Gottlieb and Kline

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Sanford Hirsch et al. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb. New York: Hudson Hills Press with the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, 1994. 144 pp.; 65 color ills., 75 b/w. $45.00

Exhibition schedule: Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., September 24, 1994-January 2, 1995; Portland Museum of Art, February 4-April 2, 1995; Brooklyn Museum, April 21-August 27, 1995; Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, November 30, 1995-January 28, 1996

David Anfam. Franz Kline Black and White 1951961. Houston: Menil Collection, 1994. 120 pp.; 66 color ills., 19 b/w. 40.00

Exhibition schedule: Menil Collection, Houston, September 8-November 27, 1994; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, December 16, 1994-March 5, 1995; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, March 25-June 4, 1995

Last winter and spring New Yorkers had the opportunity to reexamine the work of two relatively underrated New York artists who seemingly have very little to do with one another. Although Adolph Gottlieb and Franz Kline are both major players in Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, they are often held to be a cut below the best. Gottlieb gets little individual critical attention and is often described "in context." It is as though he represents the general ideas of Abstract Expressionism-with the famous letter to the New York Times of 1943 most indicative-without his own work having much specific character, whether the examples are his pictographs of the 1940s or paintings from his later allegorical Burst series. Kline's work, on the other hand, has come to represent to the world at large mature Abstract Expressionism of painterly motion and even action painting.

Two recent exhibitions both support and undercut the established niches occupied by these artists. The Phillips Collection organized the most comprehensive show ever of Gottlieb's pictographs, The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb. Seventy of the approximately three hundred pictographs he produced, most borrowed from the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation and national museums, were displayed. The Brooklyn venue where I viewed the exhibition was an appropriate setting for Gottlieb in New York for he, like Mark Rothko, lived for many years in Brooklyn and visited the Brooklyn Museum frequently, particularly its ancient and tribal collections. Indeed, in the last room of the exhibition and in the wonderful, newly reinstalled African galleries, the museum has included a number of the African sculptures Gottlieb owned and donated to the institution. The exhibition was effective in spite of the somewhat awkward rooms in Brooklyn where it was hung, for Gottlieb's craft is a major revelation.

Scumbled, dry-brushed, impastoed, incised, scored, scratched, roughed, or simply drawn images abound in works more complex and varied than critics have previously acknowledged. The exhibition also revealed Gottlieb as an unusual colorist. Allusive and daring, he joined earth colors (the Oedipus series) with red-andblack-figured images (Oedipus, 1942), or hot pink (the lurid Pictograph, 1946, and Centurion, 1949), or gray-green (the sea of Mariner's Incantation, 1945), or dark gray-black a la Guernica (the vicious Expectation of Evil, 1945), or soft, luminous blue-gray (Archer, 1951). Perhaps his palette, like his work as a whole, is too cool and conceptual, a problem that has often caused recognition of Gottlieb's achievement to lag behind the reputations of such peers as Rothko, Willem de Kooning, or Barnett Newman.

While informative, the direct association of Gottlieb's pictographs with the tribal, both in the exhibition and in Evan Maurer's essay in the catalogue (pp. 31-39), has also unfortunately reinforced the popular but questionable view that Gottlieb's work is largely concerned with so-called primitivism, when, in fact, it has a much larger range. Gottlieb himself denied that his work was primarily about the tribal. He said of the pictographs: "I was interested in reading Jung at the time and the idea [of the collective unconscious] interested me. …