Still churning with creative combustion toward the end of his life, one of the founding fathers of abstract expressionism learned to make prints from his wheelchair.
In 1970, Adolph Gottlieb suffered a massive stroke, leaving him paralyzed but for the use of his right arm.
“A Painter’s Hand: The Monotypes of Adolph Gottlieb,” at the University of New Mexico Art Museum beginning this weekend, explores this largely unexamined period in the artist’s career. The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation has loaned a suite of 40 works created within the last nine months of Gottlieb’s life.
“The doctor’s advice to his wife was keep him in bed, keep him quiet; he’s only got six months,” said Sanford Hirsch, the New York foundation’s executive director. “In her mind, her response was, ‘If I keep him in bed, he’ll be dead in six days.’ ”
In the spring of 1973, Gottlieb agreed to create a new lithograph using a press and an assistant sent to his Long Island studio. He immediately dismissed the assistant back to Manhattan but kept the machinery and materials used to create the prints. They allowed him to work independently and gave him the will to continue working despite his fading health.
“He didn’t have to do the big gesture,” guest curator Joyce Szabo said, her arm rising to an invisible canvas. “It was flat.”
The artist used paper, canvas, tissue and even newsprint, adding ink and oils to create his compositions. He often made small but important changes using little pieces of cardboard or his fingers to manipulate the paint.
Motifs from his paintings regularly appear: the multiple circular forms, the horizon lines.
“These are a more studied form of his imaginary landscapes,” Szabo said.
Gottlieb never intended to exhibit the prints. They represent the personal notes of a long-experienced master who was fully aware he was nearing the end of his life. Rather than a repeated series of images, like a print edition, Gottlieb carefully considered each individual composition, almost like journal entries.
“When he did them, he was doing them strictly for himself,” Hirsch said. “It was to give him a way to keep working.”
That independence surfaced early. Gottlieb left home at 17 and worked his way through Europe, where he visited the museums. When he returned, he studied at the Art Students League under John Sloan, leader of the Ashcan School of painting.
A seismic stylistic shift occurred when Gottlieb moved to just outside Tucson in 1937, at the advice of his wife’s doctor. He distilled his crystallized expansive view of the Arizona desert into a basic abstracted form.
“They were ridiculed,” Hirsch said. “Before that, most of his close friends (also artists) rejected him. It was derogatory; they accused him of ‘going abstract.’ The press was not at all sympathetic.”
By 1948, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum acquired several of his works.
In 1968, a major retrospective exhibition organized jointly by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim Museum opened at both museums in New York City simultaneously —— the only time this has occurred.
Gottlieb died in 1974 after entering the hospital for treatment of emphysema.