Abstract Expressionism

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Adolph Gottlieb's Pictographs

to 1941: Adolph Gottlieb begins painting Pictographs

From "Adolph Gottlieb: His Life and Art" by Mary Davis MacNaughton in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective

"There are in fact two kinds of compositions in the first Pictographs of 1941: one with a centralized format, including Untitled (Still Life), Female Forms, and Pictograph-Tablet Form... and the other with an all-over grid design, exemplified by Oedipus and Eyes of Oedipus. From 1941 to 1943 Gottlieb worked in both modes before concentrating on grid compositions for the remainder of the forties...

Surrealist biomorphism was the most important source for Gottlieb's centralized formats. For Gottlieb, biomorphism was a way to freely express his unconscious, in which he had become fascinated via [John] Graham, Freud, and Surrealism. And automatism - the painterly technique for Freudian free-association - was the method Gottlieb used to generate biomorphic shapes, which were forms spontaneously conceived in his unconscious. Joan Miro's art was the primary example of biomorphism for Gottlieb's painting of this time. He knew Miro's art through exhibitions in New York during the thirties. Before beginning the pictographs Gottlieb also may have seen the 1940 Miro show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery and the 1941 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. ..

Gottlieb's interest in 1941 in biomorphism and automatism was shared by Baziotes, Gorky, Motherwell and Pollock. In the fall of 1942 these artists, along with Peter Busa and Gerome Kamrowski, met in the Ninth Street studio of the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta Echaurren to experiment with automatism. Gottlieb was not part of this group, but he surely was aware of automatism through looking at Surrealist painting and reading Surrealist theory in John Graham's book Systems and Dialectics of Art. According to Graham, automatism was a direct means of expressing feelings..." (AG31)

Adolph Gottlieb:

"Well, I think what happened in the early Forties after the war started was, first of all, a number of Surrealists came to this country and we were able to see them in the flesh, and see that they were just ordinary people such as we are. Then we were also cut off from periodicals that used to come over like 'Cahier des Arts' [sic]. So that we weren't so continuously immersed in French art. I think there was some kind of sense of crisis so that you had to, at least I had to, dig into myself, find out what it was I wanted to express, what it was possible for me to express. I had to really come to grips with my painting problems which I couldn't separate from my personal problems... That was when I started doing what I called the pictographs which a lot of people think have something to do with primitive art, my interest in primitive art. Like when you were saying that Surrealists seemed to think it had something to do with some sort of universals.

My recollection is that it was Jung who came out with the idea of the collective unconscious. I was interested in reading Jung at the time and the idea interested me. Then it just appeared; I mean it just corrobated my idea that I wasn't really interested in primitive art, that if I decided to use certain symbols in my painting, for example an egg shape, I did this without extending it to be a symbolic reference. Why couldn't I come up with the idea of an egg as signifying fertility just as well as some aborigine in Australia? And we do know and we knew at the time that these symbols developed spontaneously in Africa, Australia and America among all sorts of primitive peoples. It wasn't something exchanged because we know that they had no contact with each other. It was impossible for them to communicate so that these are symbols which are universal symbols that people arrived at simultaneously...

I decided to restrict myself to those shapes which I felt had a personal significance to me. And I wanted to do something figurative. Well, I couldn't visualize a whole man on a canvas. I couldn't see him in a flat space. I felt that I wanted to make a painting primarily with painterly means. So I flattened out my canvas and made these roughly rectangular divisions, with lines going out in four directions. That is, vertically and horrizontally. Running right out to the edge of the canvas. And then I would free associate, putting whatever came to my mind very freely within these different triangles... Then there would be very little editing or revision.... If I made a wriggly line or a serpentine line it was because I wanted a serpentine line. Afterwards it would suggest a snake but when I made it, it did not suggest anything. It was purely shape... " (AS)

Gottlieb worked directly on the canvas rather than from sketches because "if I didn't do it directly I wouldn't be able to tap that subconscious sort of thing... mostly I was trying to capture the direct, improvised, fresh sort of feeling... I thought of it more as related to the automatic writing the Surrealists were interested in. And I thought of it as kind of a picture writing... But it was painterly. I was primarliy concerned with the painterly character of what I was doing." (AS)

The first exhibition of a Pictograph by Gottlieb took place in May 1942 at the second annual exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors at the Wildenstein Galleries in New York. The first solo exhibition of Pictographs was at "Adolph Gottlieb: Paintings"at the Artists' Gallery in New York (December 28, 1942 to January 11, 1943).

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