Adolph Gottlieb's Pictographs, created between 1941 and 1952, represent one of the crucial links between European modernism and American abstract expressionism. Yet they are far from a simple bridge between the two movements, for integral to their creation and meaning are traditions of Native American, African and Oceanic art, contemporary theoretical developments of Freud and Jung, and classical ideals such as the painting of the Italian primitivists. In the 1930s, young American artists were struggling to create an independent role for themselves, which for them necessitated a rejection of European art, as well as regional and realist American art. Yet still, Gottlieb was unable to completely ignore the powerful presence of masters Picasso, Mir, Mondrian and especially Klee (see lot 371).
The Pictographs were the first clear attempt by any of the New York school artists to explore a basic compositional format within a major related series. These works paired ordered space with a subjective content, a dualism which was ultimately distilled in Gottlieb's later Disc and Burst paintings. The clear, formal structure of the grid provides a balance to the irrational, myth-inspired signs that inhabited it.