fact friends. Many of the others may or may not have come into extensive contact with them at openings, lectures, and other gatherings. As Gottlieb said in his 1967 interview with Dorothy Seckler (Oral history interview with Adolph Gottlieb, 1967 Oct. 25, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), the artists discussed art and aesthetics most avidly in their youth, when they were struggling to find their individual paths. Later, in their maturity, there was only the work — and perhaps friendship. Individuality is the key here, since the artists desired that more than anything in their art, and they respected it in others, while they shared common interests. Nina Leen’s famous photograph of the Irascibles published in Life in 1951, expresses this as well as any text. There were much tighter artistic connections among the Surrealists, with their cultivation of collaborative works and mutual imitation.

As far as a movement delimited by the term “Abstract Expressionism” is concerned, Jackson Pollock’s overall compositions and the physicality of his facture sum it all up for most people. As a man and artist, Pollock also seemed like the ideal representative. Inarticulate and helpless in his alcoholism, he seemed quintessentially American, to the disadvantage of artists who were first and second generation immigrants. One of these, Mark Rothko, overcame this through a painterly mode which evoked “a great silence” among critics, curators, and the public, as well as an alcoholic malaise which came close to Pollock’s. Earlier, of course, he had worked with Gottlieb on the famous letter, and verbalized his own purposes and those of his fellow artists in other contexts.

Gottlieb and Rothko were both born into Russian Jewish families. In fact Rothko was born in Russia. Many artists from this kind of background, while enjoying a freedom that would have been inaccessible to them in Russia (for example Man Ray, 1890-1976, earlier and Leonard Freed, 1929-2006, later), felt a profound need to come to terms with European artistic traditions and to detach themselves from working- or middle-class values that were less than a generation old. Gottlieb lost no time in travelling to Europe: he was only seventeen when he took a job on a ship and got himself to Paris with little money and no passport. There, he immersed himself in museums, which became his greatest teachers. He absorbed not the current work of living artists like Matisse and PIcasso, but the old masters, among them the Italians of the Quattrocento and earlier. (Rothko did not make the voyage until his maturity, after 1950, with money from the sales of his work. At that point he established his own connection to Pompeian wall-painting and Fra Angelico’s San Marco frescoes.) Gottlieb returned to Europe as a married man (but not a mature artist) in 1935. These experiences gave his work a distinctive European character. The characteristically American allover method of composition never remained with him very long, although his lifelong efforts to flatten the pictorial space on to the surface of the canvas tended in that direction and helped to develop it for others. We observe his forms within a kind of space, even if it is an anti-perspectival one, and we appreciate them and their contours as design. There is in fact an elegance in Gottlieb’s mature work, (One can find already in his early efforts.), which implies a consciousness of purpose and invention totally suppressed in Pollock and successfully disguised in Rothko, Kline, De Kooning, and Newman. This counterbalances the performative spontaneity of Gottlieb’s work.

While Gottlieb’s work was as American as any of his associates, it is significant that he was the one artist who found favor in Europe. While Pollock at the others were received with skepticism and even scorn, when their work was shown in Paris, Gottlieb was more favorably judged, and, as Karmel observes, he even exercised a demonstrable influence on Picasso, and Gottlieb himself was well aware of it (p. 35).

This came back to haunt Gottlieb at the height of his career and brought about something of a downturn. Ever the professional, Gottlieb participated in some design projects. His paintings also appeared in some magazine ads as accoutrements of contemporary style — much to his chagrin on some occasions, as Pepe Karmel points out in his important catalogue essay. Hence, by the 1960’s he was faulted by critics for a decorative quality in his work, which was anathema to his original purposes. Rothko was also led in this direction, for example in his paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant. (Rothko famously revolted before the project was completed. It is significant that religious or quasi-religious projects did more justice to both artists, e.g. Gottlieb’s stained glass façade of the Milton Steinberg House and Rothko’s de Mesnil Chapel.) In any case, the diminishment of Gottlieb’s stature which had begun in Gottlieb’s lifetime has persisted to the present day, although few understand the reason for it: a critical fad resulting from a misunderstanding of his work. Gottlieb’s very success worked against him.

