Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor," at the Akron Art Museum

Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries,
Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum
Abstract Expressionism was a movement of painters, and Adolph Gottlieb was not the least of them. But I hadn't known that Gottlieb had also turned to sculpture late in his career (during the '60s and '70s) until I saw the handsome show that runs until February 17 at the Akron Art Museum. Organized by the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, it presents Gottlieb's small sculptures, showing his cardboard maquettes through wooden templates to the finished steel objects composed of flat, painted shapes. The completed pieces are collections of circles, arrows, rectangles, arcs, and "bursts." The simple shapes are those one imagines a child would cut from construction paper. These shapes are well known from his paintings of the same period, but they give the sculptures a special air, suggestive of—but not the same as—the whimsicality of Calder and the brightness of Matisse cut-outs. They feel different from his paintings, in which shapes assume a weight of significance that seems lacking in the steel versions.

Abstract Expressionism notably thought big, and indeed the Gottlieb paintings that accompany these sculptures are reasonably large (Red or Blue, 1972, is 90 x 108 inches; Three Elements, 1964, is 96 x 48 inches). Although Gottlieb produced work for placement in landscape, the bulk of his sculpture was table-top sized. Presented here is work as large as Petaloid's 32.5 x 31.5 x 15 inches, the depth being on account of the base. (Petaloid, 1968 is featured in the foreground, above.) A lovely, chunky and otherwise articulate Untitled (not pictured), which lines up three shapes cut from wood and painted brown, is a mere 8.25 x 9.75 x 3.75 inches. Hardly heroic.

Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, 
Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum. NB, this is reverse view of image above:
Petaloid, 1968 is seen left, from opposite side. Foreground is Untitled, 1968,
appears from opposite end in picture above, in the background, right.
In my review of David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center in spring 2012, I noted what had gone without remark, that the celebration of his cubes skipped over the fact that a good deal of his work explores planes rather than three-dimensional shapes. Gottlieb was apparently a friend of Smith's and an admirer: Gottlieb was certainly investigating some spatial questions that intrigued Smith as well, though Smith's flat works are, I think, more challenging. They tend to lead our eyes into negative spaces that continue his positive marks. Gottlieb's sculptures are more truncated in gesture, and I found their beauties to be more centered—more aggregated in the close relationship of positive shapes. Most of the shapes are slotted into flat rectangular bases that not only secure the upright forms, but serve as horizon lines or as definition of a world in which the visual event is collected. The base is, in fact, like a different, more open kind of organizing picture plane.

But of course sculpture's not a painting. The delight of this sheet metal sculpture is that its appearance, content, and significance are protean, shifting with every move the viewer makes. The flat shapes can disappear and reappear like characters in a drama: The eye loses them whenever one's position reduces them to line.

Adolph Gottlieb was born in 1903 and died in 1974. He began his studies at the Art Students' League in New York in 1919; 1968 was the year his retrospective filled both the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums. It was during the preparations for this career retrospective, when he was sixty-five, that he undertook sculpture, gleefully, for the first time, creating the work now seen in Akron.

Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, as part of a 1943 joint statement, said,"We favor simple expression of complex thought...We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth." Both men were "post-painterly" abstract expressionists, whose work was more distant and cool than theatrical. Gottlieb nevertheless considered his work, balanced and cerebral as it was, to be expressive: "I try, through colors, forms, and lines, to express intimate emotions." This thought applied to the sculptures no less than to his painting.

Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum. Foreground, Arabesque, 1968,painted steel,
 26.75 x 38 x 12.25;" Painting, Red vs. Blue, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 108.
The generous documentation that the Gottlieb Foundation and Akron Art Museum provided as background suggest that the body of work in this show, "challenged the distinction between painting and sculpture," pointing to Gottlieb's continued use of long-perfected painting tools, such as touch, visual balance, and surface quality.

The photographs provided (individual photography was not permitted in this show) highlights the similarities between the design elements of Gottlieb's paintings and sculptures. In the view of Arabesque posed before Red vs. Blue, similarities are quite obvious in mirrored shapes, calligraphic strokes, and simplification of form and color. 

