Adolph Gottlieb’s "Duet" at the High Museum

By June 24, 2016

My foolish little love gave me dinner, and through the open
window of the dining room I reflected on the moving architectures
God has made with vapors, those wonderful constructions of the
impalpable. And in the course of my contemplations I said to
myself: All those phantasmagoria are almost as beautiful as the
eyes of my beloved, my crazy little green-eyed beast.

Then, all of a sudden, I felt a violent punch on my back, and I
heard a hoarse and charming voice, an hysterical and brandy-
rasped voice, the voice of my dear little beloved, who said: Are
you going to eat your soup or not, you stupid cloud-monger?

The Soup and the Clouds by Charles Baudelaire (translated by Lola Haskins)

Adolph Gottlieb, Duet, 1962; oil on canvas, 84 by 90 inches.

While the Abstract Expressionists were not romantics exactly, they were, perhaps, the type of people to have also gazed out of windows, contemplating the clouds and their shapes. Most certainly they were interested in ideas of the sublime. Our approach to art these days is, at   best more akin to the “violent punch” on the back, bringing people back to reality, or at worst an outright celebration of superficiality. Most times, however, it is something in between. Expressions of the sublime make only rare appearances.

The Abstract Expressionists and their art are now part of history. That chapter is closed. Not too long ago at the Atlanta Contemporary’s 2015 Art Party, I saw a dancing man holding up a crudely worked abstract canvas with the word “Rothko” painted over it. I felt a little a sad that night, as I imagined the dancing artist to be mocking Rothko to a small extent. We live in a less patient world, and critical thought in the art community is sometimes less than kind to deep painting than it was in the time of Abstract Expressionists. But I still love the deep painting, so when I read that the High Museum of Art had an Adolph Gottlieb, I resolved to track it down and spend some time with it. I half expected to find it alone in some sad neglected corner, collecting cobwebs.  I was partially right.

Tucked away in a corner and presented in a humbled setting blocked by a column, I found Gottlieb’s Duet, but it wasn’t alone and covered in cobwebs. Instead, I was surprised to see a young couple standing before it, having their picture taken. I also saw a mother with her home-schooled daughter looking into the work, sitting down across from it with study guides and a blank canvas. After studying the canvas, the young girl planned to make her own version of a Gottlieb! While I was still able to fall deep into Gottleib’s Duet, which requires a personal and maybe solitary contemplation, akin to seeking a religious epiphany, seeing it tamed and domesticated by the photograph-seeking young couple and the home-schooling mother and daughter was also a reassurance. Duet wasn’t a threatening oracle from a bygone era; it wasn’t abandoned, alone, and hidden in storage. It was genuinely loved and embraced, living and part of the community.

To anyone with a sense of humor and an empty stomach, Duet might look like a pair of meatballs hovering above a broken pretzel on a mustard field. But after our quick initial assessment, and maybe a respectful laugh, it is possible, and perhaps necessary, that we settle in to have a closer look. For anyone familiar with Gottlieb’s oeuvre, Duet is an example of the famous “burst” paintings, which he first developed in the mid 1950s. Like his Abstract Expressionist peers, Gottlieb sought to create “the simple expression of the complex thought.” Duet is composed of a thickly painted beach-ball–sized light red orb. Beside it and to the right is a similarly sized orange orb. Both orbs have a bright halo and float precariously above a brilliant gold-colored field. The halos of the orbs are just as powerful and radiant as the orbs themselves, creating intense luminous rings. It wasn’t much of a stretch of my imagination to see these rings as an ouroboros, the mythical/alchemical symbol showing the snake swallowing its tail. Below the halo-ringed orbs rests an ambiguous brown shape, what could be read as an abstracted infinity symbol, but broken in two places. The broken infinity symbol is roughly painted, which, along with the black and white spatter surrounding it, sits in contrast to the more composed glowing orbs and the gold field they float over.

Gottlieb’s works often examine complex dualities, such as day/night, body/soul, masculine/feminine, as a way to construct new mythologies. Duality is certainly a big part of Duet, but the composition also brings to mind concepts of time, such as infinity and eternal return . Here we are moving through a rich territory, where philosophers, poets, and physicists tread. Eternal return is a concept with a long history. Essentially, it considers the cyclical nature of time. It has been explored in Eastern philosophy as the birth, life, death, rebirth/reincarnation cycle and is symbolized by the Zen enso. In the West, the concept was first explored by the Egyptians, who created the ouroboros to symbolize the cyclical nature of time. Later the concept was adopted by the alchemists, and then further refined by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Today some physicists are supporting models of the universe that embrace the concept of eternal return. Simply put, it posits that time and space are infinite, but matter, the stardust particles of which we are composed, is finite.

How should we receive the possibility of eternal return, knowing that we could be fated to be reborn as we are here today, in the same circumstances, meeting the same people, and possibly having the same conversations? Is this to be a frightening proposition or enlightening one? Are we doomed to make the same mistakes and suffer the same fate for eternity? Should we embrace Gottlieb’s infinity symbol-pretzel or desire to smash it to bits? How are we to feel about such cosmic ambiguity/inevitability? Perhaps we shouldn’t spend so much time thinking about such uncomfortable questions. At least that seems the general consensus among many people today. But to my own susceptible mind, I sometimes find myself thinking about such things.

A lot of times, it takes patience to really look at a painting, patience that many people are not willing to give. But it is easy to fall deep into this Gottlieb painting. Of course, much of the meaning of this work depends on what you bring to it, but if you plan to go really deep, it may help to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind or have an Ariadne to provide you with a ball of string so that you can find your way back out of the labyrinth. And when you do find your way back, don’t be surprised to learn that the voyage may have left a little mark on your soul.

I am comfortable with the deep thinking of the Abstract Expressionists, but I am also comfortable with the more terrestrial and pragmatic concerns that seem to be the focus of much of today’s art. Neither of these perspectives is more right than the other and each has its appropriate time and place. The romantic and the pragmatic perspectives can co-mingle nicely, an odd couple with patience enough to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Soup and clouds, pretzels and painting, both sound delicious to me.

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