In art circles, it’s sometimes forgotten that the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1940’s were indebted to the modernist writers of the 1920’s, who elevated an interest in myth and symbolism to the level of an aesthetic imperative. James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both published in 1922, were the masterworks that established myth as a priority subject for 20th-century modernism, and the terms of Eliot’s praise for Joyce’s mythical method lent additional authority to its application elsewhere in the arts.
“In using the myth,” Eliot wrote, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him …. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step towards making the modern world possible for art, towards … order and form.”
Eliot didn’t have the visual arts in mind when he wrote this, but his point about the use of myth in Joyce nonetheless exerted an influence in art circles. Years ago, there was a well-known art gallery in Provincetown called H.C.E. (for “Here Comes Everybody,” in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) that specialized in Abstract Expressionism, and a good many of the first-generation Abstract Expressionist painters gave mythic titles to their work.
One of them was Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974), whose exhibition Pictographs 1941-1951 is on view at the PaceWildenstein Gallery. Gottlieb was a New Yorker who, after an early expressionist period with a group called “The Ten” and work on the Federal Art Project, found inspiration in the work of the expatriate European Surrealists, who’d fled to New York to escape the Nazi occupation of Paris. Freudian psychoanalytic theory was a crucial component of the Surrealist sensibility, and it also enjoyed a huge following among New York intellectuals; for Gottlieb, an additional appeal was that Freudian theory was saturated with allusions to classical mythology-the most famous instance, of course, being Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex.
Gottlieb was fortunate in enjoying the friendship of two older painters, Milton Avery and Mark Rothko, who served as mentors in his struggle to liberate his work from the conventions and sentimentalities of mainstream American painting. Gottlieb’s account of this struggle is worth quoting at some length: “Rothko and I came to an agreement on the question of subject matter; if we were to do something which could develop in some direction other than the accepted directions of the time, it would be necessary to use different subjects to begin with and, around 1952, we embarked on a series of paintings that attempted to use mythological subject matter, preferably from Greek mythology …. It seemed that if one wanted to get away from such things as the American scene or social realism and perhaps cubism, this offered a possibility of a way out, and the hope that given a subject matter that was different, perhaps some new approach to painting … might also develop.”
What developed, in Gottlieb’s art, was the pictograph, which divided the canvas surface into irregular grids containing a variety of signs, shapes and symbols purporting to harbor allusions to classical mythology. The first of these was called-what else?- Eyes of Oedipus (1941) and is frankly a rather lackluster composition, mainly of eyes and noses. Yet within a year or two, Gottlieb developed the pictograph into brilliant compositions of mask-like images and dazzling color that together recall us to the primitive rites and practices of the ancient world. In my judgment, certainly, the pictographs-with their highly accomplished synthesis of abstraction and representation-remain one of the high points of the Abstract Expressionist era.
Rothko opted for a very different development in his painting-a development that led to pure abstraction minus any visible trace of a representational image. This hasn’t prevented certain critics from “discovering” images in Rothko’s paintings, usually images related to Christian iconography. But these, in my judgment, are critical mirages. Why Rothko himself continued to declare that he was not an abstractionist remains a mystery-one that I’m happy to leave to the Freudians to explain.
My guess is that this new exhibition of Gottlieb’s early work will do much to enhance a reputation that in recent years has been somewhat in the doldrums; for a younger generation, it’s certain to be a revelation.
Adolph Gottlieb: Pictographs 1941-1951 remains on view at PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, through Dec. 31, and is accompanied by an excellent, well-illustrated catalog.