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Adolph Gottlieb’s Black Sun.

Cosmic Road Signs
By Jeanette Fintz

Adolph Gottlieb

The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, through Dec. 11

Adolph Gottlieb’s paintings from 1956 that are now on view at the Hyde Collection strive to articulate the philosophical position of the artist within the cosmic hierarchy of heaven and earth. I say “the artist,” not “the man,” because Gottlieb’s work from this period documents his process of choosing the role of intermediary between these discreet strata, receiving and transmitting clues to the meaning of existence as he experienced it. Quite a responsibility, and pretty grandiose themes, but not atypical of the period. He and his colleagues, Rothko, Pollock and Barnett Newman were driven to create art that can be described as “Monadic.” To paraphrase William Seitz’s definition of the term in the catalogue essay: art that attempts to correlate an artist’s technical and physical approach with his/her subject matter, personal attitude and ethics. I will emphatically state that if the soul could write, it might resemble some of Gottlieb’s inspired calligraphic gouache drawings in this exhibition.

For Gottlieb, 1956 was a pivotal and productive year: He began leaving behind his successful pictograph series and started to reach for bolder and more monumental means to embody his ideas. Enjoying the group of gouache drawings in this exhibition is a good way to enter into his world, as they show a progression away from a flat schematic space to a lyrical, though reductive, landscape orientation. The graceful and yearning strokes in these spontaneous pieces—such as Three Clouds, Ascent and Waves—communicate an awe before nature, but also a corresponding desire to distill meaning that can be conveyed through symbol and sign, tools within the province of man. It is evident from them that Gottlieb sacrificed much of his natural hand to achieve a pictorial language that strove to communicate grandeur equal to his themes.

In the stark, heat-infused Imaginary Landscapes and the reductive Unstill Lives (actually flattened, cropped figures), Gottlieb purposefully strips down his means. The most ambitious and emotive of these paintings is Groundscape. In it he segregates zones, using the horizon to limn a platonic realm of quiet idealized shapes: hovering circle, square and round-edged rectangle, above an earth swarming with voices, a calligraphic hum of texture, all compressed in the rectangle below. The gestures feel like prayers that never quite ascend to their target. Compared with the lift and flow in the calligraphic landscape drawings, their submersion seems almost cruel.

The horizon creates a compositional tension that is emphasized by dark-light contrast, but is balanced by congregating black strokes in the lower zone. Jux taposition of contrasting elements is a device essential to Gottlieb’s philosophical position, and one encounters it often in his choice of shiny and matte paint surfaces, soft and hard edges, high-low and warm-cool contrasts.

The majestic From Midnight Till Dawn and Descending Arrow are vertical exceptions to the rest of the works, and the most minimal. They employ strong black graphic elements and pictographs to construct messages from an apparently divine source. The monochromatic From Midnight segregates one layer of washy blue containing dancing pictographs at its top, from a big J shape that floats on a more solidly painted plane of blue. The J engages the negative space just enough to capture tension. Its significance is cryptic, though the word Yahweh—Hebrew for the one God—kept coming up in my mind. Descending Arrow is opposite in color and weight, having an adobe-red color and opacity. There is a semblance of horizon in chalky-white dry brush. The tip of a black arrow touches the bottom, emanating from above, where a black five-sided figure floats. It is itself constructed from units that look like arrows. It’s as if Gottlieb were designing cosmic road signs.

These paintings are exceptions to the dominance of works that declare the horizon as their most significant feature. Rothko’s late paintings’ insistent and inevitable horizon comes to mind, though Gottlieb’s heaven has a life-giving, if scorching, sun and some companionable neo-Platonist clouds in its firmament. The motifs that appear in their work, particularly those featuring an “absolute” in the form of an enforced spatial delineation, show Rothko, Newman and Gottlieb sharing in the attempt to touch existential truth.

Pushing the contrasts, Gottlieb eventually arrived at the precursor of his “burst” paintings in Black, Blue, Red, with an above-and-below motif of one red splotch and one black splotch, vertically mirroring each other: source and afterimage, shadow and light. The black-and-red suns repeated in all these pieces refer back to the sun-drenched Southwest landscape that provided Gottlieb with resources for his pictographs. It seems to have worked its head-clearing magic in this work as well.

The starkness of that terrain’s too-bright light evoked in these pieces brings edges into sharp focus, and there is no corner for a solitary pilgrim to take refuge. The body itself is refashioned into a crossroads in Gottlieb’s Unstill Life figures. Two red-and-yellow pictographs, perhaps symbolizing mind and heart, sparkle out of flat maplike torsos in White Figure. In the gouache version, this repeated motif possesses six splayed-out limbs: two legs, two arms, head and genitals. In the painting there are seven branching paths. Perhaps the additional path is one for the soul.

In addition to having an elegantly produced catalogue with enlightening essays contributed by co-organizers Sanford Hirsch, Erin Budis Coe and Randall Suffolk, the Hyde is offering interested viewers an opportunity to hear Sanford Hirsch, executive director of the Esther and Adolph Gottlieb Foundation, give a comprehensive lecture on Gottlieb’s life and work on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 2 PM at the Hyde Collection.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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