Adolph Gottlieb's career is marked by a number of epiphanies. In 1941, the artist abandoned his Milton Avery-esque leanings and retardaire use of classical subject matter in favor of his Pictograph series, which consisted of disparate images shown within a grid. His second and most important breakthrough came in 1951 when he began making abstracted and simplified landscapes fittingly called Imaginary Landscapes. They lead inexorably to his best known and most pure Abstract Expressionist works, the Burst paintings. Indeed, the Burst paintings are essentially Imaginary Landscapes, pared down to their purest and most essential form.
The Imaginary Landscapes are marked by a horizon line above which float softly delineated shapes and below which lie earthy insinuations of land and sea. One of the very earliest Imaginary Landscapes executed by the artist, Waterscape (1952), is a breathtaking painting, full of bravura passages of painting and rich color. The rounded shapes float like a Morse code in a luscious white sky--their movement is heightened by the cropping of the black square at the left, which combines with a (Western) habit of reading from left to right, suggesting a horizontal exodus. The lower half is dominated by a landscape inhabited by undecipherable black characters, the use of which was common with his peers such as Bradley Walker Tomlin and Mark Tobey who incorporated abstract writing into their work. The title Waterscape is more poetic than descriptive, but the painting does reference bodies of water. "Even when the zone is black, brown, and warm...the imagery has tidal implications, as if the upper forms were affecting the lower plane, which is always sensuous and sometimes turbulent" (L. Alloway, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, New York, 1981, p. 56).
The painting is as accomplished as any Imaginary Landscape the artist produced and compares favorably to the related examples in the Whitney Museum (The Frozen Sounds I, 1951), Albright-Knox Museum (The Frozen Sounds II, 1952) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Bias Pull, 1957). Waterscape was in the collection of the Paul Kantor Gallery, one of the most important West Coast galleries in the 1950's and remained in his family for many years. A telling sign of the painting's personal importance to Gottlieb is that he chose to have himself photographed in front of it for a major article by (pre-gallery ownership) André Emmerich in Art in America in 1958.