New York

Adolph Gottlieb

Marlborough-Gerson Gallery

The best paintings in Adolph Gottlieb’s recent show at Marlborough-Gerson seemed to be those that recapitulated his way of working in the 1950s, by placing one or two neatly bounded circular forms over a profusion of painterly, ragged shapes at the lower edge of the canvas. Two Discs of 1963 is one of these, and Roman Three #2 (1963) is another, but a work which demonstrates a reduction in Gottlieb’s means, for in this canvas color differentiations are largely eliminated and black oils make the distinctions in facture necessary to determine divisions within the painting’s field. But Gottlieb has also carried this reductive tendency over to the treatment of the shapes themselves. In Focal, 1965, the eccentric painterly element of the earlier works is exchanged for a neatly executed square area of color-patches: tube colors applied in long thick strokes on the yellow ground. Instead of centering both the regular circle and the painterly shape along the central vertical axis as the earlier treatment of this motif invariably did, Gottlieb places the circle—a heavily painted green orb with a yellow, atmospheric halo around it—in the center and shifts the composite shape over to the lower right corner of the canvas. In so doing the two elements suggest a relationship to one another that is one of balance: an equilibrium arrived at moreover through a spatial, aerial medium. It appears then, that Gottlieb in giving up the axiality of his composition, since the cohesion of the image is no longer read through an organization dependent on the rationale of the support, reintroduces a rather uncontrollable illusionism into his work.

There is a strange similarity between Focus and Kandinsky’s work of the 1920s, where for all the careful geometry of the forms and the deadpan flatness of their execution, one realizes an absolute denial of the fact of the picture support. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky asserted that to limit the picture to its surface was only to give it another material limitation. The picture plane must be destroyed, he felt, to make way for an “ideal” plane. Striving after either an ideal plane or a suggestively illusionistic field no longer seems to yield first-rate paintings. In Gottlieb’s case his more recent works shuttle between a partial illusionism and a partial control over the surface, and seem somehow to have been reduced and weakened in the process.

Rosalind Krauss