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Exhibition of works by first-generation abstract expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb opens at the Akron Art Museum
Adolph Gottlieb, Arabesque, 1968, painted steel, 26 3/4 X 38 X 12 1/4 in. #6870. ©Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

AKRON, OH.- Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor offers a look at a largely uncharted aspect of the career of one of the most highly influential thinkers and artists of the 20th century. This exhibition pairs Gottlieb’s little-known sculptures with late-career paintings that illustrate his interest in gravity, suspension and motion.

A first-generation abstract expressionist painter, Adolph Gottlieb made art that was central to the development of mid-twentieth century painting in America. Gottlieb was one of the few among his colleagues to create both two- and three-dimensional works, and his sculpture is has rarely been seen in the United States.

Born in New York City, he left high school to study art in France and Germany. Upon his return in 1924, he attended classes at the Art Students League. Gottlieb came of age at a time when European painting reigned supreme and Paris was the center of the art world; however, this would soon change as New York became the center with abstract expressionism’s rise in popularity.

The paintings Gottlieb created in the 1940s and 50s broke radically with the European art he had admired and opened many new doors for other artists. His 50-year artistic career is marked by a continual search for originality, independence and a desire to radically change American art.

In New York, Gottlieb formed artistic friendships with such luminaries as Mark Rothko, John Graham, Milton Avery, Barnett Newman and David Smith. Throughout his career, Gottlieb founded various artist groups and was actively involved in the art and progressive movements of his time.

Among the aims of the abstract expressionist painters was to tap into universal inner sources of energy and emotion to paint in a way that reflected their individual psyches.

Sharing an interest in non-Western art forms, Gottlieb and Rothko issued a kind of joint manifesto published in The New York Times in 1943 as a response to a critic’s assessment of their recent work. Among their claims they wrote, “To us 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.”

In 1956 Gottlieb developed his signature “burst” element, 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. “I try, through colors, forms and lines, to express intimate emotions.” stated Gottlieb.

Although Gottlieb’s foray into sculpture was brief, he created a body of work that challenged the distinction between painting and sculpture. He used the tools he had developed throughout his long painting career — touch, visual balance, surface quality and more — to make his sculptures, like his paintings, become a vehicle for emotional expression.

He began with small, cut-and-painted cardboard maquettes, or study models, which he converted into templates for metal sculptures. Gottlieb used the templates to cut and weld metal in his studio and then finished the sculptures by hand painting them.

The Gottlieb Foundation has organized the exhibition, which includes 12 table-top sculptures and 10 maquettes, as well as three of the templates for the sculptures. Seven major paintings and two monotypes from the 1960s and 1970s will also be included in the exhibition.

Constantly challenging himself to push forward with his art, when he began making sculpture, Gottlieb claimed he felt like “a young sculptor, just beginning.”

Although Gottlieb’s foray into sculpture was brief, he created a body of work that challenged the distinction between painting and sculpture. He used the tools he had developed throughout his long painting career—touch, visual balance, surface quality, and more—to make his sculptures, like his paintings, become a vehicle for emotional expression. “I feel a necessity for making the particular colors that I use, or the particular shapes, carry the burden of everything that I want to express, and all has to be concentrated within these few elements.”

The use of the most essential artistic forms in both Gottlieb’s paintings and sculptures demonstrates his understanding and mastery of the subtleties of his media. The simplicity of the elements Gottlieb used meanwhile belies the complexity of his art.

Viewing Gottlieb’s three-dimensional expression in direct relationship with his paintings offers exciting revelations about the evolution of his shapes and composition. The sculptures animate the transcendental quality of Gottlieb’s paintings in new ways.

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