The sculpted sign
The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind, certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.
(Adolph Gottlieb in “From The Ides of Art: The Attitudes of Ten Artists on their Art and Contemporaneousness,” in Tiger’s Eye, vol.1, n°2, December 1947).
When the permanent collection of the Musée d’art Moderne et d’art Contemporain was first constructed, considerable importance was placed on American abstraction of the 1960s—the second generation of the New York School—and on Minimal Art. Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Frank Stella were viewed as a foundation over which important public deposits (like Ellsworth Kelly), or private donations (Donald Judd and Dan Flavin) were layered. This strategy has permitted the Museum to help the public—the object of its basic mission—to understand the mechanisms that led up to those forms of expression specific to American art.
One recent exhibition presented works on paper by the first generation of the New York School in the Museum’s Contemporary Gallery. The show, which was immensely successful, was made possible by the kind cooperation of the deceased artists’ heirs and assigns. The artists were the most famous exponents of Abstract Expressionism: Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, David Smith, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jack Tworkov, Richard Pousette-Dart.
Today we have the opportunity to present a particular chapter in the work of one of these figures, Adolph Gottlieb, thanks to the support of, and the loan of work from, the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation of New York. After the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain in Nice, the exhibition will travel to the Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. This will be the first solo exhibition of Adolph Gottlieb in a public institution in France. The Galerie Rive Droite in Paris—and one must acknowledge the insight of Jean Lacarde in this connection—gave the artist a one-man show in 1959.
Gottlieb as painter
Paradoxically, just two members of the first generation of the New York School were born in New York City: Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. At the age of 17 Gottlieb embarked without a passport, and almost without a penny, for Europe, to experience for himself both the classical works of art in museums and the newest contemporary painting and sculpture. During the six months he lived in Paris he went to the Louvre every day; among his recollections from that time was seeing the 1921 Picasso Three Musicians (now in MoMA) when it was first exhibited. As might be expected, his early works as a painter resemble those of many young American artists of the time, showing the influence of the giants of Western Modernism. Gottlieb was a staunch Modernist and internationalist from the outset, however, and pursued his own path. In the 1930s, he and his friend Mark Rothko were engaging in formal discussions about how to forge an American art that would be on a par with the art of Europe.
Obliged by his wife’s health to live in a dry, salubrious climate, Gottlieb moved to the Catalina Mountains of Arizona from September 1937 to June 1938. The proximity of Native American tribes and their ephemeral artistic expressions were a source of inspiration to him. He wrote his colleagues about the great collection of local pottery and weaving he saw at the Arizona State Museum. He was greatly attracted by the art of archaic cultures, which he had studied since the early 1920s and which he collected after 1935. In many of the paintings made after this experience, particularly the group of works of the 1940s he labeled “Pictographs,” Gottlieb used an all-over technique to inscribe multiple figurative forms in compartmentalized compositions whose titles displayed unmistakable connections with Graeco-Roman antiquity: Oedipus,1941, or The Enchanted Ones, 1945. Within this group of paintings, Gottlieb fused images, styles, and techniques associated with every form of visual art with which he was familiar. The flat Modernist picture-plane could contain the spiritual richness of tribal Africa, classical Greece, and modern Europe at one time.
Since the early 1940s, the presence in New York of European émigrés, including several French Surrealists, André Breton, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, as well as Salvador Dali and Matta, etc., brought international Modernism even closer home for the emerging artist. Gottlieb became one of the “mythmakers,” sharing the formal concerns of Pollock, Motherwell, Baziotes and Rothko in the early forties, and using the European Surrealists’ experience of automatism to different ends.
The inclination toward abstraction evinced by that art which is called primitive despite its high spirituality, led him in the early fifties to evolve toward an extreme simplification of the mark. From that time on he abandoned figuration for a set of simple forms, almost a sort of script, which he first used to fill the boxes of his structured grids, then developed more broadly over pictorial fields divided into areas of color.
His compositions of the fifties are sometimes horizontal, forming landscapes that present earth and sky as a clash of strong vibrant colors, and sometimes vertical, their inherent dynamism enhanced by their verticality and by a propensity for larger scale. At the bottom of his canvases, in what can be considered the terrestrial part of the landscape, he inscribes a series of dark, thick marks—large commas, half-circles, circles, question marks, crosses, arrows—all made with rapid strokes of a brush thick with paint; these are the same marks with which he filled the compartments of his canvases from the forties. Above the horizon, one, two or three halo-ringed suns revolve. The viewer feels the élan of the painter’s body in the rapid scrawls and perceives the burning of the incandescent suns. The marks do not have a particular meaning; they simply express the verve of their author, the intrinsic force of painting without a readily identifiable referent. Toward 1958, he began to put “bursts” in the vertical paintings—explosions of form. A tuft of dark marks like a tangled ball of wool, the burst represents a confluence of tension, above which a ball of color surrounded by a sort of aura brings appeasement. It is an apparently simple motif concealing a complex meaning.
Six canvases from 1964 until 1973 show the growth of Gottlieb’s painting, which continued unabated in the last decade of his life, in spite of the fact that he suffered from paralysis after 1970. Signs 1965, Three Discs on Chrome Ground 1969 and Imaginary Landscape 1969 are “imaginary” landscapes in which the hues of the arid Arizona deserts appear. These are a manner to depict a mental universe in which a few patches of color, a few marks, inscribe a thought. One senses here a proximity to Miró’s works of the thirties. Tossing 1972 and Blue Ground 1973 are part of the last phase of Gottlieb’s painting. On the intense blue stage of Blue Ground the three clear-cut horizontal bars represent a return to the suprematism of Malevich. These canvases are included in the exhibition to introduce the artist’s sculptural work.
From painting to sculpture
Gottlieb’s specific script, the vigorously traced set of characters that he distributes throughout his painted oeuvre, as a leitmotiv, forms the basis of his sculpture. He takes these forms from the pictorial field and gives them materiality in space. His sculpture is the strict continuation of his painting.
Translated by Paul Blanchard