As if burning its way through a golden halo, the deep vermilion orb throbs above a plain of palpitating ochre flecked with a sinister patch of blood-red froth. In one corner, two bands of citrus orange and yellow are shrill exclamations in the deliquescent surface.
The wealth of fiery associations – a merciless desert sun, a red-hot grill, a bubbling, infernal pool – make the appreciation of “Heatwave” (1961) a skin-prickling experience. It can also be read as a metaphor for anger; a voyage through a slow-burning psychosis towards an abject, sanguineous aftermath.
Whatever the interpretation, the work’s status as a masterpiece of abstract expressionism is unequivocal. Trapped in its searing glare, it is hard to credit that its author, Adolph Gottlieb, has only now been granted his first retrospective in Italy.
There could be no more appropriate venue than the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Now a museum, the palazzo was once the home of the American collector whose patronage was crucial to the incipient abstract expressionist movement. In the 1940s her New York gallery was both a vitrine for European surrealism – a key influence on the American avant-garde – and hosted early shows for Pollock, Rothko, Baziotes and Motherwell. Today, her home accommodates a fine Gottlieb alongside works by his peers and their Old World inspirations such as Ernst, Magritte and Dalí. As such, it is an obligatory second lap to any visit.
Although no roll-call of abstract expressionists is complete without it, Gottlieb’s name does not enjoy the household status of Pollock’s and Rothko’s. Yet “Heatwave” is by no means his only masterpiece; his works hang in all the main modern collections, and in 1963 he became the first American to win the Gran Premio at the prestigious São Paolo Biennale. Overall, however, his oeuvre beguiles rather than poleaxes; a Gottlieb rarely leaves you floundering. He always said a search for “emotional truth” animated his paintings. But it is possible that, unlike Pollock and Rothko, he lacked the inner demons that would have given his art the necessary fatal charge.
He was born into a New York Jewish family in 1903; his father ran a wholesale stationery business. At 17, after studying evening classes at the Art Students’ League, he dropped out of the family firm and worked his passage across the Atlantic to feast his eyes on cubism, dada and expressionism. “I took to it all like a duck to water,” was his blithe response to paintings that rocked the senses of less equable souls.
Back in the US, Gottlieb found the ideal interlocutor in Mark Rothko. As melancholy as Gottlieb was phlegmatic, Rothko shared both his friend’s fascination with the European avant-garde and his contempt for US realism, which seemed provincial in comparison. Also key to his evolution was the older painter Milton Avery, whose high-keyed, domestic panoramas were strongly influenced by Matisse.
As the US plunged into the Depression, the trio wrestled with what it might mean to make art that was equal to modernity. They holidayed together, painting by day and discussing modernist poetry by night. Two 1932 sketches by Gottlieb of Rothko, captured in touchingly light-hearted vein as he strums a mandolin, and Avery studiously drawing, suggest a halcyon time of youthful creativity.
For all Rothko’s soul-searching, it’s possible that Gottlieb was the more narcissistic of the pair. A 1937 self-portrait shows a cartoonish figure in the act of sketching reflected in a dressing-table mirror, with his wife reduced to a cramped silhouette sewing on the bed. Aside from the banal symbolism, the infelicitous use of Avery-like foreshortening and nervous, dissonant colours betray an artist far from finding a voice of his own.
Equally self-conscious are his surrealist-inspired paintings. such as “Untitled (Box and Sea Objects) c.1940 and “Sea Chest”, 1942, where shells, cacti and corals in open-sided, black shelving units are incongrously placed on seashores.
Modernism’s fascination with ancient myth prompted Gottlieb to embark on a series he christened “Pictographs”. Painted primarily in earthy pinks and browns, these primitive, punchy tablets set harshly scored, totemic motifs – eyes, noses, hands, birds, fish, trees – within rough, Mondrian-like grids. An attempt by Gottlieb to transport the viewer back “to the beginning of seeing”, they were a response to the horrors of the second world war. Or, as Gottlieb put it: “All primitive expression reveals … the immediate presence of terror and fear … experienced by many people throughout the world today.”
Yet the series’ finest paintings, “Mariner’s Incantation” (1945) and “Equinox” (1944), evoke not primordial dread but rather the archetypal serenity of a spring day or ocean horizon. With backdrops of lush, saturated greens, they are the first signs that it will be Gottlieb’s feeling for nature, and in particular the sea, that will lead him out of what he described as the “traps of Picasso, surrealism [and] American provincialism”. A passionate sailor, he loved nothing more than to race his yacht across the waters of his summer home in Provincetown.
At the beginning of the 1950s, he embarked on a series entitled “Imaginary Landscapes”. On show here, “Sea and Tide” (1951) suspends three red and white ovoids against a winter-grey surface above a black band, busy with gesture and shade and traced with an illegible calligraphy. Plato’s cave comes to mind, its lost souls blind to the ideal forms floating above, yet a comment by Gottlieb on this cycle is telling: “There is a horizon line in each painting” he said and “underpainting is used to tie sky, foreground and shapes together.”
In the late 1950s, he distilled this layering technique into the “Burst” paintings that sealed his reputation. One such is “Heatwave”; another is “Mist” (1961), a frayed white disc within a silvery nimbus that floats over a marbled, steely ground above an explosion of black paint.
The Bursts, with their masterfully nuanced depths, inevitably beg comparison with Rothko’s colour fields. Yet where the latter beckoned you inward to a fathomless realm of “tragic and timeless” truth, Gottlieb’s aura-like forms shield you against the chasm.
When Gottlieb worked at a smaller scale, his vision took on a fiercely controlled intensity. Painted in 1973, the year he died, one acrylic painting on paper suspends a white disc against a roan ground above a trembling spray of black paint. A witty anchor to this ethereal atmosphere is a tiny, demonic red square in the corner. Conjuring a cosmic, Fontana-like energy, it is the work of an artist alert to, but not appalled by, the other worlds that lay before him.
In 1963, Gottlieb and his wife Esther moved to an opulent home in the Hamptons where he painted, sailed and led a glamorous social life. Photographs on show here reveal a wry, sparkly-eyed soul, free of the torments that haunted so many of his peers.
For all the turbulence of “Heatwave”, this was an artist who charted a remarkably serene course towards an infinite horizon.
‘Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective’, until January 9 2011.