New York

Adolph Gottlieb

Knoedler & Company

It’s easy to forget the painterly energy that went into Adolph Gottlieb’s early pictographs: in these abstract morphemes of meaning, arranged according to eccentric grids and intended to be read as much as seen, one tends to remember the imagery rather than the bravura with which it is painted. A recent exhibit of works from 1941 to 1951 offered an opportunity to revisit their complexities. Red Portrait, 1944, is not only an intricate Picassoid construction—flat planes making up a face that is simultaneously profile and frontal as well as transparent, permeable to the red ground—but a vigorously executed surface full of sweeping strokes and gritty texture, a patchwork of red and black with white triangular accents that gains an inner life from the excited handling. Even Pictograph, 1942, with its smoother surface, gains an impacted charge from the subtle flow and density of the paint.

Still, the question has always been what the pictographs say. Once one begins to deal with them as attenuated, even schematic figures and parts of figures, surreally combined, one reaches a vague conclusion that something about the “human mystery” is being communicated. Perhaps that uncertainty is just as well: however intriguing to us the hieroglyphs that were clearly Gottlieb’s model appear, the Egyptians who used them were, after all, talking about mundane things (including the afterworld, which they took for granted). The passage of time has worn away the compelling portentousness of Gottlieb’s signs and symbols. The theatrical aura of insight cast by the abundance of “third eyes” seems self-consciously de profundis, almost cartoonish; such images look like so much pictorial ballast these days.

Gottlieb’s arrangements have an allover quality, but they remain conventionally oriented according to horizontal and vertical coordinates, conspicuously so, for example, in Man and Arrow #2, 1950. Like their pictorial character, this conservative compositional tendency is more abstract symbolist than AbEx. Gottlieb responded to what he called “times [that] are out of joint” by making ostensibly disjointed images into orderly wholes, assembling fragments into mosaics of familiar human meaning. Though he thought he was expressing “the neurosis which is our reality,” the stable structure and integration of symbolic and formal opposites in the work undermine that intent. Instead the pictographs resolve neurotic conflict into eloquent pictorial tension, suggesting that the painter was more inclined to heal than to mystify suffering; they are thus less disturbing and perhaps less emotionally truthful than Gottlieb imagined. Ultimately, it is not as psychodramas but as dramatic graphic gestures that these works remain convincing, expressively resonant, and surprisingly moving.

Donald Kuspit