A few weeks ago, in my review of Judith Godwin's work, I discussed the first generation of abstract expressionists, and observed how each one of the original ten "created a single hallmark or image that stamped every one of his paintings with his individual personality after he achieved his mature style." But did Adolph Gottlieb, one of the greatest of that great generation, leave it at that? For the answer, I strongly recommend "Adolph Gottlieb: Classic Paintings," his absolutely stunning show at Pace in Chelsea (510 West 25th Street, through April 13).
For the answer to my question -- did Gottlieb leave it at that? -- I find myself thinking of a line from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." There a character called Enobarbus describes the hold that Cleopatra has over Antony. "Age cannot wither her," he says, "nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety."
And this seemingly infinite variety is exactly the magic that Gottlieb (1903-1974) worked so well. A hallmark image can so easily become monotonous and even boring, if the artist doesn't ring enough changes on it. Variety, to quote another very old saying, is the spice of life.
Gottlieb's best-known image was the "burst," which in its original form set two forms on a white field, with a round red "sun" above and a bushy black "earth" below. This was not his only image, and the show at Pace has a few examples of others as well (most notably, variants upon his "frozen sounds" series).
However, 15 of the 20 paintings in the original checklist (which contains many loans from major museums) are variants of the "burst," as done between 1956 and 1973. And what a lot of changes he managed to ring!
These changes fall into three principal categories: changes in color, changes in shape, and changes in scale. Closest in shape is "Purple over Green" (1960), the painting that leads off the checklist and appears in the first of the four large spaces in the gallery. But as the title suggests, its color is far from red above and black below.
Another painting in the front gallery that is close to the original format in color is "Cadmium Red above Black" (1959), but instead of a disc above, there is a solid oblong shape.
Next we get to a radical variation in both color and shape, in "Descending Arrow" (1956), which hangs in the second of the four large spaces. As this painting is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, it may be one of the artist's better known images.
Even though it depicts an open black pentagon up top and a downward pointing arrow below, all on a mostly rose-colored field with a band of pink across the top, it remains somehow instantly recognizable as a Gottlieb.
At 8 feet by 6 feet, this is one of the larger paintings in the show, and to that extent characteristic, but right next to it hangs an untitled painting from 1969 that differs radically not only in color and shape but also in scale.
The field is a deep maroon, with a small greige disc up top and two small, straight horizontal strips of color (black and pink) instead of the bush below. It measures only about 20 by 16 inches, and looks even smaller by comparison with "Descending Arrow." It struck me as very witty -- and hilarious.
And so it goes, throughout the entire show – endless variety, endless variations on a theme. "Burma Red" (1973) is a tall, narrow painting with a small round sun above, on a field of white, but instead of a black bush below, we get an impish, ethereal and very Miró-esque upward-trending spatter of black below.
"Expanding" (1962) has a large blue sun above, and a rust-colored bush below all set on a field of green.
My own favorite of the four spaces was the side space adjoining the second space, where the colors were especially rich and Augustan, and the images varied the most from painting to painting.
The image I've chosen to illustrate this review is from this gallery, and the inclusion of a spectator gives a good idea of the scale of some of these majestic paintings as well as their remarkable color and variety in image.
To the left of my image, you see "The Crest" (1959), owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art. At 9 ft. high and 7½ feet wide, it's one of the largest paintings in the show, and with some of the most off-beat coloring – blackish-brown for the sun above, and pink for the earth below, all on a field of golden-brown.
Catty-corner, to the right of my image, you see an even more radical revision of the theme in "Aftermath" (1959), with no bush at all below, and only a very small sun up top – colored a deep gold on a field of very warm gray.
It's really too bad that neither the Whitney nor MoMA can be bothered to show the work of this great artist in their own space. No, no, no, we must have trendier art instead! But that's all the more reason to make a beeline for Pace and get to enjoy this marvelous show for yourselves…