In his 1967 Seckler interview, Gottlieb projected a professional self-assurance which he seems to have possessed since his youth: his work stood out even then, and he found recognition. False modesty did not prevent him from recognizing when he painted as well or better than other artists, even his mentors. At this point, although the critical trend just mentioned was underway, he was at the height of his career, about to be honored by a double retrospective at MoMA and the Whitney, he downplayed the theorizing he had pursued in the 1940’s in favor of the anti-intellectualism that had marked the New York School since the artists got famous as the “Irascibles.” Rothko also became more reticent about his art at this point. For Gottlieb the point was to paint well, and that was all. Mythological and Jungian rationalizations were put into the background, although he spoke openly —and simply — of the symbolism of the egg. While the group had enjoyed a lively intellectual life through lectures and discussion groups for some years, they as artists chose to communicate with their public through their work. Gottlieb himself found prosperity in success and enjoyed a more secure and expansive life, indulging his lifelong passion for sailing in boats he designed and built himself. As a yachtsman, he was competitive and as successful as he was in art. What’s more, he seemed free of the self-destructive urges which had cut short the lives of Pollock and Rothko. Gottlieb seemed to lack either the heroic or the anti-heroic.

The current exhibition at the Guggenheim Collection, with its splendid selection, elegant installation, and two eminently intelligent and probing catalogue essays succeeds brilliantly in brushing away the critical cobwebs of the late 50’s and 60’s and provides everything necessary for a fuller, more favorable, and, I believe, accurate assessment of the artist. New York needs the exhibition as much as Venice, and it really should travel to the US.

The special exhibition galleries at the Guggenheim provide an intimate setting that mediates nicely between the small and the large canvases. One can immerse oneself in it without distraction. The show is entirely about the art and not about labels, acoustiguides, and other irritating didactic futilities. The curator, Luca Massimo Barbero, wisely decided to give ample treatment to all phases of Gottlieb’s career. The work preceding his “Burst” period receives almost 90% of the space accorded his “mature” work. This is justified aesthetically as well as from scholarly considerations. Gottlieb’s Pictographs already began to attract interest shortly after his death, but his even earlier work, influenced by his older friend, Milton Avery, is also appealing, although he himself dismissed it as a weak period in his career.

Untitled (Self Portrait in Mirror), c. 1938 Oil on canvas, 101 x 75.2 cm Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 3803.

Untitled (Self Portrait in Mirror), c. 1938 Oil on canvas, 101 x 75.2 cm Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 3803.

Untitled (Self Portrait in Mirror), c. 1938 not only has an evocative sense of a moment in time and the atmosphere of a specific place, it is a fully conscious expression of the artistic ideas were to animate Gottlieb’s work in his maturity. The irregular parallel lines of the wallpaper and indeterminate boundaries of the planes of the wall and ceiling, both as reflected in the mirror and outside it, show an early effort to flatten space into the surface of the canvas. Their self-consciously awkward, “primitive,” hand-drawn quality gives them a life of their own, rivalling the elements which would have been the traditional focal points of the composition, the figures. Although, after the mirror itself, the artist is the largest feature, it is present mainly as a witness, as his posture and gaze indicate. The object of his gaze, his wife Esther on the bed, is dwarfed into something like an afterthought. His treatment of curved shapes in the decorative supports and frame of the mirror and the contours of the kerosene lamp contain the seeds of his famous ovoid forms, which he learned to make more irregular through his facture, avoiding an overt decorative effect in the paintings. Most provocative is the ambiguous double rendering of the pink cloth on the top of the dresser or table on which he is working. The work, in fact, is more the subject of the painting than what the artist sees and what he renders. Gottlieb was always insistent that paintings have to be about something, and this is a case in point, even if it is self-referential.

Gottlieb soon took up a new method of manipulating space. He brought compartmented boxes to the beach and placed marine objects in them. While he rendered the perspective of at least one compartment — with deliberate inconcinnity regarding the whole — he used the boxes to create a flat space to create a shallow counterpart to the surrounded beach landscape, which he treated as a flat backdrop. This led directly to the compositional structure of his pictographs, which were irregular, hand-drawn grids, spread out over the picture plane, negating any perspectival illusion or compositional center, and reaching out towards the allover compositions which became so widely associated with Abstract Expressionism. Later, Gottlieb said that he derived the boxes and the grid from a practice of early Italian painters. The compositional designs of primitive art, notably Northwestern Indian art, which Gottlieb actively collected, came into play as well.

