“The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb”

It’s sometimes difficult for people my age, children of pluralism and pomo, to grasp the actuality of the art historical moment of midcentury, when the Rev. Clem had everyone worshiping at his Church of the Authentically Flat. It’s even harder to imagine the time before that, when flatness actually meant something. But when Adolph Gottlieb in 1946 described his employment of the grid as “a device to kill space,” he was on to something. It was the right time to have it in for the third dimension.

Surrealism had given perspective a bad name. The anxiety evoked by yet another infinitely receding landscape—barren but for a bevy of half-limp biomorphs propped up by the stilts and crutches that are everywhere available in the dream world—is undeniable, but of a considerably different stripe than was intended. Why, as has often been noted, if surrealism was plumbing the depths of the subconscious, was its iconography so maddeningly shallow? (Surrealist arithmetic is always entertaining, especially Magritte’s: HamEyeScary Meat; BowlerAppleFruit-Faced Man;TrainFireplacewell, what? Sex? Guilt over sex? Horror at such a peculiar sight in one’s living room? At its being rendered so poorly?)

Of course, I’m just venting my anti-Freudian spleen. Gottlieb himself thought highly of the surrealists. In fact, it wasn’t really possible to be an avant-gardist in the ’30s and ’40s without being enamored of them. (There’s no latter- day equivalent to this feeling—the effects of pluralism again.) But it’s also hard for someone my age to imagine a time when the surrealists’ visions were actually liberating. Half a century later, we know that Dalí turned out to be a gibbering, pretentious old crank (with Erté, he was one of the great mall-gallery crossover artists of the ’80s; together they necessitated the education of a new class of art patron in the subtleties of print forgery), and that those of his ilk proved inspirational not only to ’60s album art designers (hipgnosis indeed!), but to veritable armies of thwarted, arty teens.

Still, the impact of surrealism was felt by all would-be advanced artists of Gottlieb’s day, providing them with both influences and obstacles. When Gottlieb set out to forge his own style, he was equally sure of what to leave behind and what to keep of the surrealist legacy. In developing a personal language of picture-writing, he rejected, along with illusionistic depth, the surrealists’ rigorously defined, literarily interpretable symbolism, but he held fast to their reliance on myth as a form of universal communication. With his friend Mark Rothko, Gottlieb sought to escape familiar subject matter by looking to the dramas of ancient Greece. Where Rothko settled on Aeschylus, Gottlieb fixed on Oedipus.

The earliest in this show of roughly 70 “Pictographs”—as Gott lieb called the pictures, made mainly between 1941 and 1951, that employed his new half-figural, half-abstract language of forms—derive directly from the Sophoclean tale of woe. Although it is frequently claimed that the Pictographs are pictorial, not narrative in thrust, these earliest canvases are composed of cells that resemble frames cut from an imaginary film version of the story. In a fashion analogous to that of the simultaneous multiple perspectives of a cubist portrait, Gottlieb has clipped characters and gestures from the play and spread them in a collage across his canvas. It is impossible not to identify the individual images in Palace (1942) with such players as the leonine Sphinx, the mocking chorus, and the accusatory eye of the gods.

The adoption of mythic subject matter posed new formal problems for Gottlieb, and as he confronted them he left explicit narrative behind. A sense of story persists in such canvases as the bold Voyager’s Return and the intentionally under-painted Forgotten Dream, both 1946, for what are the recollections of travels and fading dreams but fabulous tales? And as late as 1949, Dark Journey‘s burnished reds and golds, flickering through a thick skein of black and charcoal gray, conjure an image of the fireside relating of an adventure. But the main achievement of the Pictographs remains their arrangement of allusive symbols into a patchwork representing the whole of human history and culture.

In developing the formal vocabulary of the Pictographs, Gottlieb drew from not only Greek myth and art, but African and Oceanic masks and sculpture, Mondrian’s grids, Native American art (Southwestern petroglyphs and Northwestern totems in particular), the narrative altarpieces of the Italian primitives, and the fanciful paintings of Paul Klee. He was, however, more interested in the ways that these various arts carried universal meaning than in the specifics of their symbolic languages. In fact, he claimed that his “favorite symbols were those which [he] didn’t understand,” and that he was seeking in them “a certain kind of ambiguity and mystery.”

