New York

Adolf Gottlieb

André Emmerich Gallery

Two paintings in the Adolf Gottlieb exhibition made the whole thing worthwhile. The other works were accomplished but uninteresting pictographs with cartoony pointing fingers, squishy hands, fishy phallic eyes, and portentous, ambiguous symbols. They probably looked better when they were first exhibited, when they might have seemed at least startlingly grotesque. Gottlieb uses the grid not as a formal device, but as a weird pictorial row of shelves to place images on. The grid as a formal structure did not have the kind of power then that artists now claim for it. Gottlieb thankfully fills the grid in with something rather than leaving it empty, but this is small consolation.

The grid is absent in the two best paintings, Black Ground and Night Flight. The obviousness of the other paintings takes a certain subverted direction here—the symbology grows from many layers of decision making during painting, from the “process,” if you like. The symbols aren’t willed. These two paintings come very close to Klee’s compositions based on the sea or the miniature garden.

Perhaps Night Flight began with a grid; but in the process of working, things happened, the grid was eliminated in favor of strong, simple shapes freed from an imposed format. Night Flight is almost all Indian red, with touches of red, yellow and blue—a star, an arrow, a double arc. The top layer is a very thin wash drawing of white added as an accent to the edge in irregular, freely invented semi-L shapes—organic rectangles completed by the edge or corners of the painting. Their distribution is not gridlike. They may even pull the painting together at the last moment, “save” it by holding the images together. The surface becomes a tablet, an opaque surface which can accommodate any pictorial depth.

All the same goes for Black Ground. It’s mostly black, with red, yellow and blue geometrical shapes and lots of underpainting exposing various stages of the shapes’ life. One large subdued, off-center arrow points downward, suspended and floating: but concrete and weighted. Neither painting has a problem with drawing—shapes expand out to their limit; they’re not hemmed in by a grid boundary. The drawing unravels like handwriting even when the shapes aren’t linear. Gottlieb looks best when, in the word pictograph, the emphasis is on the “graph”—writing—and not the picture.

By writing of tablet or slab, of the substance of the surface, I do not mean that these two paintings are “objects,” but that Gottlieb creates a pictorial slab. He achieves the effect of objectness in flatness without sacrificing pictorialism and without typical three-dimensional “illusion.” The various intensities and densities of the shallow depths in Night Flight are arrived at by transforming material in a very traditional way. When Gottlieb is literal, it’s not gratuitous pointing to the objectness of painting. The surface for Gottlieb is a flat writing surface and a pictorial area with depth. This seems pertinent right now because there are so few artists capable of working with this kind of planar pictorial space today.

Jeff Perone