Sea Chest, 1942. Oil on canvas, 66 x 86.6 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Estate of Karl Nierendorf, By purchase 48.1172.510 4257.

Sea Chest, 1942. Oil on canvas, 66 x 86.6 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Estate of Karl Nierendorf, By purchase 48.1172.510 4257.

Well, I’ll tell you how the idea of compartmentalization occurred to me. I was looking for some sort of a systematic way of getting down these subjective images and I had always admired, particularly admired, the early Italian painters who preceded the Renaissance and I very much liked some of the altar pieces in which there would be, for example, the story of Christ told in a series of boxes, starting with the Nativity and ending with the Resurrection. This would be told chronologically, like a comic strip technique. And it seemed to me this was a very rational method of conveying something. So I decided to try it. But I was not interested in telling, in giving something its chronological sequence. What I wanted to do was to give something, to present what material I was interested in, simultaneously so that you would get an instantaneous impact from it. So I made boxes but then I put the images in with no sequence and no rational order. In other words, there was no chronology and you were supposed to see the thing instantaneously. Then, since there was no chronology, there was no rational order. The images appeared apparently at random; they then established themselves in a new system. So that was why all those years I was able to use very similar images but, by having different juxtapositions, there will always be a different significance to them. [Oral history interview with Adolph Gottlieb, 1967 Oct. 25, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

Through this it is clear that this method of composition was a way of ordering a mythic narrative in a way that was as true as possible to its reality in the subconscious mind.

Oedipus, 1941 Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 4103

Oedipus, 1941 Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 4103

Eventually the grid lines became slighter, even faded away, and compositions like The Red Bird emerged, which still contained some compartmentalization, but in an irregular, more subtle form.

no images were found

The grids persisted, however, and can still be found as late as the mid-fifties, turned inside-out in a pair of untitled canvases from 1956. Even classic examples of Gottlieb’s fully-developed allover painting, like Black, White, Pink and The Cage (1954), retain irregular grids. Here they seem to work more as leitmotifs which both provide structures and outward currents of energy.

When, in Sea and Tide (1952) Gottlieb began to divide his canvas into a bipartite landscape structure by means of a horizon line and introducing the large ovoid shapes familiar in his late work, he accomplished it by painting a semi-translucent layer of white-greyish tones over an allover design in black grey, and white. While this modification seems an explicit denial of his earlier manner, he allowed it to remain in the lower part as grid-like, textual line of white symbols over turbulent strokes of black paint. Shadows of these remain in the upper segment, but the formal language is replaced by two red eggs separated by a smaller black egg.

Later, Gottlieb developed and simplified this language further in his “bursts” and beyond, beginning in 1956, but, like his friend Rothko’s, it remained basically the same until his death in 1974, varied by the improvisatory approach to painting he had worked towards throughout his career and his experimentation with radically different color schemes. If I borrow the phrase “color scheme” from the language of interior design, I use it to reflect the consistency of of his approach to his palette, rather than to suggest that these paintings are decorative. It is all too easy for the casual viewer to assume that Gottlieb’s method was decorative. On the contrary, color was always vitally symbolic for him, a direct expression of feeling. The experience of the paintings in the Guggenheim galleries leaves no doubt that color was very much bound to feeling for Gottlieb, and that his sentient life was rich, varied, full of vitality, and often intense. Perhaps Rothko was able to realize this on the canvas with more subtlety and dimension, as well as more of an otherworldly feeling, but Gottlieb’s colorism, which had to share the canvas with his linear signs, is also moving and eloquent.

In this final phase Gottlieb reduced a binary mode of visual thinking which appeared early in his career. It is present already in Untitled (Self Portrait in Mirror) and in Sea Chest as well. In these early works he contrasted two types of spacial organization: a flattened, simplified version of the natural world, and a parallel space of human creation in mirrors and boxes. The later grid paintings are constructed on a counterpoint which gravitates toward a binary dialectic, e.g. whate and black strokes, gridlike patterns aginst more chaotic gestures, etc. In Sea and Tide the horizon line and the pair, contrasted formal worlds, divided by a horizon line, double the oppositions. Finally, in the burst paintings the dichotomy is reduced to a stark dialectic of clear ovoid or circular forms and chaotic, even violent tangles beneath. This tension is never resolved, the viewer must accept the totality of the painting, inclusive of form, color, and space. This unsettling lack of resolution, this absence of a conclusive cadence, are what make Gottlieb’s mature work such a complete statement of the anxieties of its time.

