Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
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Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)

Brown Splash

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
Brown Splash
signed, titled twice and dated 'Brown Splash Adolph Gottlieb BROWN SPLASH 1970' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
90 x 72 in. (228.6 x 182.8 cm.)
Painted in 1970.
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Private collection, 1973
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1979
L’Art Abstrait 1945/1970, Paris, 1974, p. 28 (illustrated).
London and Zürich, Marlborough Gallery, Adolph Gottlieb: Paintings 1959-71, November 1971-March 1972, pp. 10 and 46-47 (illustrated in color).
Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art of Collecting Modern Art, February-March 1986, n.p., fig. 30 (illustrated and illustrated in color on the cover).
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Lot Essay

A striking example of one of Adolph Gottlieb’s signature Burst paintings, Brown Splash rivals its companions in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Painted in 1970, this particular example innovates upon earlier works in this series in two ways. Firstly, the artist has used a warm, rich earthen brown in place of the stark black for the explosive element in the lower portion of the painting. Together with the red circle which hovers above—an ethereal halo encircling a saturated core—the volatile mass of dense color suggests landscape elements of sun and earth in their most reduced and iconic forms. The second innovation in the painting is the three stacked bands of color—black, green, and white—in the lower left corner. The three horizontal stripes reconfirm the surface of the canvas as a flat object in contrast with the subtle illusionary aspects of the red disc. The result is a composed balance of dualities in opposition: the dense brown versus the transcendent red; stable whole versus explosive fragment.

In his review of the artist’s exhibition at Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1947, the art critic Clement Greenberg labeled Gottlieb, “…perhaps the leading exponent of a new indigenous school of symbolism which includes among others Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Benedict Newman” (C. Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Hedda Sterne and Adolph Gottlieb,” in J. O’Brien (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 2, Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, Chicago 1986, p. 188). That same year, Gottlieb published a statement elaborating on his decision to pursue abstraction as his primary mode of image making. Originally published in the avant-garde periodical Tiger’s Eye, Gottlieb wrote “Certain people always say we should go back to nature. I notice they never say we should go forward to nature. It seems to me they are more concerned that we should go back, than about nature.” Gottlieb acknowledges the inspirations he took from surrealism and the art of Africa, Asia, and Gottlieb: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C., 1982, pp 57-58).

The origins of the paintings lie in Gottlieb’s love of nature—the deserts of Arizona to be precise—where the artist had lived from 1937-1938. Before this, Gottlieb had been painting what became known as his Pictographs, which included symbols reminiscent of hieroglyphic language, totemic, and iconic signs alluding to both humans and animals, all organized on a grid. The Pictograph paintings conjure the ancient allure of cave paintings as well as Gottlieb’s love for the “primitivism” of non-Western art. Gottlieb described the feeling of being in the landscape in an interview with Martin Friedman, the director of the Walker Art Center in the 1960s. The artist said, “I think the emotional feeling I had was that it was like being at sea… Then there’s a tremendous clarity—out in Arizona there’s a tremendous clarity of light and at night the clouds seem very close” (M. Friedman, “Interview with Adolph Gottlieb,” typescript of tape recordings, East Hampton, 1962). This initial visit to the desert would be followed by another in the mid-1950s. The artist would return to New York to make the Burst paintings using sketches made in the desert as inspiration. With a new level of abstraction, Gottlieb would reduce his many symbols to two—the circle and the explosion, abandoning the grid in favor of vertical juxtaposition of elements. Lawrence Alloway, another greatly influential critic of the mid-century United States, described Gottlieb’s Burst paintings as “two forms, roughly equal in area, one above the other; they do not touch, but it feels as if they were bound together, as by planetary forces. The lower form is black and painted in a choppy gestural way; the upper form, red, is smoother in surface and edge, but not closed or measured. It is the product of another type of gesture: the ellipse is freely brushed and surrounded by a tonally graduated halo” (L. Alloway, “Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Painting,” in L. Alloway and M.D. MacNaughton, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C., 1982, pp 57-58).

In his same statement from 1947, Gottlieb lays out his philosophy as an artist: “The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of a neurosis which is our reality. To my mind, certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our times.” Responding to the then crisis of World War II, Gottlieb argues that abstraction is the language in which to express survival instincts and an inability to comprehend human capacity for atrocity. The Burst paintings, made in the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, have another political backdrop behind them: the Cold War and the gnawing fear of possible nuclear disaster in the wake of the atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contextualized within the artist’s trips to the Arizona desert, where he may have watched the testing of atomic bombs, the realism of Gottlieb’s abstraction becomes apparent. However, Gottlieb maintained the core of his painterly practice in a 1963 interview during the São Paulo Bienal, “I try, through colors, forms, and lines, to express intimate emotions... My paintings can represent an atomic bomb, a sun, or something else altogether: depending on the thinking of whoever is looking at it” (A. Gottlieb quoted in P. Karmel, “Adolph Gottlieb: Self and Cosmos” in L. M. Barbero, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2011, p. 42).

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