PRINT April 1968

Adolph Gottlieb

IT IS A MOVING AND ALSO a perturbing thing to suddenly have access to a sufficiently large body of a living artist’s work so that one is able to assess it in its totality and discover aspects one had failed to see, or had seen too easily. Although the sheer size of Adolph Gottlieb’s exhibition—housed in the top two exhibition ramps at the Guggenheim and the fourth floor at the Whitney—inadvertently, I felt, put stress on the weaker aspects of his paintings, one learned from these in invaluable ways, and had, if anything, a heightened awareness of just how substantial and impressive are his talents. Gottlieb’s art is repetitive in a particular way, and because of this my initial reaction was that the exhibition was too large and unselective, permissively so, and would have benefited from editing. However, with the exception of a number of notably weak paintings, the selection did fairly enable one to discover in what ways Gottlieb’s paintings are repetitive and thereby, I feel, come nearer to discovering his singular strength as an artist.

The kind of repetitiveness that Gottlieb’s paintings have too easily allows one to feel out and become familiar with a characteristic tenor or look that his work undeniably has; it is this which makes it difficult, often not in rewarding or testing ways, to see and be engaged by what is genuinely expressive and profound in his work. Clement Greenberg came near to characterizing the “look” of Gottlieb’s art when, in praising him, he also raised the objection that Gottlieb frequently worked “too tightly, too patly in relation to the frame, whence comes the ‘set,’ over-inclosed, static look that diminishes the original power of many of his paintings.”1 This was written in 1955, before Gottlieb moved into his Burst series of paintings and others related to these, but I feel that Greenberg’s remark still holds true today. It is when Gottlieb’s work moves fractionally away from the set, static quality that it can possess a force and justness which is all the harder to characterize, since it relies so intimately on specific modifications within each painting, modifications which nevertheless are encompassed by Gottlieb’s distinctive mode of composition. The repetitiveness of Gottlieb’s art stems precisely, I think, from the fact that his fundamental approach to the composing of a painting does not change in any significant way; rather, one sees over the twenty-five or so years that the exhibition covers, Gottlieb’s approach to the composing of a picture take on different shades of life, potency and expressiveness through the evolution of the images that he creates. It is this that marks Gottlieb as an artist so distinctly from his peers; I am thinking particularly of the work of Newman and Rothko and, to a certain extent, Motherwell.

To say that Gottlieb’s art is one of images is both obvious and imprecise. But I think there is a less obvious and important sense in which his paintings issue from the imagination, which partially accounts for a feeling almost of deprivation that I, at least, often experience on seeing Gottlieb’s work, especially the paintings from the late fifties and the sixties. Gottlieb was not only one of the instigators of Abstract Expressionism but his art invites comparison with that of his peers since, in important ways, it is imbedded in and keeps pace with the ongoing development of ambitious painting from the past twenty years. Yet there are deceptive aspects to this, for although there are visibly identifiable parallels to the way in which the abstractness of Gottlieb’s paintings develops, and the way in which his approach to scale and to the handling of color evolves, the enduring strength of his painting and its limitations lie elsewhere, in his truth to a creative intelligence that I would want to describe as being a mental rather than predominantly a formal one.

When I say that the parallels which exist between Gottlieb’s work and that of his peers are deceptive, I mean that the fact that Gottlieb is an enormously accomplished and inventive painter, and a receptive one in that he learns judiciously from the paintings of others, in some way elicits an expectation on confronting his paintings which is often subtly denied because misplaced. What is truly Gottlieb’s, his superb ability to work with color and to place images on the rectangle of the canvas with a definitive justness, is intuitive, but is also put to the service of an imagination which frequently in itself does not convey expression. When one sees the workings of the imagination, as it were, it is then that Gottlieb’s paintings take on a confected aspect—one becomes uncomfortably aware of the rectangle of the canvas as an inert receiving vehicle for painterly manipulations which express little more than the privateness of Gottlieb’s vision.

Icon, from 1964, is a particular case in point. It happens to be by far the largest vertically oriented canvas in the exhibition, standing twelve feet high, and consists of a single field of light grey in which floats a glossy red disc with three evenly spaced bars of orange, black and yellow centered beneath it. One looks and waits in vain for the sheer expanse of grey, inflected only by slight variations of matte and gloss, to live and resonate as color the way that Newman’s fields of color live, but the grey remains void both as color and as pictorial space. One becomes aware, instead, of the specificity of the color, which takes on a rather livid tone due to the degree to which it is cut with white, while the disc and bare beneath are suspended in a strange state be:ween formalized symbol and representation of sun and things cosmic. (Gottlieb’s imagery often attains this strangely infertile, frozen state.)

