New York

Adolph Gottlieb

Knoedler & Company

Adolph Gottlieb searched for primordial meaning in the clash of simple geometrical shapes, irradiated with color and sometimes highlighted by a cloudy halo, as well as in his ostensibly spontaneous gestures, often stylized into bonelike, quasi-organic fragments. At the same time, each abstract form in his paintings, by reason of the density of its execution and often opaque color, has a blunt presence and imparts a profound sense of the irrational in itself. The surreal landscape of Black Sun, 1956, is characteristic: rectilinear shapes seem simultaneously carved and molded, hovering in the sky along with Gottlieb’s melodramatic sun, while below the horizon idiosyncratically organic shapes appear as though imprinted in the green earth, like recently uncovered fossils. As is evident in Enclosure, 1961, Gottlieb’s hunger for revelation was satisfied in both the weirdly individualized forms he depicted and in the dynamic of their blatant, unresolved difference.

These works shown here are about a nostalgia for a lost golden age of Modernist art—a final grasp for heroic statement, at once fundamental and eschatological. With abstraction having become another barren code of art, Gottlieb’s “Abstract Symbolism”—based on the notion that a lengthy and sufficiently unconscious immersion in the paint process would spontaneously generate memorable symbols—is of course by now moribund. The “dialectic” between Gottlieb’s abstract forms may today seem all too staged—a theatrically grandiose contradiction stopping just short of self-caricature. One can’t help but admire the grandness of his ambition, but the symbols that result, and their contrast, seem peculiarly predictable. But as physically and conceptually grandstanding as Gottlieb’s paintings may sometimes seem, they are modest compared with some of the more celebrated work of the last decade (especially that of Anselm Kiefer, which sometimes seems to falsify the monumental in the very act of trying to convince us of its authenticity).

In fact, however physically large some of Gottlieb’s canvases are, their grandiosity is achieved through internal scale, rather than through the gimmicky sublime effect created by putting a huge object in a huge space, a habitual practice of many artists today (e.g., Julian Schnabel and Jessica Stockholder, to mention only two). Gottlieb’s paintings are remarkably self-contained, virtually hermetic. The oscillation between geometrical and gestural poles, not unlike that between positive and negative charges, generates a credible electricity. The atmospherics seem authentic, and each painting manages to communicate an experience of inevitability, where energy seems as fated as form. If Gottlieb always came across as a bit too comfortable with his Abstract Expressionism, traditionalizing its newness (to play on the irony inherent in Harold Rosenberg’s notion of the tradition of the new), his work seems ultimately to escape academicization. For all their ready recognizability, his forms remain unexpected and surprisingly eloquent.

Donald Kuspit