Perhaps it’s because I’m a boomer who came of age in the 1960s, but to my way of thinking there’s nothing quite so satisfying, so thrilling, as a great Abstract-Expressionist exhibit — particularly when that exhibit combines paintings and sculpture.
Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, on view through Feb. 17 at the Akron Art Museum, is just such an exhibit.
The sculptures are magnificent to behold, the paintings even more so. But best of all, this exhibit captures the essence of an era, and it does so with little-known works and late-career paintings that reveal the artist’s interest in gravity, suspension and motion.
Gottlieb (1903-1974) was part of the first-generation Abstract-Expressionist movement that included Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and the sculptor David Smith, who was to have an important influence on Gottlieb’s own sculpture.
Sharing an interest in non-Western art forms, he and Rothko issued a joint manifesto in 1943, published in the New York Times, as a response to a critic’s assessment of their recent work.
Their now-famous statement included these claims: “… Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks … We favor simple expression of complex thought … We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
Gottlieb made art that was central to the development of mid-20th-century painting in America. He was one of the few among his colleagues who created both two- and three-dimensional works.
Surprisingly, his sculpture has rarely been seen in the United States. This exhibit, organized by the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, is a needed correction to that omission.
Born in 1903 in New York City, Gottlieb left high school to work in his father’s stationery business. He took art classes under John Sloan and attended lectures of Robert Henri.
At age 17, Gottlieb, along with a high school friend, decided to go abroad. He lived in Paris for six months where he attended sketch classes and visited the Louvre Museum every day. He remained in Europe for another year, traveling to Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Vienna and Prague.
In 1923 he returned to New York, where he shared visits to museums and galleries with his friend Barnett Newman. Gottlieb’s desire to be an artist led him to study at several schools. His works from this era vacillate between the influence of Cezanne and that of American Scene painting.
The paintings he created in the 1940s and ’50s broke with the European art he had so admired, and he opened many doors for other artists.
Gottlieb’s 50-year career is marked by his continuous search for originality, independence and a desire to radically change American art.
In 1956 Gottlieb developed his signature “burst” motif, which he created by pouring paint onto a flat canvas on the floor and using a squeegee to push the paint out from the center. He said, “I try, through colors, forms and lines, to express intimate emotions.”
While his foray into sculpture was brief (1968-1970), Gottlieb challenged the distinction between painting and sculpture. He used the tools of his painting career — touch, visual balance, surface quality and more — to make his sculptures a vehicle for emotional expression.
In a flurry of creativity in 1968 and 1969 he made 10 small and three larger works, mostly after cardboard maquettes. Only three were realized in large-scale form; the rest are small or medium-sized pieces that can sit on a pedestal or table.
Gottlieb’s sculptures are based on the contrast of his early work of pictographs, and on his abstractions known as Imaginary Landscapes, according to the essay by foundation Executive Director Sanford Hirsch in the exhibit catalog.
These sculptures are achieved by creating flat shapes that are then notched into place at right angles to one another. The placement of the pieces will vary in the angles at which they are joined.
Only with one version of a work called Arabesque does Gottlieb “dispense with the notched planar pictorial platform in favor of a scriptive support that takes over the function of holding up his forms and symbols,” writes Hirsch.
“The sculptures represent a panoply of Gottlieb’s symbols and forms — stars, circles, buzz saw bursts and curvilinear fragments — form signs that are painted in one or more different primary colors such as yellow and black.
“The color differentiation in the sculpture is kept to a minimum to avoid an explosion of polychrome and to hold the shapes in tight contrast and conflict,” writes Hirsch.
These are works that define an era and are defined by it.
Akron Art Museum Senior Curator Ellen Rudolph makes that clear through an adjoining and extremely helpful exhibit in which works from the period, taken from the museum’s collection, put Gottlieb’s contributions in context.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of great cultural exploration and expansion, and not just in the visual arts. Often these experiments seem to spill over from one art form to another.
There are even moments when one can imagine correspondences between Gottlieb’s images and the writings of authors such as John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner, particularly Williams, who was as fond as Gottlieb of using symbols and archetypes that seemed to refer to ancient cultures.
This is a marvelous, handsome and hugely satisfying exhibit, from just about any angle one might choose to view it.
Accompanying the exhibit is the film DOTS (1940), by Norman McLaren, who made it after visiting the Guggenheim and seeing paintings that inspired him to make this experimental film — the first of many beautiful abstract linear films.
There seem to be no special programs, other than the one held Oct. 26 prior to opening night with Hirsch giving a talk, which is a shame, as these might draw more viewers in to see an exhibit that has been a spectacularly successful cooperative effort between the foundation, the Akron Art Museum and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where the show will make its second and final stop.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or firstname.lastname@example.org.