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[The artist’s] values have to center around creativity and nothing else. Therefore, to paint well, to express one’s own uniqueness, to express something of the uniqueness of one’s own time, to relate to the great traditions of art, to communicate with a small but elite audience, these are the satisfactions of the artist. - Adolph Gottlieb
Born in New York City in 1903, Adolph Gottlieb was a founding member of The Ten, a group devoted to abstract art, and he became a major exponent of Abstract Expressionism whose painting style is linked to Marc Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. A major theme in his painting was the challenge for humans to resolve dualities within the universe, the pressure of opposites: male and female, creation and destruction, order and chaos.
He studied at the Art Students League with Social Realists John Sloan and Robert Henri and, in the 1920s, in Paris where he worked at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Returning to New York in 1923, he developed an interest in primitive sculpture.
From 1937 to 1939, Gottlieb was a WPA mural artist in Arizona, which influenced his subsequent series of works described as “pictographic”. This occupied him for the remainder of his life, establishing his place among the masters of Abstract Expressionism. In the early pictographs, the canvas is usually divided into compartments containing forms that might be figures, faces, animals or just signs and symbols centred in each space. Frequently, the presence of an eye fixes the spectator with a haunting stare. These paintings, dating from the early 1940s to the early 1950s, have a surrealistic character. They seem to draw upon a primitive mythology that embraces humanity's universal past. For Gottlieb, his time in the Arizona desert marked a transition from an imaginary, expressionist landscapes to highly personal still-lifes of desert plants such as gourds and peppers.
Then, in the mid-1950s, breaking away from the convention of the pictograph, Gottlieb opened his approach to filling the picture space. While some suggestion of compartmentalization continues, a period of new imagery begins called “imaginary landscapes” in which the canvas is divided into two sections that contrast and, at times, conflict, with one another. Gottlieb’s polarization of time, space, and history matured in 1957 with the development of his most renowned abstract style, the “bursts”. These works emphasize dramatic, monumental conflict, yet unity.
They are pictorial depictions of tension, antithesis, and difference in a bipolar world. Gottlieb’s “bursts” capture, in the manipulations of colour, shape, placement and stroke, the paradigm of strife and struggle of a century of war and conflict. They thus intensify the elementary contrasts of colour and form, painterliness and shape, above and below. In their way, they resolve the variety of contrasts that made up his “pictographs” by simplifying and enlarging the elements.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Gottlieb’s work was singular in its simple, elemental, archetypal, dramatic play. More than most Abstract Expressionists, he summarized as dramatic strife the history and thought of American and interwar culture. In his art, the spectator sees the working out of the unconscious feelings, fears, and experiences of a monumental generation in an epic period in Western civilization. Few captured it as well as Adolph Gottlieb.