Arts » Visual Art

Winter Rays

Adolph Gottlieb's work makes a rare burst into America


The long Thanksgiving weekend and preparations for holiday craft fairs conspire to thin out Cleveland's gallery openings in early December. However, the aesthete willing to make the short trip down I-77 to the Akron Art Museum are rewarded with fresh treasures with Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor, a collection of historic work rarely seen in America.

Ironically, Gottlieb's (1903-1974) three-dimensional works are rarely exhibited outside of Europe, though Gottlieb was American. In life and in his legacy, he was and is appreciated as a painter and pioneer of abstract expressionism. Gottlieb took up sculpture at age 64 in 1967, and was enthusiastic with the new medium, proclaiming that he felt like "a young sculptor, just beginning." His explorations were cut short by a stroke in 1970, which restricted him to painting with his right arm.

The Akron Art Museum wishes to give a fuller account of his life's work.

"Petaloid with Curved Arrow" (pictured) serves as a model for many of the sculptures. Composed of a black-painted rectangle of aluminum, it is held vertical by two smaller strips. A hexagon, a pointing arrow, and a "burst" of yellow rays intersect it. The "burst" is a motif Gottlieb transplanted from his painting. It is both light and power, but the artist would not define whether it was friendly, stating, "[The burst] can represent an atomic bomb, a sun, or something else altogether, depending on the thinking of whoever is looking at it."

The burst reappears in "Two Arcs," which populates the "Petaloid" framework with downward and upward tilting arches and giddy orange and green geometry. In "Arabesque," it is balanced on curling loops of rust-colored aluminum, along with one yellow and two black spheres, like two suns and two moons fighting for the sky over a mountain range.

Besides a few smaller pieces in wood and bronze, the sculptures are all made of aluminum, painted in black, yellow, green, russet and orange. The jaggedness of the burst and sheer simplicity of the circles, rectangles and strips making up the pieces recall children's work in construction paper, scaled up.

Many of the completed sculptures are paired with miniature cardboard first drafts, full-sized presentation board second drafts, or templates for pieces that were never assembled. The inclusion of these rough materials does more than give hints about the craft; it recasts our understanding of the finished product, grounding the viewer's understanding of Gottlieb's seriousness and care.

The energetic shapes of the burst and arrow suggest the spontaneity of a moment of jumbled excitement even the artist cannot fully make sense of, but only exclaim in. Seeing the piece in multiple drafts recalls the disciplined hours needed to capture, amplify and work out a material embodiment of the original idea. The hard work of the radically simple is laid bare.

The museum draws deeply from its own resources to put Gottlieb's entire body of work in context. Off of the first room of the exhibition is a gallery featuring works by about a half dozen of Gottlieb's Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, including Helen Frankenthaler, Ray Parker, Matsumi Kanemitsu and Buffie Johnson. Throughout the museum's permanent displays, Gottlieb's colleagues' works, including one by Mark Rothko, are identified with gold burst stickers directing viewers back to the special exhibit, integrating Gottlieb's sculptures into the space as the titular artist is into American art history.


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