Yet the same familiar “cosmic” imagery employed in Ping, to mention only one of the several extremely successful paintings from this period, imbues the entire surface of the painting with a diffused life and buoyancy. One can point to certain factors which superficially account for its success, the most obvious being that the painting is appreciably smaller than Icon and conforms to a physical scale, roughly between eight and nine feet high, which Gottlieb seems to handle best. However the two discs and the rectangular bar have the same precisely centered quality as those in Icon; furthermore, although the light red of the disc and bars echoes the overall tonality of the pink field, the pinkness, a sort of raspberry flush, verges on being perversely specific. But Gottlieb gets away with it magnificently, and in a special way the pink of the field is as exactly integral to the painting as is the blank whiteness of the sized canvases in many of his Burst paintings, or a superb painting such as Tan over Black. That is, whether Gottlieb works with a single field of color which one feels answers to a very personal predilection for a specific color, or whether he works with the white of the canvas, it is in some sense irrelevant to the fundamentals of his paintings. In either case, the absence or presence of color acts as a kind of effulgent and curiously neutral ambience for the images, and ultimately a painting stands or falls by Gottlieb’s placement of the images and the directness with which they galvanize the surrounding space. This is not to deny that Gottlieb creates some very beautiful and unexpected appositions of disparate colors, as for instance in Expanding from 1962, where a jade green field startlingly receives a spreading circular shape of a faint but brilliant light blue beneath which is a bright brown explosive shape. This is one of the most truly abstract paintings included in the exhibition, but again one feels that the images carry color in a certain way, and although the actual handling of color recalls that of Rothko, for instance, in that it is laid down as a dissolving, stumbled haze, the very disparateness of the colors asserts not only their separableness from the green field but their image quality.2

In general, the feeling of the canvas being possessed by images is one which characterizes the best of Gottlieb’s work from the earliest Pictographs to the later work, and it is in this sense that Gottlieb’s art is prey to what I earlier described as a kind of habit-forming recognition of the images through their constant repetition. Seeing a large number of Pictographs—there are approximately forty at the Guggenheim, as well as a group of paintings which mark the transition from Pictograph to the early “landscape” paintings shown at the Whitney—severely tests one’s ability to see and continue to respond to the kind of variations within each Pictograph. One can follow the slow dissolution of the strictly linear frontality of the grids and hieroglyphic forms into something which is almost painstakingly freer and less formalized, in paintings such as Archer or Symbols of a Woman, both from 1951. In the same way Gottlieb’s use of color gradually moves away from the often very beautiful simulated tonality of terracottas, stone and mortar colors to something which stands in its own right as in Hidden Image, and Man and Arrow from 1950, or Tournament from 1951. The sense of Gottlieb’s possessing the rectangle of the canvas, exploring and creating minutely varied pictorial flatnesses and inscribing these with signs from his imagination, is extraordinarily present as one looks at the Pictographs. There are several masterpieces; the early Pictograph Symbol from 1942 is outstanding, Recurrent Apparition from 1946 and Vigil from 1948 are others, to name a few. But one is aware of the limitations of this form of expression, and one is aware above all of Gottlieb’s tenacious will to explore its every possibility.

As the hieroglyphic signs evolve into the condensed, formalized distillations of landscape shapes and the characteristic floating discs, the frontal composition of the Pictographs carries through. But the stated, planar flatness which takes its life from the network of inscribed signs evolves into something which is unstated but which exists by implication, from the fact of the frontality of the images. It is in this sense that I would want to characterize the kind of space in Gottlieb’s paintings, especially the later ones, as coming about in response to predominantly mental or imaginative demands, rather than formal ones. The circumscribed wall-like flatness of the Pictographs is exchanged for a kind of space which, while not exactly hermetic and hermetically sealed off, could almost so be described in that it functions as a neutrally holding and surrounding ambience for the images. One has the feeling that different configurations of images dictate and fit different formats; the single disc and single explosive shape which comprise the Burst type of painting demand a vertically oriented canvas, while in an equally explicit way, the images in Dialogue Number I or Trinity, for in-stance, which are so suggestive of horizons and sky, demand a horizontally oriented canvas.

To the extent that Gottlieb’s images are single, condensed and repeatedly explosive, or anyway repeatedly declarative, there lies their vulnerability; it is a kind of vulnerability which is touched on in a moving passage written by R. P. Blackmur on the poetry of Wallace Stevens and on poetry in general:

One does what one can, and the limits of one’s abilities are cut down by the privations of experience and habit, by the absence of what one has not thought of and by the presence of what is thought of too much, by the canalization and evaporation of the will. What is left is that which one touches again and again, establishing a piety of the imagination with the effrontery of repetition. Mr. Stevens has more left than most, and has handled it with more modulations of touch, and more tenacious piety, so that it becomes itself exclusively, inexplicably, fully expressive of its own meaning.3

I feel that while Blackmur’s observations have special relevance to Stevens’ poetry, they are also to such an extent universal that they warrant my citing them out of context and applying them tangentially to Gottlieb’s painting. Gottlieb, as no other painter from his generation, has allowed himself to be guided by the particular urgencies and partialities of his vision, and he is also a sufficiently strong and resourceful painter to be able not only to stay close to this vision, but to afford the “effrontery” of repetition in his art; therein lies its strength and beauty and also its limitations.

Jane Harrison Cone



1. Clement Greenberg, American-Type Painting in Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 217.

2. The painting belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago and I think it should not go unmentioned that the Institute’s other indiscriminate application of glass to the paintings in the collection, in this particular case, infuriatingly obscures it from normal sight, and one has to go through all sorts of contortions to see it at all.

3. R. P. Blackmur, Wallace Stevens: An Abstraction Blooded, in Form and Value in Modern poetry, New York, 1957.