An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Adolph Gottlieb’s Bonac is a painting of extraordinary magnitude from the artist’s series of deeply moving and evocative canvases know as his Burst paintings. Exemplified by the two ‘bursts’ of color that appear to hover over the surface of the canvas, the authority of this particular example is heightened by the purity and intensity of the pigments used to create these glowing orbs set against the pale background. The concentration of the deep red and pitch black of these dual elements is captivating, and drawing the viewer into Gottlieb’s mysterious world. In these pure renditions of form and color, the artist is not interested in representation and figuration; his work considers only color and form, organized to express emotion. “The idea that painting is merely an arrangement of lines, colors, and forms is boring,” Gottlieb once said. “Subjective imagery is the area which I have been exploring... I reject the outer world—the appearance of the natural world... The subconscious has been my guiding factor in all my work. I deal with inner feeling” (A. Gottlieb, quoted in R. Landau, “Introduction,” Adolph Gottlieb: Important Works, Montreal, 1993, p. 3).
The grand scale of Bonac is magnified by the radiant red hue of the glowing sun-like orb, particularly when contrasted to the even larger black circular form painted below. These deep pools of pigment appear infinite, almost without beginning and end. The denseness of the center is complemented by the feathered outer edges, balancing out the weighty core with a sense of textured lightness. Both red and black masses also emit an ethereal aura, or glow, further adding to the sense of depth and shape in an otherwise flat, white canvas. The title of this particular painting is a derivation of the name of Accabonac Harbor, a secluded stretch of water near Springs on Long Island. It is also a term sometimes used—in a less than flattering way—to describe the traditional working class families who have lived in the Hamptons for generations. Gottlieb was born and raised in lower Manhattan, but at the age of 17 the artist left New York to study art in Paris. Returning after an influential three years in Europe, he became part of a group of artists labeled “The Ten,” which included Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning; together they would form the beginnings of what would become known as Abstract Expressionism. Eventually, Gottlieb would split his time between studios in Manhattan and the Hamptons, making Bonac a particularly personal evocation of the spirit of the place that he loved so much.
The artist first began to produce his Burst paintings during a period in which moved away from his previous pictographic canvases to more surreal and formalist abstractions. Following World War II, the artist responded to the horrors of war with a form of abstraction aimed at conveying difficult and complex emotions. Gottlieb said of paintings from this period, “Everything is part of nature. Even painting has become part of nature. To clarify further: I don’t have an ideological approach or a doctrinaire approach to my work. I just paint from my personal feelings, and my reflexes and instincts. I have to trust these” (A. Gottlieb, quoted in J. Gruen, The Party’s Over Now: Reminiscences of the Fifties, New York, 1967). Working parallel to the avant-garde artists in Europe, Gottlieb said of his own work that abstraction was deployed to express “great thought and mysteries” (L. Alloway, Ibid., p. 54).
Painted in 1961, the abstract forms in Bonac—the glowing sun juxtaposed next to a black hole or force field—also reverberate with the tension of a more secular world—namely the Atomic Age. A sun resembling the Japanese flag sits above a cloud of destruction, harkening back to the bombings of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The United States also tested its atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico, evoking perhaps—the artist’s remembrances of the time he spent in Arizona in the 1930s. He said of his surroundings at the time, “I think the emotional feeling I had on the desert was that it was like being at sea… in fact, when you’re out on the desert, you see the horizon for 360°…. so that the desert is like the ocean in that sense” (M. D. MacNaughton, “Adolph Gottlieb: His Life and Art,” Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 21).
The nuanced division of this canvas with two abstract forms recalls the work of Rothko, Newman and Still. With Rothko, Gottlieb helped define the Color Field movement; yet his incorporation of both formats individuates his work from that of his contemporaries. The artist also found stylistic influence beyond the confines of the New York School; Bonac bears resemblance to Joan Miró’s 1950s compositions, which depict the same abstract egg-shapes, painted in bright colors. However, Gottlieb’s friendship with Rothko provided the most significant developments within his art: together, each artist worked to refine the form of their signature image. Like Barnett Newman with his “zip,” Rothko created his floating rectangles and Gottlieb perfected his “burst,” crucial declarations of their artistic legacy.
An artist whose career began and grew along the American Abstract Expressionist movement, the paintings of Gottlieb are “a subtle and sustained contribution to the investigation of the visual-physical relationship of image and spectator that is central to the [their] big pictures” (L. Alloway, “Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Painting,” ibid., p. 57). The Burst paintings’ expansive forms offered Gottlieb an ideal opportunity to convey his prodigious command of gesture and color that he had honed over several decades of concentrated engagement with painting. Both elements of the composition radiate with an intensity that exceeds their physical boundaries.
As such, art historians and critics have held the opinion that Adolph Gottlieb is among the most important American painters of the twentieth century. Art critic Lawrence Alloway said, “Gottlieb’s balance of surface and mark, field and gesture, has no parallel among his contemporaries” (ibid. p. 54). The evolution of Gottlieb’s work from Pictographs to sculptures, prints, still lifes, Imaginary Landscapes, to Burst paintings incorporate the avant-garde and political emotions of the twentieth century in America. An artist who came of age during World War I and the Great Depression, who then lived through World War II, explored a form of art-making that captured the complex ethos of his time.
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An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
, titled and dated 'Adolph Gottlieb "BONAC" 1961' (on the reverse)
Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)
Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, American Painting 1962, March-April 1962, n.p., no. 3 (illustrated).
Toronto, Klonaridis Inc., Adolph Gottlieb: Major Works of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, March 1979.
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., Adolph Gottlieb, October 1985, n.p., no. 11 (illustrated in color).
B. H. Hayes Jr., "Paleta Amerykanska," Ameryka, Fall 1962, p. 28 (illustrated in color).
Art in America, vol. 73, no. 7, July 1985, p. 26 (illustrated in color).
A. M. Baxter, "Lawrence Rubin marchand d'Art pour le plaisir," Art Press, July-August 1988, p. 35 (illustrated).
A. M. Scott and C. D. Geist, eds., The Writing on the Cloud: American Culture Confronts the Atomic Bomb, Maryland, 1997, pp. 75-76.
C. Frankel, "Mr. Rachofsky's Dream House," Art & Antiques, vol. 20, no. 9, October 1997, pp. 77 and 81 (installation views illustrated in color).
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, 2006, n.p. (installation views illustrated in color).
Estate of the artist
Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York
Knoedler & Company, Inc., New York, 1985
Private collection, Dallas
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 2002