In both the sculpture and the painting, there is a tension between a sense of rest and the possibility of eminent take-off or propulsion—yet they feel very different nonetheless. Gottlieb may "challenge the distinction" between the two forms, but I think this photograph demonstrates that the challenge leaves the distinction standing firmly in place. I further think that it contravenes the notion that the sculptures might convey "intimate emotions" or "reveal truth" in a way comparable to the paintings.
Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, installation view, Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, Courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.
 Two Arcs,1968, painted aluminum, 26 1/2 x 37 x 24 3/4." Painting: Three Elements, 1964, oil on linen, 96 x 48."
(Back, left, maquette for Two Arcs, cardboard with pencil notes.)

I think the big difference in what these two media offer Gottlieb lies in the nature of the way positive and negative space are defined by either. In the sculpture, Two Arcs, above, the shapes cut from steel, mounted in a stiff steel base, have crisp, clear edges. Their definition is absolute. The fact that the curves are not geometrically perfect is part of the interest of the piece, but the imperfection, like everything else, is perfectly stated. Likewise, though Gottlieb hand-painted the sculptures himself, I will offer only my word (since no close-up is available) that each painted element is uniformly coated with paint. Despite the occasional dried drip, there appears to have been no impulse to let serendipity have its day, or to attempt effects through variations in paint coverage. The simplicity is based in part on disciplined definition.

Such clear definition is important for this kind of sculpture because its components are visually very light and can disappear with a viewer's movement. The sculptural elements stand on their own, supported only by their inner relationship as seen from any particular angle. Their visual background—the room, the other artworks around it—can detract considerably if the installer is not sensitive to its positional delicacy.

Paintings composed with similar shapes and colors are altogether different because they are framed into permanent environments separated from the rest of the world by the colors and edges of their backgrounds. The backgrounds, in both of the paintings pictured above, contain smaller, colored environments against which shapes are set. So even while we are asked to understand these as "flat forms" and "flat surfaces," we instinctively know they are not. As soon as there is overlapping, we feel dimension. Moreover, on the large canvases, Gottlieb has not coated surfaces in the uniform way he covered his steel cut-outs. It's easier to see (on this scale, especially) in Three Elements than in Red vs. Blue, but layered paint on canvas allows (or begs) for shadows of past color applications and gestures to show through. The definition of the space inhabited by the shapes is largely given: There are four edges they relate to.

In Three Elements, Gottlieb uses edges crisp, fuzzy, and ragged for a variety of purposes: to impart definition to shapes; to invoke dissimilar emotional and intellectual responses in us. This powerful tool—the use of edge—isn't possible, working in sheet-metal. For reasons like this in the nature of materials, the sculptures don't have enough complex or nuanced elements to satisfy like Gottlieb's paintings do.

I'm sorry that I can't include any photographs of the maquettes for the sculptures, however, for these little painted cardboard trials in fact come very close to being comparable to the paintings in emotional effect. Several of these are pictured in the show's catalogue, Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, published by the Gottlieb Foundation (ISBN 978-0-9642065-2-6). The maquettes are, to my mind, more eloquent than the finished sculptures because they are so evidently simple, expressive of complex thought and intimate emotions. The cutting of cardboard with scissors doesn't produce exact products. Gottlieb wasn't exact or even decisive in painting them, so we see that painting history the final products lack. Cardboard isn't very strong, so some of the maquettes slump or list in a way that allows the emotion to show in the materials themselves. There is a wish—an aspiration—there is nuance in each maquette that the purity of the final, inflexible steel can't imitate. Those qualities of nuance, breathing room, or open potential exist inside of paint on canvas but around the steel cut-out sculpture. The maquettes, existing in a material world between the two, seem to participate in more of the soft virtues of painting.

I found Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor to be a delight, especially because of the way the show allows the visitor access to the artist's process, presenting all the working stages of the sculptor's design process, and coordinating examples of Gottlieb's imagery in both media during the period. Good luck for Midwesterners: Akron will have the show until mid-February. After it closes there, it will open again in Ann Arbor this fall. The University of Michigan Museum of Art will have it from September 21, 2013 through January 5, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment