Experimentation, diversity, and feeling : Adolph Gottlieb’s career in painting reconsidered

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Katzin, Jeffrey James

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Adolph Gottlieb’s (1903–1974) mature career in abstract painting has been described in previous scholarship in terms of three phases: the time of his Pictograph paintings, beginning in 1941; a period of transition primarily involving his Imaginary Landscape paintings, beginning in 1951; and the time of his Burst paintings, from 1956 until his death. Dividing the artist’s career into early, transitional, and late periods has provided scholars with a clear and tidy narrative as a basis for interpretations of his work. However, in this thesis I argue that this schematization, created in hindsight, has obscured the character of Gottlieb’s working process as it occurred in real time. By nature, Gottlieb would not have been content to produce only a few narrow varieties of painting over a thirty-year period. I thus advance a new conception of Gottlieb as an inventive and constantly adventurous artist.

To make these claims, I examine Gottlieb’s written and spoken statements in order to define his central terminology (words like “feeling” and “self-discovery”) and to investigate his interests in myth and alchemy. I find that his work in painting was deeply intuitive and literally experimental—Gottlieb could not predict whether a painting would succeed until he had completed it, and so his career was an iterative process of painting, observing the results, and then painting again. I go on to consider Gottlieb’s paintings themselves as a record of how this experimental process functioned in practice. By presenting his diverse body of work in its full breadth, I demonstrate that the artist was not limited by his major styles, and indeed that he always presented himself with multiple possibilities. I conclude that Gottlieb’s work remains vital because he worked without an end goal or predetermined outcome in mind, and instead gave himself over to a continuous process of creativity and discovery.




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