New York

Adolph Gottlieb

Pace Wildenstein

A pictograph is a kind of visual morpheme (like a hieroglyph), at once diagrammatic, imagistic, and “graphic.” In the paintings of Adolph Gottlieb, pictographs range from geometric squiggles to letters to schematic body parts, each a sort of two- dimensional “poetic object” that he lines up like an object in a cabinet of curiosities. There is a sense of controlled clutter, as the structure of the grid is used to impose a semblance of order on a chaos of emotions. The works are small, which adds to their intimate feel, and the forms are invariably symbolic, although they also stand on their own as intriguing shapes. Some paintings are brushier than others: One can’t help but wonder whether those made in the late ’40s were influenced by art informale. They also have an increasingly graffiti-like look, suggesting the influence of Jean Dubuffet and art brut.

While Gottlieb’s first pictographic canvas, Eyes of Oedipus, 1941, really saw him come into his own, it seems clear that the body of work to which the painting belongs is essentially a Surrealist spinoff: Just look at Max Ernst’s Oedipus Rex, 1922. It was standard Surrealist procedure to refer to Freud, and through Freud to Sophocles, and through Sophocles to primitive emotions, perverse relationships, and ancient myths. The really interesting thing about Gottlieb’s rendering of Oedipus—he returned to the subject numerous times between 1941 and 1945—is that the artist concentrates on the mythical character’s eyes. (Oedipus blinded himself when he finally “saw” who he was having sex with, his mother.) Eyes, seeing and unseeing, recur throughout Gottlieb’s pictographs, in a variety of facial contexts. Three examples—Reflection, 1941, The Enchanted Ones, 1945, and Vigil, 1948—pertain to problems of “seeing,” including seeing “the light in the darkness” and seeing strange (i.e. modern) works of art.

What is so important about Oedipus’s eyes? From a psychoanalytic point of view, his self-blinding was a symbolic castration. He punished himself for breaking the incest barrier even as he blinded himself for seeing what he couldn’t believe he saw. The ancient Greeks had a fine-tuned sense of irony: Oedipus’s insight is inseparable from his loss of vision. Gottlieb argues that artists—he in particular—are “seers.” The artist sees things others can’t and displays those things as visual riddles. The Surrealists specialized in enigmas, and Gottlieb was a latter-day authority. Just as the Surrealists made miragelike enigmas in what they experienced as the wasteland of the everyday world, their artistic descendents manufactured enigmas in the actual wasteland that the world became during the violence of World War II. Gottlieb’s Oedipus is the symbol of a world’s “descent into darkness” (as he put it in the title of a 1947 painting), the blindness of the mad artist-seer.

Donald Kuspit