Adolph Gottlieb’s art has only recently emerged from the control of the ideas of the fifties generation of artists and critics in America, that is, mostly the followers of the figure painter Willem de Kooning. That generation “domesticated” or watered down Abstract Expressionism, an art of World War II, to landscape, nature, and personal subjectivity for their own sake as its subjects. (The work was actually mythic and ritualistic in its semi-figurative and “abstract” phases.) That is true of the artists’ sculpture, too. It too is seen as those everyday topics, including that of the leading sculptor of\ the day, David Smith. But Abstract Expressionist sculpture is as original as their painting, none more so than Gottlieb’s. His sculpture is unique in its representation of violent conflict. Although few in number, the sculpture of the Abstract Expressionist painters is startling and hard to imitate by fellow artists. In this it is following the tradition of sculpture in modern times.
In the twentieth century, sculpture has changed radically from carving, and modeling and metal casting, its traditional methods. For thousands of years, sculptural materials and techniques remained mostly consistent. Even the most advanced of modern sculptors who had a profound effect, August Rodin and Constantine Brancusi, were carvers and modelers. To be sure, the former extended emotional and symbolic range and the latter the materials (wood) and surfaces of nineteenth and early twentieth century sculpture beyond anything done before. In the modern tradition, the entry of painters into the field of sculpture had a profound effect, for painting had changed from representation to abstract invention. Thus painters created new forms in their painting and sculpture that seemingly intervened in even the new modern tradition of Rodin and Brancusi. Artists such as Joan Miro and Max Ernst crafted original sculpture that arose from their figural painting and from prehistoric art and myth. In so doing, they realized new, semi-figurative forms that had no precedent as sculpture. Figurative works such as Ernst’s Moon Mad (1944) or Miro’s Figurine (1956) were unique and made a contribution to modern art but had few progeny.
Pablo Picasso is an exception to this, one painter who did change sculpture, although he produced very little. Picasso began as a modeler in his occasional sculptures of the first decade of the twentieth century. Things began to change ca. 1909 when he and George Braque developed Cubism. Fernande (Head of a Woman) of 1909 (fig. 1) articulated Picasso’s new faceting of figural forms.
With the emergence of his and Braque’s cubism around 1910, modern art developed into first semi-abstraction and then collage. Collage offered a new way to build a form and it eventually offered new materials. The result was sculpture – first in cardboard and then in metal, such as Guitar of 1912 (fig. 2). Guitar .
It It changed everything. It was sculpture of an object, but it was pictorial in the sense of articulating the cubist space and forms of painting itself. Cubist sculpture also introduced the form and idea of new materials. And it defined a new way of building a sculpture – that is, by assembling parts.
Picasso’s cubist sculptures were unprecedented, so unprecedented that they took decades for their lessons to be absorbed. The sculpture that followed in its wake spawned a new school that tried to further those lessons. Sculptors such as Jacques Lipchitz (fig. 3),
Henri Laurens, Alexander Archipenko and others each played out parts of the new cubist concept: geometric shapes, overlapping planes, transparence, interstitial space and the like but they mostly did so in stone and bronze. In short, Picasso, alone among painters, truly upended sculpture. He was the exception, however, and not the rule. Painters have made contributions but few have changed modern trajectories.
The case is the same for Abstract Expressionist painters. Many made a few works of sculpture but their effect is debatable. Clyfford Still, for example, made some sculptures (fig. 4).
In the collections of the new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, these were recently discovered Figure four, for example, is an almost four-foot rising vertical figure made of wood. In keeping with Still’s painting, it echoes his tall, rising naturalistic shapes imitating the rising forms of the Native American mythic landscapes of the American West. Because Still’s sculpture was previously unknown, his work had no influence on other artists’ work, but as with painters' sculpture as a whole, his pieces realize his pictorial forms in three dimensions. Other color artists of Abstract Expressionism have a different record. No sculpture by Mark Rothko is presently known, but there are several by Barnett Newman, which we will discuss below.