Burst 1973. Acrylic and enamel on canvas, 213.4 x 152.4 cm. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 7316.

Burst 1973. Acrylic and enamel on canvas, 213.4 x 152.4 cm. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 7316.

The catalogue of the Guggenheim show will remain an important resource for anyone interested in Gottlieb and the New York School for many years. Barbero’s essay provides an insightful overview of the artist’s career and its place in the development of American art from the twenties through the sixties, while Karmel delves more specifically into his artistic development, his artistic connections, and his relationship with the public through exhibitions, and his critical reception. The rich annotation in both, especially Karmel’s, provides a useful and tantalizing guide to the rich documentation of Gottlieb’s career through the materials preserved by the Gottlieb Foundation and elsewhere. A detailed chronology adds further substance. In both the catalogue and the installation the emphasis rightly remained on his work and the development of his art. On the other hand, there still remains much to explore in Gottlieb’s intellectual development, his reading, thinking, and his interchange with Rothko, Newman, and others.

Apart from the insight it provides into all this, I can remember few exhibitions that provide as much pure enjoyment as this one, even in the earliest phases of the artist’s career. Even when absorbed in the examples of mentors like John Sloan and Milton Avery, Gottlieb produced interesting and pleasurable work, even as he single-mindedly pursued a self-realization which he was to achieve only in his late forties and fifties. Like Pollock and Rothko, Gottlieb’s maturation was slow, as they sought a new visual language to express their individuality. They could only mature as artists, as American painting, still priovincial and heistant in the 1930’s, reached its own maturity, not only through the efforts of the artists, but, as the pronouncements of  Mssrs. Coates and Jewell reveal, curators, critics, and the public as well. Dealers like Kootz, Wildenstein, and Knoedler led the way, and above all Peggy Guggenheim and people like her.

Pale Disc, 1965. Oil on canvas, 183 x 152.4 cm. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 6527.

Pale Disc, 1965. Oil on canvas, 183 x 152.4 cm. Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York 6527.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. A fine review Michael; it makes me wish I could travel to Italy to see this comprehensive retrospective of Gottlieb’s work. Perhaps your review may spark some stateside curators to collaborate on bringing this show to the U.S., particularly New York where the potential for comparing Gottlieb’s achievement with for instance, the Indian Space Painters group, (Wheeler, Daum, Busa, Barrer, Barrell, Lewin, Collier), Barnet, who taught several of them at the League, and lesser known artists like Sonia Sekula, and Edward Renouf for instance, might benefit from formal consideration and comparison. Having recently finished reading W. Jackson Rushing’s “Native American Art and the New York Avant-Garde”,
    I for one would enjoy the opportunity to see these and other artists work not mentioned considered for what sources their work was drawn from, what they shared in common, and what their individual visions and contributions to American culture were and are.

  2. Thank you to Michael Miller for a very articulate review. It is valuable to have stressed the steadiness and continuity with which Gottlieb’s painting retained its pre-verbal symbolic value from the moment he embarked on the Pictographs through to the end. Thank you to Marc Chabot for his comment–I will swiftly obtain Rushing’s book. There is no doubt that if one exhibition leads to another, with different lines of enquiry and new light to shed, this gives rather serious purpose to exhibition-making. Lawrence Alloway once used the phrase ‘the thickness of history’. One way of interpreting this phrase is to pay attention to lesser known artists who may or may not qualify as minor, who have not been through the mill of accumulating bibliographical notoriety by constant mention in surveys and textbooks, nor of hype in the art market. These are the tens of thousands of artists who constitute the body of culture, of which artists whom consensus classifies as major are only the shiny surface. A look through the list of exhibitions given by Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of This Century gallery (1942-47) in New York–easily consultable in Angelica Rudenstine’s catalogue raisonné (1985, Abrams) of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection–reveals that she gave solo shows to Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, William Baziotes, Charles Seliger, Richard Pousette-Dart and Clyfford Still but also to many others such as, with reference to Chabot’s list above, Peter Busa (March 9-30, 1946) and Sonia Sekula (May 14-June 1, 1946).

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