Accompanying Adolph Gottlieb to his studio warehouse in the 1940's, Lawrence Alloway recollects, "[I] saw the artist standing knee-deep in Pictographs, like the Colossus of Rhodes astride the harbor, and realized that the Pictographs represented a storehouse of culture. He was demonstrating that the world was accessible to the American artist of the 40's" (L. Alloway, "Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Painting" in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, New York, 1981, p. 55).
Despite the metaphor, the flow of artistic ideas into the New York harbor during this time favored the Europeans, provoking aesthetic crises for many American artists and Gottlieb was no exception. "[T]he whole problem seemed to be how to get out of these traps--Picasso, Surrealism--and how to stay clear of American provincialism, regionalism, and Social Realism" (A. Gottlieb quoted in M. MacNaughton, "The Pictographs, 1941-1953," in ibid, p. 29). As with other artists confronting this dilemma, Gottlieb, as well as Pollock, Krasner and Rothko among others, confronted the prevailing ideas and formal techniques with a composite of trans-cultural visual myths. Gottlieb said, "the artistically literate person has no difficulty in grasping the meaning of Chinese, Egyptian, African, Eskimo, Early Christian, Archaic Greek or even pre-historic art, even though he has but a slight acquaintance with the religious or superstitious beliefs of any of these peoples. [A]ll genuine art forms utilize images that can be readily apprehended by anyone acquainted with the global language of art. That is why we use images that are directly communicable to all who accept art as the language of the spirit, but which appear as private symbols to those who wish to be provided with information or commentary." (A. Gottlieb, "The Portrait and the Modern Artist," in ibid, p. 171).
Gottlieb had an extraordinary ability to create a new visual language while provoking interpretive recollections across times and cultures. Siena #2, created at the height of his Pictograph series, is an extraordinary example for both its grand scale and art historical resonance. Siena #2, arguably more than any other Pictograph, emphasizes the grid, the ultra-modern organizing principle, through severely ruled lines, rare horizonality and large size. Gottlieb would only work on such a scale again in the later Imaginary Landscape and Burst paintings. The isolated biomorphic forms recall the Native American works that Gottlieb saw during his 9-month residence in Arizona and the Egyptian heiroglyphs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet they equally recall the influence of Surrealist automatism, and the works of Paul Klee and Joan Miro. The ochres, browns and muted oranges also call forth an understanding of Rembrandt's palette and the restrained colors of analytical cubism. Despite the acknowledged influences, Gottlieb's pictographs remained wholly his own imaginative extensions. Communicative meaning remained essential, yet Gottlieb intentionally avoided exclusive references to encourage the open locks of the collective unconscious. Gottlieb and his contemporaries, in their pursuit of a distinctly American modernist aesthetic, would pave the way for the genesis of a revolutionary new visual language and the rise and eventual supremacy of the New York School.