On the second floor of the “old” UMMA building, Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor features shapes resembling stars, suns, moons, and rainbows. The exhibit includes some of the powerful large-scale paintings that are the artist’s claim to fame, but it’s primarily devoted to a year and a half in this abstract expressionist’s life when he abruptly shifted to sculpture. Though he carries the same preoccupation with heavenly shapes from his paintings to his sculptures, I was most intrigued by the strikingly different visual experience between the two: his paintings insinuate themselves into adult sensibilities and unworked-through feelings, but his sculptures seem to be searching for an audience of inner children.
The sculptures were all made in 1968, when the artist was in his sixties and had just mounted the largest retrospective of his career. While this exhibition is meant to highlight Gottlieb’s sculpture, I was drawn to the paintings, particularly one which reminded me of a quotation from Gottlieb’s seminal 1943 letter to Rothko, published in the New York Times: “The appreciation of art is a true marriage of minds. And in art, as in marriage, lack of consummation is ground for annulment.” Titled Red vs. Blue (1972), the painting depicts two circles (one red, one blue) at the upper part of the canvas and, on the lower half, a quiet color burst of light green behind lilting calligraphic black shapes. The subtlety of that green juxtaposed with the petroglyph-like shapes is penetrating. In Gottlieb’s paintings, these rather childlike shapes become very adult and carry a lovely tension. Yet when these same shapes are turned into sculptures–visually rougher in space and separated and angled by notches in a base–that lovely tension vanishes.
The most pleasing and successful sculpture in the show reclaims some of that tension. Sitting in the back left, encased in Plexiglas, Petaloid is small, yet in command of its space. The black against yellow and the relationship between the forms and colors take us on an adventure to a place inside ourselves.
As I left the exhibit, I wondered why Gottlieb abruptly started and then stopped sculpting at the peak of his painting career. Then I thought of Michael Jordan, who walked away from the basketball court in the prime of his career to try to make it as a professional baseball player. Maybe Gottlieb, too, was chasing a dream, and that glorious feeling of being young again.
The exhibit runs through January 5.