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"Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor" opens at the University of Michigan Museum of Art
Adolph Gottlieb, Untitled (Three Discs), 1968, maquette; acrylic on cardboard. ©Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY, NY.

By: Carole McNamara

ANN ARBOR, MICH.- One of the founding members of the Abstract Expressionists, Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) was an important presence in the artistic life of New York from the 1930s until his death. Artists in the United States working between the two World Wars found a striking variety of abstract approaches by both American painters as well as European artists whose work could be seen in the Museum of Modern Art and in a few commercial galleries in New York. This rich fermentation underpins the emergence of the New York School of painting in which artists created works that combine abstraction work had evolved into his enigmatic Pictographs, paintings that employ a visual language of symbols that are at once a personal construct and an evocation of an ancient and universal language of symbols. In a letter of June 1943 to the New York Times, Gottlieb and fellow painter Mark Rothko wrote about the new direction in painting,

‘We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.’

Many of the tenets we associate with Abstract Expressionism are at the core of this revealing declaration: that which appears simple is not; the visual imperative privileges a flat and assertive presence; traditional “illusion”—of space, form, and perspective, are false and illusory; truth can be found in the integrity of the painted surface.

For Gottlieb, the focused distillation of simple geometric shapes continued in his work from the 1940s through the end of his career in 1974. In 1967, Gottlieb abruptly shifted his interest to sculpture and began to explore the simple and often monumental symbols that had preoccupied him in steel, bronze, aluminum and other materials. The elements of his painting, that had emphasized the picture plane, now began to occupy three dimensions. The exhibition, Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor brings together both sculptures from the roughly eighteen months that he worked in that medium, and paintings and monotypes of 1964–1974. In addition to finished sculptures and related paintings, the exhibition allows an examination of Gottlieb’s process in creating his sculptural work by also including maquettes and templates used in the fabrication of the final work.

The strength of Gottlieb’s work, as well as its subtlety and beauty, is revealed as the artist probes the meaning of his forms, playing with the tensions inherent in portraying his iconic two-dimensional symbols in a three-dimensional framework; also critical is how that exploration in turn informs the paintings. As the artist himself indicated, his sculptures became “a vehicle for the expression of feeling…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.”

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