This is felt most strongly in the Pictographs of the mid- to late ’40s. Visually compelling but thematically elusive, such paintings as Omen for a Hunter (1947), Vigil (1948), and The Terrors of Tranquility (1948) hold out the possibility that they are as much concerned with the universe of symbols beyond the edge of the canvas as with those that fall within its boundaries. In contrast to the curving, uneven lines of the grid, the edges of the picture plane seem harsh, arbitrary, and irrelevant. It is impossible to consider that the vast grid of symbols stops at the end of a painting’s stretcher. Pushing aside the traditional painting-as-object rhetoric of abstract expressionism, these paintings do seem to provide a window to experience. All time and all space spread out at once on an infinite plane; the picture slides over it like a magnifying glass, capturing in its frame a small patch of the limitless wealth of world culture. The organization of the symbols in a particular piece seems part intuition, part affinity, part accident.

While not insisting on a single, precise interpretation of any one of his paintings, Gottlieb still felt the need to guide the mind of the viewer. Indeed, he shows himself to be a careful and skilled titler of his images. An oppressive and claustrophobic canvas, featuring a pair of dark, peering eyes beneath a labyrinth of squared-off intertwined spirals, takes form when matched with its title, which is just explicit enough to get the job done—The Prisoners. On the other hand, Alkahest of Paracelsus seems uncharacteristically specific, until you understand that it refers only to alche my’s always-undiscovered universal solvent, and thus back to Gottlieb’s own search for universals.

Gottlieb’s titles are, in fact, so effective in framing the mood of individual works that it’s rather telling when he gives up and resorts to such designations as Construction I or Composition. The two works drawing these names are, without question, failures. In the latter, from 1945, the pictorial elements are laid over one another without any firm conception of their roles. The former is a failed experiment, its grid rendered in strips of wood. The paint, a mere schematic of the Pictographs’ usual formal richness, is applied as if the artist thought better of it soon after starting; it strains against the rigidity of its armature and falls flat.

1953’s Construction I is valuable to the show, however, as a reminder that Gottlieb was experimenting at this stage. The final room of the exhibit, consisting primarily of work produced in 1950 and 1951, finds the Pictographs shooting off in as many directions as there are pictures, forming a group so diverse that, as Lawrence Alloway writes in “Melpomene and Graffiti,” a 1968 essay reprinted in the exhibition catalog, “[I]t becomes clear that these years are the end of a period; otherwise extremes of ripeness and crispness could not alternate with such aplomb.” At the turn of the decade, Gottlieb was handling the Pictograph format both flamboyantly and virtuosically, exploring its limits and looking for a way past them. He found his solution via a series of “Imaginary Landscapes,” which he started in 1951. When, with Construction I, he returned to the Pictographs, it’s as if he were poking at them, making sure that they were dead.

This tentative and unsuccessful foray into bas-relief also emphasizes that Gottlieb is much more of an actual painter than his surrealist forebears. In many of their canvases, it’s as if paint were a mere go-between, a matchmaker working a cocktail party of fantastic forms, its handling only as capable as necessary to bring the group together in a single exotic locale. Gottlieb, however, delights in paint, in the gamut of its textures and shades. The earliest Pictographs already display a variety of the waxy, plastery, chalky, sandy (OK, so he cheated with that one), slick, and shiny surfaces that can be achieved with oils, but the late Pictographs and “pseudo-Pictographs,” as Alloway calls them, explode with technical finesse. The palimpsestic lushness of such paintings as Night Flight and Plutomania, both 1951, is worlds away from the austere, ruly, elemental tone of the “Oedipus” pictures.

It’s important to note that if you have seen the catalog, you have not seen the show. Although it features a variety of illuminating commentaries on the Pictographs, the catalog also sports some of the worst color reproductions contemporary printing can provide. The photos of Lion (1944) and The Enchanted Ones (1945) are pinked-up to the point of being insipid. The color fidelity of Masquerade (1945) is so poor that it is almost impossible to make the image jibe with the actual painting, even when standing in front of it. The comic edge of Nostalgia for Atlantis (1944), a goofy postcard of the mythical deep, is dulled along with the Rubbermaid blue of its background. Lion is upside-down to boot.

This is unfortunate, because adequate reproductions would greatly benefit any student of the Pictographs. The pictures are tantalizingly difficult to hold in mind. Leave the show, and a few days later you recall them as slightly differing products of a single monumental system of picture-making. Revisit them and you find this conception of the generic, monochromatic Pictograph slipping away before the variegated and multiform parade of images the show offers. This elusiveness is a sure indicator of the success of Gottlieb’s enterprise. To show directly the interconnectedness and multiplicity of the full spectrum of cultural expression would have been presumptuous. Suggesting it, by keeping it ever-so-slightly out of view, is close enough to convince.