New York

Adolph Gottlieb

There’s supposed to be a moment of conversion in the careers of Abstract Expressionists. For Adolph Gottlieb, it comes in 1957, when he studies his “Imaginary Landscapes” and decides to get rid of everything except the orbs floating above the horizon, thereby arriving at the format of his landmark painting, Burst. Critics like to isolate these moments of conversion because they reduce the messy narrative of an artist’s career to one epochal discovery. In Gottlieb’s case, the great discovery lies in the perfect synthesis of Color Field painting and gestural abstraction in a single canvas.

Fortunately, this drive toward narrative purity is disrupted by the craving for novelty. We want new pictures to look at, and new things to see in old pictures. In Gottlieb’s case, the process of revisionism began in the artist’s lifetime, when a 1968 retrospective of his work was divided into two parts: His “Pictographs” of the ’40s were shown at the Guggenheim, and his later works were shown at the Whitney. Since Gottlieb’s death in 1974, the “Pictographs” have attracted increasing attention. A 1994 exhibition, organized by the Gottlieb Foundation and drawn primarily from its collection, focused exclusively on them.

“Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition” also consists of pictures from the foundation’s holdings, and was organized by Sanford Hirsch, its executive director. Under these circumstances, there is always a risk that an exhibition will contain mostly second-rate works—what was left over after all the good stuff got sold. Gottlieb, however, seems to have hung on to many of his best pictures.

As the current exhibition demonstrates, Gottlieb started out with a typical mix of 1930s sources. Particularly notable is the influence of Giorgio de Chirico and his followers, such as Filippo de Pisis, who called for a mythic art that would overcome the alienation of modern society. Echoing these metaphysical painters, Gottlieb and Rothko proclaimed in a 1943 letter to the New York Times that their paintings were not mere abstractions but “a poetic expression of the essence of the myth.” What they had in mind, of course, was nothing so crude as legible narrative. Gottlieb’s “Pictographs” placed simplified faces, eyes, mouths, breasts, and hands—sometimes augmented by archaic signs such as fish—within a gridlike lattice. His repeated invocation of the Oedipus myth suggests that he thought of eyes as a symbol of tragic curiosity and self-knowledge. But there is no consistent symbolism to the pictures: The array of signs evokes a pleasurable shiver of open-ended meaning.

The real breakthrough in Gottlieb’s work comes quietly, in 1951, with the painting Sentinel. Here, the grid retreats to the lower left corner while a towering black form advances from the right like a golem. The signs within the grid are shrunken, almost typographically concise, but the eye has swollen and floated free. Filled with an orange stain, it is simultaneously the bloody orbit of Oedipus and the oblate disk of the setting sun. Once Gottlieb has isolated the form of the eye-sun and decided to place it above the remnant of the grid, his pictures move rapidly toward their classic configuration. In the “Imaginary Landscapes” of the early ’50s, multiple orbs hover in the sky above a dense soup of symbols. The grid has dissolved, lingering only in the straight line of the horizon and the edges of the canvas. The pictures are a weird mixture of Star Wars (the twin suns of Tatooine) and Anselm Kiefer (fragments of poetry littering the dark earth).

Finally, in the “Burst” pictures of 1958, the field of symbols in the lower half of the picture contracts into a swarm of gestural marks, balanced against a single ovoid above. Gottlieb reverses the usual cosmological symbolism that depicts the sun as a generative force bringing life to the dead earth. On the contrary, in his pictures it is the terrestrial sphere that pulses with creative energy, while the sun is a morbid, glowering presence.

There turns out to be no dramatic moment of conversion in Gottlieb’s career, no definitive point where he leaves behind metaphysical painting and arrives at Abstract Expressionism. What there is instead is a moment of contraction: Gottlieb takes everything he’s achieved in painting and squeezes it into a ball. These pictures correspond uncannily to the Kabbalistic doctrine of tsimtsum. In the sixteenth century, the rabbis of Safed argued that the creation of the universe took place through an emanation of divine light that was, simultaneously, an act of divine speech. In the beginning was the sign. But in order for this emanation to occur, the sphere of the divine had first to contract. As Gershom Scholem writes, “[I]t is God’s withdrawal into Himself that first creates a pneumatic, primordial space . . . and makes possible the existence of something other than God.” Floating within the primordial space of the blank canvas, Gottlieb’s “Bursts” look backward to this moment of creation, and forward to the heat-death of the universe. The rest is history.

“Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition,” on view through March 2, was organized by the IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia, Spain (where it opened), and the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York.

Pepe Karmel is associate professor in the department of fine arts at New York University. His book Picasso and the Invention of Cubism will be published this spring by Yale University Press.