New York

Adolph Gottlieb

Knoedler & Company

Though this selection of eight major paintings from the last five years of Adolph Gottlieb’s life (1968–73) hardly constituted a survey of his career, it did encapsulate the breadth of his artistic vision. Five of these works, completed only two years after his disabling stroke and one year before his death, when Gottlieb was dependent on studio assistants to execute his ideas, brilliantly displayed the artist as an intellectual painter rather than an angst-ridden, hands-on gesturalist.

While Gottlieb’s first mature works consisted of primitive pictographic forms compartmentalized in two-dimensional grids, his late paintings systematize a variety of techniques, gestures, and pictorial developments initiated by him and his Abstract Expressionist peers and redeploy them as his painterly vocabulary.

A work entitled Open, 1968, exemplifies this best. A red, a blue, and a yellow oval hover like clouds above an X that is delimited with wide angular strokes of black paint. To the right, two comparably sized rectangles—a white one above a red one—function like a legend to a map. With the primary colors and the black grid framed against a white field, Gottlieb borrows Piet Mondrian’s Modernist vocabulary, yet his work does not partake of Mondrian’s purism. Gottlieb has arranged the primary colors and the X around a central axis like an artist’s palette. These vocabular elements are unique in size and shape, and textured to emphasize their substance rather than their hue. Here, pictorial language does not serve a purist ideology but is grounded in practice and use. Color is determined less by theory than by the artist’s sensibility.

The other works presented in this exhibition read as a catalogue of Abstract Expressionist strategies and topoi. In most cases the compositions are organized in a dyadic manner with opposing elements demarcating the top and the bottom of the canvas. Here, expressionistic gestures, drips, and splatters intermingle against stained surfaces; patchy white marks float upon flat white grounds; and elsewhere, a stroke of green is set off by a subtly different shade of the same color. The same calligraphic brushwork evokes a symbolic notation, and, when layered in dense accumulations, creates a field that dilutes each mark’s legibility as a signifier. The entire surface of Burma Red, 1973, is made up of an amalgam of painterly strategies. Its name is derived from the bright red circle that floats above a black gestural accumulation of patchy brushwork. Here, spewing from the bottom form, are drips and splatters that bubble up like gases rising from the surface of the sun. The center of the red circle is tactile with a thick pasty texture, while the outer ring is leached into the canvas ground.

That Gottlieb was an intellectual artist investigating the language of painting is evident throughout his oeuvre. In an earlier series of works Burst, Blast I, and Blast II (all 1957), which is seminally connected to the later paintings exhibited here, Gottlieb creates three seemingly identical works. Framed against a white field is a brightly colored circle that floats above a burst of black paint. Gottlieb’s strategy of repeating this identical composition three times parallels Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II also made in 1957. In these works, both artists strive for a dialectical balance between sameness and difference. Like many of Gottlieb’s later works these are metapaintings. They explore the range of possibilities that the practice of painting makes available to the artist. Synthesizing medium and gesture into pictorial phrases, Gottlieb’s language not only systematizes the pictorial rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, but anticipates the post-Modernist impulse to treat painting as a language detached from subjective expression.

Kirby Gookin