In 1957, Adolph Gottlieb created his first Burst paintings, a series that would become his trademark and which would change the course of his painting. They are marked by a floating orb above a gestural "burst" against a monochrome field. The composition proved to be endlessly fascinating to the artist, who developed and elaborated its possibilities until his death in 1972.
Transfiguration IV is one of the earliest classic Burst works, executed in 1958. Their realization was an epiphany for the artist--"It seems clear that Gottlieb was exhilarated by the convergence of scale and economy. The pleasure of similitude equalled the beguilement of variety to which he was accustomed" (L. Alloway, Adolph Gottlieb, New York, p. 59). The painting was purchased in 1959, shortly after its creation and exhibited to great acclaim, including a solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 1963 and the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1963.
The present lot was from a seminal early series of four paintings
entitled Transfiguration, all of which were executed in 1958. Like many of his peers, Gottlieb was inspired by, and wished to aspire to, the achievement of the Renaissance and may have been thinking of the transcendental Raphael painting of the same name. Ranging in size from 40 x 58 in. to 90 x 60 in., the paintings all have the same classic color scheme of a reddish cadmium form at the top and a black burst at the bottom. Each painting has its own personality, as the artist varied the size of the orb and the complexity of the burst in each.
Transfiguration IV was originally acquired by the noted Gottlieb collector and Museum of Modern Art benefactor, Samuel A. Berger (he later donated Gottlieb's Flotsam at Noon (Imaginary Landscape), 1952 to the MoMA). It then passed to the collector Harris B. Steinberg, whose collection was later sold in an important single owner auction at Parke-Bernet in 1970.
In Transfiguration IV, a crimson circular shape, riddled with black slashes is contrasted with the explosive black form, the same color scheme as the artist's very first painting Burst painting (which is also the color of Blast I, 1957 in the MoMA). The color scheme was deliberate and pointed a new direction for the artist. "There is a significant change in Gottlieb's choice of color in the early 1950's: his use of black and red on white has a readymade look, like enamel from the can or printer's ink. For an artist whose work had shown great variety of color, in the atmospheric, wide-palette Pictographs, this is a pronounced simplification we can conclude that black and red were a personal code for the impersonal. It was a knowing, consciously American decision to use vernacular color. It is a crucial part of the series that Gottlieb started in 1957, from the first painting, Burst, to a late one like Crimson Spinning" (ibid p. 57).
The new compositional format of the Bursts set up a variety of associations and interpretations. The softly rounded form at the top, imbued with a subtle glowing halo appears to rise above the chaos below. It can also be read as a "before/after" juxtaposition. In effect, the painting encapsulates the polar opposites of Abstract Expressionism--the red orb and white background references the color fields of Rothko, Newman and Still, whereas the "burst" clearly has its roots in the slashing brushwork of Kline, Willem de Kooning. Indeed, Gottlieb himself used the word "polarities" to describe the Burst paintings.
Like his Abstract Expressionist peers, the formal qualities of Gottlieb's paintings were of primary importance, but they were in the service of conveying emotion. As the artist himself declared, "Paint quality is meaningless if it does not express quality of feeling" (H. Franc, An Invitation to See, New York, p. 143). With titles such as Burst and Blast, critics sometimes interpreted these works as abstracted scenes of violence and carnage. "Gottlieb was aware of this association, having solicited it, but he commented that it should not exclude other readings thus fire and earth, the solar and the tidal, augment the fireball reading" (L. Alloway, p. 58).
The Burst paintings are the last major stage in the artist's development and mark its apotheosis. His early, somewhat derivative representational work drew on Social Realism, Milton Avery, Surrealism and Picasso. By 1941, he had amalgamated these disparate influences to create his Pictograph series, his first breakthrough and original works. The Pictographs were loosely formed grids consisting of abstracted, yet recognizable images such as eyes and profiles. The Pictographs gave way to his Imaginary Landscapes which depicted floating shapes above a painterly landscape. The Burst paintings distill and advance his preceding work--the orb and burst were images taken from the Pictographs, and the indiscriminate space and bi-partite composition is taken from his Imaginary Landscapes. Gottlieb's Burst paintings are the logical conclusion of an artist looking to pare his work to its purest essentials.
The remainder of Gottlieb's career was involved with working out the possibilities inherent in these early Bursts, often combining elements of his Imaginary Landscapes. Transiguration IV is an important Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1950s and a fully realized and masterpiece by a master of the genre.