New York

Adolph Gottlieb

These paintings from the last twenty years of Adolph Gottlieb's life-beginning with Black, Blue, Red, 1956, supposedly the first of his signature “Bursts” (but in fact a rather messy, hesitant version of the motif), and ending with the deceptively simple Max-Minimal, painted in 1973, a year before his death—raise the question of the late style of a modem artist and more particularly that of an Abstract Expressionist. The cliché is that the modern artist makes an innovative breakthrough in his youth and then lives off the result for the rest of his life, refining it into a brand image. This is another way of saying he loses his power to the inevitable entropy that overtakes a short-lived creative “burst.” After all, how long can creative energies last, especially for artists who think of themselves not as buildmg on tradition but rather as single-handedly founding their own?

According to Rudolf Amheim, “The increase of entropy is due to two quite different kinds of effect; on the one hand, a striving toward simplicity, which will promote orderliness and the lowering of the level of order, and on the other hand, disorderly destruction. Both lead to tension reduction.” The two mainstays of modern art—the conformist grid, which conveys the passive “emptiness of homogeneity,” and the unregulated gesture, which promotes the myth of nonconformist spontaneity—are both subliminally entropic, however formally novel they may once have seemed despite their presence among the devices of traditional art. For Amheim, Minimalist seriality, with its leveling—not to say trivializing—of complexity, is the climactic example of the modern tendency toward entropy through simplicity, as expressionistic “happenings,” erupting with “catabolic destruction,” exemphfy the more dramatic entropic pole of modern art.

This entropic tendency applies to the individual artist's career as well. The only way he can move beyond the breakthroughs of his youth—in Gottlieb's case, the quasi-expressionistic “Pictographs” of the '40s and early '50s, with their gloss of mystery—is to make the ironic best of his submission to entropy by generating tension between its geometric and expressionist forms. In other words, a successful late style will develop the “lateness” of the art to which the artist had devoted his youth. This is what Gottlieb did, sometimesemphasizingsimplicity;the geomorphic shape is in effect an isolated minimalist module, as One, Two, Three, 1964, makes clear. In two untitled paintings from 1968 this shape seems to represent a naive ideal. At other times gestural explosiveness comes to the fore, as in The Form of the Thing and especially in Tan Over Black, both 1958. In the latter the tan geomorphic shape pales next to the sublime majesty of the black explosion. Gottlieb invariably places the gestural burst below the geomorphicform, even when the burst becomes a tame Petaloid, 1962; this kind of juxtaposition suggests a heaven/hell metaphor—the ultimate unresolved tension. But toward the end the black hole of hell changes, becoming Two Bars, 1971, one luminous white, one earth brown, in a serene equilibrium, and disappears altogether in Max-Minimal, as though Gottlieb finally hoped to achieve artistic heaven without a hell.

But the entropic point is that Gottlieb was recapitulating—rather conspicuously—the history of Janus-headed abstraction, from Malevich to Rothko, from Kandinsky to Pollock. And also of modernist painting, for the flat plane of the atmospheric color field is always vividly evident. The burst and the geometry, while partaking of each other—the burst concentrates into self-containment, the geometry becomes gesturalized—hold the flatness, even nail it down. The illusion of depth created by their symmetrical contrast is never more than tentative—that is, it is unsustainable. What looks like a return to roots is in fact a sophisticated decadence. Gottlieb sang a swan song of modernist abstraction, which ends with a geomorphic whimper as well as a gestural bang. Nonetheless, he made the creative best of entropy by showing that it can be elegant.

Donald Kuspit