In June of 1943, three unknown New York artists sent a properly combative painters' manifesto to The New York Times.All three men are remembered now for their almost-pure abstractions. But in 1943, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko and their buddy, Barnett Newman, had something else in mind:
"There is no such thing," they wrote, "as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless."
Though his champions may deny it, the painter Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) adhered to that position until the day he died.
Too often we've been told that Gottlieb is important because he helped drive New York art toward the high ground of abstraction. Such narrowminded praise does Gottlieb a disservice. He may be best remembered for the structural devices -- the floating sun-like discs, the explosive earth-bound scrawls -- that he invented in the '50s, but his forms are merely forms. It is true that he helped wed the coolness of the field to the fire of the gestural, but Gottlieb was no theorist. He painted from the heart. It is the subject of his art, its tragic, timeless content, that lends a thread of unity to the rich and many-chaptered Gottlieb retrospective that is now on exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Gottlieb, from the start, was a seeker, an explorer. "Art," he wrote, "is an adventure into an unknown world." He sought that world, at first, in New York's crowded streets. Before he had turned 20, he would seek its secrets in the galleries of Paris. Later he would seek it out in Arizona's deserts, in Indian and archaic art, in myths and mysteries and dreams. What he found he painted. All of Gottlieb's paintings -- there are 124 in this retrospective -- are to some degree landscapes of his thought.
His courage was, at first, more impressive than his talent. Gottlieb, all his life, was a dogged sort of artist. The drawing of his early work is bold but rather crude. In retrospect we see that his originality was for many years less great than his integrity. He eventually achieved the heights, but the ladder that he climbed was one that other artists built.
Gottlieb borrowed openly from the anti-academic painters of the "Ashcan School" (among his early teachers were Robert Henri and John Sloan). It would later take as much from his close friend Milton Avery, from Picasso, Dali, Jung. It is not easy to imagine another retrospective that could tell us more than this one does about the many paths that New York's painters followed on their way to abstract art. While other abstract expressionists jumped into abstraction, Gottlieb got there step by step.
The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, the zipped fields of Barnett Newman and the floating atmospheres of Rothko were first painted in New York in the last years of the '40s, at a time when Gottlieb was still filling in the grids of his eerie "pictographs" with fragments of his dreams.
The portentous titles of these portent-laden pictures -- "Eyes of Oedipus" (1941), "Nostalgia for Atlantis" (1944), "Expectation of Evil" (1945), "Oracle" (1947), "Labyrinth No. 3" (1954) -- suggest the tomb, the womb and the antique myths described by Freud and Jung. So, too, do the scrawled images -- the crosses and the fangs, the spirals and the eyes -- that fill their small compartments. These paintings conjure up a prehistoric past; their colors are the earth tones of the desert and the cave.
It was not until the '50s, when those symbols became gestures, when their containing grids began to soften and withdraw, that Gottlieb took the giant step toward his famous "bursts." Those grand, ambitious paintings sealed his reputation. They also may have dimmed it. For paintings just as large, as striking and abstract -- as critics fond of "breakthroughs" were delighted to point out -- had been made a few years earlier by Pollock and by Rothko. Today that hardly matters. Maybe Gottlieb did not get there first. But he got there on his own.
His paintings from the start were energized by conflict. In the student works displayed here -- "Grand Concourse" (1927) or "South Ferry Waiting Room" (1929) -- the battle is between the sort of New York subject matter explored by Sloan and Henri and summarizing rawness of European expressionism. In the half-frontal and half-profile "Portrait -- Blue Bandana (1937), the dual viewpoints of Picasso fight the wit of Avery. Avery contests with the clocks of Dali in a 1938 still life called "Alarm Clock" (the numerals of Gottlieb's clock read "12, 1, 4, 01, 3, 7."). A conflict just as sharp -- between surrealism and abstraction -- activates the pictographs that he began to paint in 1941. The flat grids of the pictographs owe as much to Mondrian as their snakes and fangs and eggs owe to the books of Jung.
The big and handsome pictures that Gottlieb painted in the '60s are comparably conflicted.Though the competing symbols of his early works have by now assumed an optimum simplicity, they have not lost their power. The hovering discs above and the gestural scrawls below are pregnant with suggestions of good-and-evil, earth-and-sky, the active-and-the-static, anxiety-and-peace. The dialogues that they conduct bring these works to life.
They should be seen, as they are here, not singly, but in groups. For though their format recurs, no two are alike. Some are threatening, some jaunty, some suggest the desert, some the open sky. Gottlieb, who when young was Milton Avery's disciple, became at the end one of Abstract Expressionism's finest colorists.
"I have changed my mind," he wrote in 1938, "about the idea of Milton's -- as he says, 'don't try to paint a masterpiece.' It seems to me now that that is the very thing to do -- try to make a masterpiece." He did not succeed always, but his failures aren't dishonorable. The Gottlieb we encounter in this retrospective was an honest man, a pro.
The show was organized by Sanford Hirsch and Mary Davis McNaughton in association with the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Inc. It will travel after closing here June 6.