A black dot here, a yellow starburst there, and a rectangle.
That’s how one of the pieces at the Adolph Gottlieb sculpture exhibit now on view at the U-M Museum of Art appears to the untrained eye. But scholars at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies see Gottlieb’s work as remarkable, both in terms of Jewish and art history.
“Gottlieb was one of the founders of the movement known as Abstract Expressionism,” noted Shelley Perlove, professor emerita of art history and visiting scholar at the Frankel Center. This movement originated in New York City in the years after World War II. “Nearly all the Abstract Expressionists were Jewish," she observed.
Gottlieb (1903-1974) was perhaps best known for his “Pictographs” series, paintings that experimented with basic shapes and symbols. The UMMA exhibition focuses on Gottlieb’s brief and little-known foray into sculpture, while also including some of his paintings and monotypes from the last decade of his life. The combination of media illustrates the important relationship between the drawings and sculptures, and demonstrates how seemingly simple images can express deep emotions.
Perlove believes that Gottlieb’s elemental symbols came from a desire to create a universal language, especially in the wake of the Holocaust. “Hitler mocked modern art,” she said. “So it’s an affirmation of Gottlieb as a Jew to embrace modernism, with its new language and new freedom for the artist. That’s rejuvenating, especially for a Jew.”
Still, she said, the art is meant to evoke different feelings for different viewers. “People can bring to it what they wish,” Perlove said. “But most of all, it doesn’t exclude anybody.”
Suzi Dessel, a visual artist and Frankel Institute fellow, agreed. “There is a dialogue in the room among the work that invites viewers of all ages to join,” she said. “Additionally, the presence of Gottlieb’s hand in his sculptural work is accessible for viewers, particularly in the cardboard maquettes.”
“Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor” was organized by the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation and will be presented through Jan. 5.
Adolph Gottlieb, PETALOID, 1968, painted steel, 15 5/8 x 15 1/2 x 6", ©Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY, NY