Adolph Gottleib Lot 32
Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
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Property from an Important New York Collection
Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)

Omens of Spring

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
Omens of Spring
signed 'Adolph Gottlieb' (lower right); signed, titled, stamped with the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Inc. stamp and dated 'Adolph Gottlieb "Omens of Spring" 1950' (on the reverse)
oil, gouache, tempera and casein on canvas
68 x 92 in. (172.7 x 233.7 cm.)
Painted in 1950.
Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York
Knoedler & Company, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1981
R. M. Coates, "The Art Galleries: Climax and Continuity," The New Yorker, 13 January 1951, p. 71.
E. Gibson, "New York: Adolph Gottlieb," Art International, 23, no. 3-4, Summer 1979, p. 75.
J. Russell, "Delights, Surprises-and Gaps," The New York Times, 8 March 1981 (illustrated).
M. Berger, "Pictograph into Burst: Adolph Gottlieb and the Structure of Myth," ARTS Magazine, 55, no. 7, March 1981, p. 134, fig. 2 (illustrated).
S. Polcari, "Adolph Gottlieb's Allegorical Epic of World War II," Art Journal, 47, no. 3, Autumn 1988, p. 206, fig. 9 (illustrated).
S. Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge, 1991, p. 67, pl. 11 (illustrated in color).
New York, Kootz Gallery, Gottlieb-New Paintings, January 1951, no. 7.
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Adolph Gottlieb Pictographs, 1941-1953, March-April 1979, fig. 11 (illustrated in color).
Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum; Phoenix Art Museum; Manchester, Currier Museum of Art and Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Adolph Gottlieb Paintings 1921-1956, May 1979-June 1980, pp. 46-47 and 66, no. 28 (illustrated).
Roslyn, Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, The Abstract Expressionists and Their Precursors, January-March 1981, pp. 40 and 42, no. 34 (illustrated).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

As the single largest and most accomplished of Adolph Gottlieb’s iconic Pictograph paintings, Omens of Spring was executed at the height of an exceptionally fertile period for the artist as he sought to engage with a post-World War II world attempting to reaffirm the fundamental goodness in humanity. Across the surface of this richly painted and subtly nuanced canvas, Gottlieb disseminates a series of complex signs and cyphers painted with remarkable assurance. With their roots in the Primitivism of African art by way of Modernism and Surrealism, Gottlieb’s mysterious conflation of symbols ponders the ultimate questions of humanity. Although they emerge from the artist’s unconscious mind they are at the same time, part of a universal language espoused by the noted psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung, and engages with the same stream of consciousness that emanated from many of the most innovative artists of the 20th century including Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró. Painted just five years after the end of World War II, yet with a title that alludes to hope of a brighter future, Omens of Spring is one of the artist’s most important paintings and the pinnacle of one of the most inventive series of paintings created in the last sixty years.

Together Gottlieb and Rothko were key players in the postwar artistic movement known as Abstract Expressionism. However in contrast to the wild gestural brushstrokes of some of his counterparts, Gottlieb was an cerebral artist whose interest in the Jungian philosophy and Surrealism led to his art pursing a different course. William Rubin, the legendary curator at the Museum of Modern Art surmised Gottlieb’s important contribution thus, “The American painters’ experience of Surrealism in the early and middle forties enabled them to ‘open up’ the language they had inherited from Cubism and Fauvism and thus preserve what was still viable in those styles. And will it is true that they expunged the quasi-literary imagery that had earlier related their paintings to Surrealism, the visionary spirit of their wholly abstract art retained much of Surrealism’s concern with poetry albeit in a less obvious form. The poetic content in the mature art of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, Still, Motherwell, and Gottlieb…does as much to set them apart from Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian as do differences in technique and structure” (W. Rubin, A Curator’s Quest: Building the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art, 1967-1988), New York, 2011, n.p.).

