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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adolph Gottlieb

I've been studying art and art history now for about thirty years. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long, but recently I've come to the conclusion that the simpler a piece of artwork appears on the surface, the more complex it is to understand. The reverse of that is also true. A compositionally busy American genre scene by Norman Rockwell, for instance, while no doubt taking weeks or months to paint with all its intricate detail, complex composition, demanding draftsmanship, and striking color relationships is, after all, pretty much what we would call in computerese WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). My grandmother could appreciate it as much as I do. On the other hand, take a three-foot tall, four-foot wide canvas, paint the upper 60% a mottled white with a couple large circular shapes, a rectangle, and a couple hemispheres, then fill the remainder of the horizontal composition with a complex pattern of seemingly random brush marks and you have an exceedingly simple piece of art on the surface, but one with such a complex pedigree Howard Janson, all the king's horses, and all the kings men have to struggle mightily to put together any sensible discussion of what the piece "might" mean.

Frozen Sounds No. 1, 1951, Adolph Gottlieb

The title doesn't help much. It's called The Frozen Sounds No. 1. It was painted in 1951 by the New York School, abstract expressionist, Adolph Gottlieb. Normally a quick peek at the painting on the Whitney Museum of American Art Web site might help but, somehow, with this painting, and indeed, most of Gottlieb's work, a thousand words (or so) are definitely worth more than the picture. Gottlieb's work, along with that of Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and a few others from this era, is definitely what we'd call hard art. Normally, I compare Abstract Expressionism with classical music, but this goes even beyond that. Some artists even go so far as to sometimes label it as "non art" or on the other extreme, "pretend" to know and like it without the "foggiest" as to what it all means.

Gottlieb, was of German descent, but born in this country in 1903. Raised in New York during the height of the Ashcan School, he was taught by no less than Robert Henri and John Sloan themselves. A trip to Europe in the 1920s introduced him to the Avant-garde, where he picked up influences from Picasso and Paul Klee. During the 1930s, his work tended toward abstract landscapes with surrealist overtones before the process of simplification set in. After the war, he felt right at home amongst the likes of Kandinsky, Pollock, Kline, and Hoffman. Yet even as abstractionist go, Gottlieb is deep. "Frozen Sounds No. 1" is something on the order of an obscure acronym. He attempts to say as much as possible with as little as possible. It's a monumental, Morse code of captured auditory art. It's a rhapsody transposed to a visual pictograph begging the viewer to share the moment of creation when perfect harmony is derived from total disarray, and slices through it like a clear, profound, bell tone dispelling the white noise of electronic static. Now before you look back at the painting and sigh, "I knew that," be aware, I just made it all up myself. That's what the painting means to me. Okay, no fudging, you're a Gottlieb expert now, you tell me, what does it mean to you?

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