The linear, or what are called Abstract Expressionist “gesture,” painters dabbled in sculpture, too. Jackson Pollock actually wanted to be a sculptor when he was young and studied it in the 1930s but he soon abandoned the ambition. He did keep it in mind, however, and later attempted some abstract sculptures in painted terracotta and papie mache.
One in particular consists of swirling, heaving planes and shapes evocative of the dominance of the motif of motion and flow that underlies his and all Abstract Expressionist work (fig. 5). The work is not very successful – he made the right choice in choosing painting over sculpture – but it is very typical of painters’ sculpture, seeking to manifest his pictorial thought in three dimensions. Of all Abstract Expressionism, Pollock’s pictorial form is the most difficult to realize. It is rumored that he left a sculpture, in covered chicken wire, outside at his home in Springs, Long Island. It seemingly disintegrated under the elements.
More successful as a linear sculptor was Willem de Kooning. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he began some figurative works in Rome and continued work on them and others in New York. However, they are very traditionally modeled with clay (fig. 6). As the critic Peter Schjeldahl noted: “De Kooning’s audacity, in the face of what now passes for the ‘issues’ of modern sculpture has been precisely to ignore them.”* De Kooning’s painterly imagery of wobbly figures – really dynamic, unstable figurative fields like Pollock’s – dominates his sculpture, too.
Of all the Abstract Expressionist painters, he seems to have produced the most sculpture but was nevertheless ultimately indifferent to sculptural ambition. He said “I never studied modeling or anything. I took it serious, and less serious. You know – the way it came out.”**
Barnett Newman followed the pictorial-into-sculpture tradition of modern Abstract Expressionist painters. In the early 1950s with Here I, Here II, and Here III
(fig. 7), he materialized the distinctive narrow bands of his syncopated color paintings. He called those bands “zips” and his sculptures present these forms standing forth by themselves. As with the sculptural work of the other painters, these sculptures make solid that which is ineffable. They are, on the one hand, a pictorial construction, on the other a unique realization as objects. Ironically, Newman had so narrowed his bands in some of his paintings (Outcry and The Wild of the early 1950s) that they seem to be objects on the wall as much as paintings. Unique among the painters, then, he made the sculptural pictorial as he did the pictorial sculptural. And unique among the Abstract Expressionist painters, his sculpture had an impact on the next decade where minimalist artists, mostly sculptors, transformed contemporary sculpture into geometric, rectilinear forms. Minimalist sculpture, however, avoided the spiritual and metaphysical expression of Newman’s rectilinear shapes, and made them cold and emotionless. Thus, the painter Newman had an effect on modern sculpture but at a price.
Adolph Gottlieb contributed further to the tradition of Abstract Expressionist painters’ sculpture. In a flurry of creativity in 1968 to 1969 he made ten small and three larger works mostly after cardboard maquettes. Gottlieb’s work is fully based on his paintings, both on the contrast of his early work of Pictographs and on his abstractions known as Imaginary Landscapes (fig. 8).
The first aspect of his approach was to incorporate the flat plane of the pictorial image. Thus, in most of Gottlieb’s sculpture, he employed a long, rectilinear plane as the base platform for his shapes. This plane realizes in three dimensions the implicit flatness of the abstract designs of the Imaginary Landscapes of the 1950s and 1960s. Their characteristic long, low pictorial plane is made concrete in Gottlieb's sculptures such as Petaloid, (fig. 9),
Two Arcs, (fig. 10)
Wall (fig. 11) and several others. Only with an Arabesque does Gottlieb dispense with the planar pictorial platform in favor of a scriptive support that takes over the function of holding up his forms and symbols (fig. 12).