Omens of Spring unveils a multifaceted composition made up of numerous painterly layers culminating with a series of mystical, yet majestic, forms. Using oil, gouache, tempera and casein, Gottlieb constructs a painterly surface which is rich in refined detail. No two areas of the painting are the same as the different concentrations of his chosen medium result in a variegated surface resulting in a nuanced—almost smoky—surface of billowing pigment that seem to shift in their intensity as the eye journeys across the canvas. Upon these veils of delicate spring tones of yellow, warm pinks, reds and ochers , Gottlieb brings forth an arrangement of lines, shapes and glyphs which Stephen Polcari describes as “budding flowers, tendrils and new hair” (S. Polcari, “Adolph Gottlieb’s Allegorical Epic of World War II,” Art Journal, Vol. 47, No. 3, New Myths for Old: Redefining Abstract Expressionism, Autumn 1988, p. 206, via [accessed March 31, 2016]). Gottlieb arranges his composition into a series of irregular geometric compartments and into each of these he inserts a unique pictograph—a mysterious image which, whilst bearing little formal relationship to any existing object, nonetheless imparts some degree of familiarity. At their simplest these pictographs are modest shapes made up of circles or semi circles or the trace of a slender black line. However, other more complex forms soon begin to emerge, ranging from horned Cyclops-like figure to more substantial creatures reminiscent of those created by master Spanish painter Joan Miró. The choreography of these deep black forms which populate the surface the painting is something which reaches its zenith in Omens of Spring, something which would not be seen again until his iconic Burst paintings appeared beginning in the late 1950s.

Perhaps more than any other of his paintings, the richly nuanced surface of Omens of Spring reveals the close painterly relationship Gottlieb had with that other masterly handler of paint, Mark Rothko. Just as Rothko would arduously apply dozens of thin washes of oil and acrylic (or sometimes both) to produce his ethereal, almost hypnotic surfaces, Gottlieb learnt to harness the physical properties of the different types of paint to powerful effect. Here, just as with Rothko, the sense of depth produced by the varying painterly layers almost pulls you in towards the composition. Born just six months apart in 1903, the pair became good friends until Rothko’s death in 1970. Both shared the same beliefs in the idea of myth and of paintings as object, and both clearly understood that a painting is not a picture onto reality, a vision of the subconscious, or a view of a landscape. It is instead an object meant to be interpreted by the viewer and to affect the viewer at a primal, emotional level. Indeed, in their joint manifesto (written with the help of Barnett Newman) published in the New York Times in June 1943, the pair noted that “A picture is not its color, its form, or its anecdote, but an intent entity whose implications transcend any of these parts” (A. Gottlieb and M. Rothko, quoted by S. Hirsch, in The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb, exh. cat., Adolph and Ester Gottlieb Foundation, New York, 1994, p. 27).

The origins of Gottlieb’s pictographs can be traced back to the early 1940s when, together with Rothko, Gottlieb looked for an alternative to the prevailing style of American regionalism and social realism. They decided the theme of “myth” was one which most closely offered them the opportunity to explore their feelings of isolation following the horrors of the World War II, yet at the same time possessed a universality which could be understood across cultures. Taking his cue from European Modernism (and its debt to African Primitivism) and the constructivist paintings of Piet Mondrian and the strict compositional rigor the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garica, Gottlieb began to create a series of graphic images that were drawn, via his subconscious, from his own experiences. Adopting the theories of Sigmund Freud and particularly Carl Jung, Gottlieb believed that universal symbols had the power to unlock the collective unconscious of the viewer. Although stemming from the devoutly personal, the artist believed that his cyphers were universal enough for his audience to relate to due to what has been described as their “roots in common humanity. Each of the elements was carefully placed in his compartmentalized composition as “a way to present the ‘isolation’ and ‘simultaneity of disparate images’ in order to create a sense of time that was neither three-dimensional nor chronological” (L. K. Kramer, “The Graphic Sources of Gottlieb’s Pictographs,” in S. Hirsch, ibid.).

Indeed, in conjunction with the 1968 simultaneous retrospective of Gottlieb’s paintings organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lawrence Alloway wrote an article for Art International magazine, in which recalled the artist’s reaction to other established interpretations of his symbolic language. “Gottlieb told me that when he happened to learn of preexisting meanings attached to any of his Pictographs, they became unusable. The signs needed to be evocative, but unassigned. On the other hand, in retrospect, we can see that the Pictographs belong to a definite area of human experience. The forms that recur are sexy, apparitional, tribal, decidedly part of the heritage of Freud and Frazer, who set everybody loose in an underworld of common, mysterious symbols” (L. Alloway quoted in The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb, exh. cat., Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York, 1994, p. 42).

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