In one Arabesque, the scriptive support is then given consistency by means of a unifying copper tone. Another Arabesque is entirely copper tone, scriptive platforms and symbols without the underlying linear plane. A third employs a gray script. Another exception is Untitled # 10, which is less like the Imaginary Landscapes and more like Burst of 1957 and later. It features the contrast of a base rectangle, a solid vertical rectangle and a circle in confrontation. Negative (fig. 13) is less straight rectangle than rounded, flat plane with symbols incised in it somewhat like his Pictographs.
Rising through and interpenetrating above the planar platform in most of his panoply of Gottlieb’s symbols and forms. Stars, circles, buzz saw bursts, and curvilinear fragments form signs painted in one or more different primary colors such as yellow and black. The color differentiation is kept to a minimum to avoid an explosion of polychrome and to hold the shapes in tight contrast – and conflict. Here the shapes cut into the bottom rectangle and work against one another, enacting Gottlieb’s “versus habit” that lay behind his entire work. Sharp changes in color and form; tight verticality and horizontality; contrasting scales of near and far and of flatness and depth, derive from his paintings. The forms create a sense of the mutable and the fragmentary in a graphic flux. Some works suggest the fragments of what was once whole. Pentimenti of early signs suggest vectors, not of forms but forces.
In his paintings, Gottlieb’s forms strive for a unity but find it impossible, instead resulting in a multiplicity in constant motion as in his paintings such as Duet. Fluidity – dynamism – is the fundamental form of Abstract Expressionism and of Gottlieb’s work as a whole, although it is often confused with surrealist automatism and small scale, if not trivial, existential making and doing for its own sake.
Gottlieb’s sculptures suggest a fierce dialog of moments of harmony and divisiveness. They imply the past, the present and the future. As with Mark Rothko’s fluctuating rectangles, Gottlieb’s work holds the tension of contrast and dissonance without synthesis of shape or of history. It is marked by diversity expressed as the contention of mobile, contrasting, and conflicting forces and shapes. There is an interweaving similar to his paintings. Just as the paintings suggest flow in all directions, so, too, do the sculptures, although in their materiality, they cannot ever be as dynamic and open as the painterly paintings. They do strive, however, especially the larger sculptures, for monumentality, for the power of the raw, battered and unfinished that underlies Abstract Expressionist diction. Ultimately, then, Gottlieb's sculptures, like his paintings deny unity, deny a single focus and deny a single, rational harmony. They are “all-over” – open, diverse, and contrasting heterogeneity, much more than the work of his colleagues or most sculpture. And they have a greater cosmic drama, with their almost-symbols of rough spheres, fragments, flotsam and the like. Gottlieb’s sculpture suggests a large-scale universe reflecting the living and imaginary experience of his war- haunted generation.
A final key is violence. Gottlieb’s sculptures such as the Petaloids contain jagged, aggressive fragments. Their composition – really their grammar of construction – is one of jutting, slicing, thrusting and the like in metal. There is a syntax of violent conflict, burst and criss crossing force and strife. His myth is not the dynamic figure but the imploding world. His color, too, is confrontational – strong oranges, yellows, blacks, and browns. The sharply cut and sawed cosmic circles in primary colors with uncomfortable edges suggest a world of fire, in today’s terms, a super nova. More than any other sculpture of the Abstract Expressionist painters, Gottlieb’s makes a threatening world real and tangible. Indeed, a few small sculptures such as another Petaloid are even more raw, concentrated and intimate than the bigger ones. One is reminded of his and Rothko’s famous remarks in a letter to the New York Times in 1943 that he is for large, simple shapes because they speak truth.
The irony for Abstract Expressionist painters was that their painting did impact and transform sculpture but it was not their distinctive sculpture that did it. Jackson Pollock’s painting, seen in a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1967 produced an immediate effect in the modern tradition of sculpture by modern practitioners. Pollock’s thin, gossamer linear fields made by working on the floor and “throwing” and “dripping,” produced the effect of highly original, major sculpture in a new generation. Sometimes called “painterly-sculpture” or “process,” the work and procedures of Richard Serra, (fig. 14)
Eva Hesse, (fig. 15)
Linda Bengalis and others dispense with the sculptural monolith and such traditional concerns as mass, structural order, finish and the like. Impacted by the Pollock exhibition these primarily sculptors threw molten metal as Pollock had thrown paint on the floor with arm action that was mistakenly called “gesture” or “action painting “ by critics following Hans Namuth’s photos of Pollock. Hesse literally strung together abstract webs in imitation of Pollock while Bengalis poured latex on the floor and piled it up in layers, again like Pollock. Keith Sonnier “gestured” with electric lines in his neon sculpture and Barry Le Va scattered piles of cloth or felt on the floor (fig. 16).
All of this sculpture suggests Pollock’s process, the very evanescence of change perhaps reaching a climax in the steam works of Robert Morris where clouds of steam faded away. To be sure, in the late 1950s Happenings made theater out of Pollock’s method, so much so that they were sometimes called “painters’ theater,” but the more significant work was the late 1960s painterly abstraction that dispensed with the sculptural static object entirely, adding a compelling chapter to contemporary art. Of course, like the meanings of Newman’s sculpture, Pollock‘s content was mostly ignored, too, by the new sculptors. However, the work was by sculptors and sculpture was changed much as it had been by Picasso. Abstract Expressionist painters’ sculpture thus found its truly transformative expression, transmuting sculpture and art for the foreseeable future.
It is regrettable the sculpture of Gottlieb and other Abstract Expressionists was fitful and thus not central to their effort but they were another generation. It is unlikely that the sculpture of Gottlieb and others could truly be imitated. It was part of the climate of crisis not seen since in the West. Gottlieb’s sculpture articulates and punctuates the brutal life of the early twentieth century. It is fortunate that we do not see its unprecedented tragic power again.
Fig. 1. Pablo Picasso Fernande (Head of a Woman) 1909. Bronze, 16 x 10 ¼ x 10 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fig. 2. Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1912. Sheet Metal and wire. 39 1/2 x 13 ¾ x 7 5/8T inhe Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Fig. 3. Jacques Lipchitz, Figure, 1915-6. Limestone, Tate Gallery, London.
Fig. 4. Clyfford Still, PS1, 1943. Wood, 28 in. Clyfford Still Estate, Clyfford Still Museum.
Fig. 5. Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1949-50. Ceramic, Dallas Museum of Art.
Fig. 6. Willem de Kooning, Seated Woman, 1969. 113 x 147 x 94 in. The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Fig. 7. Barnett Newman, Here III, 1965-66. Stainless and Cor-ten Steel. 123 7/8 x 23 ½ x 18 ub. 2012 The Barnett Newman Foundation.
Fig. 8. Adolph Gottlieb, Duet, 1962. Oil on canvas, 84 x 90 in.
Fig. 9. Adolph Gottlieb, Petaloid, 1968. Painted aluminum. 15 5/8 x 15 ½ x 6. In. Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.
Fig. 10. Adolph Gottlieb, Two Arcs, 1968. Painted aluminum, 26 ½ x 37 x
24 ¾. In. Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.
Fig. 11. Adolph Gottlieb, Wall. 1968 painted aluminum 26 ¼ x 40 5/8 x 24 in. Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.
Fig. 12. Adolph Gottlieb, Arabesque, 1969. Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.
Fig. 13. Adolph Gottlieb, Negative. 1968. Acrylic on cardboard , 7 ¼ x 17 ¾ x 4 ¾ in. Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation.
Fig. 14. Richard Serra, Splashing, 1968. Lead, 18 in. x 26 feet.
Fig 15. Eva Hesse, Untitled, (Rope Piece), 1970. Whitney Museum of Art.
Fig. 16 Barry Le Va, Continuous and Related Activities, Discontinued by the Act of Dropping, 1967. Felt and glass. Whitney Museum of American Art.
*In Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning an American Master (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 544.)
**De Kooning, cited in ibid.