Index of Selected Artists in the Collection

Adolph Gottlieb (American, New York 1903 - 1974 East Hampton, New York)
The Rape of Persephone, 1943
Signed upper left: A. Gottlieb (incised into the paint, exposing the ground)
Oil on canvas
34 3/16 x 26 1/8 in. (86.8 x 66.3 cm)
Gift of Annalee Newman in honor of Ellen H. Johnson, 1991
AMAM 1991.41.2

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The dense silhouette of a head, neck, and shoulders floats in an uneven field of green-brown pigment. Simple signs of the body and the earth--eyes, hair, and mysterious growths--are painted inside and scratched upon the figure. Like Mark Rothko's The Syrian Bull, Rape of Persephone is a response to European Surrealism, the dominant aesthetic force in New York artistic circles from the late 1930s to the mid '40s.

There were many Surrealist exhibitions, emigrés, and works circulating in New York during this period, and several interrelated factors drew Gottlieb, Rothko, and many other young American painters to this European influx.1 A widespread dissatisfaction with the provincialism and literalism of American art and culture; a commitment to subject matter of critical, human import; and a belief in an "authentic" subjectivity that resided in uncharted areas of the collective mind made Surrealism's focus on desires, dreams, and repressed subconscious materials highly influential.

In the early to mid 1940s, painters such as Gottlieb, Rothko, and Barnett Newman were also deeply involved in the study of myth as a vehicle and repository of "primal" human expression.2 It was during this period that Gottlieb began to paint the works that he called "pictographs": paintings whose titles often invoked mythic figures and tragedy, and whose simplified, flat, totemic forms drew on various sources of archaic and tribal art. Closely related to the Oberlin canvas is his Persephone of 1942.3 According to Stephen Polcari, Persephone's jagged, right-facing profile, which also appears in Oberlin's Rape of Persephone, was inspired by one of the African carvings in Gottlieb's collection.4 In reworking the Persephone theme in 1943, Gottlieb simplified the contours of the centralized figure, reduced its internal forms and lines, and created a consistently colored ground for the scratched and painted signs.5

The initial exhibition and reception of The Rape of Persephone marks a key moment in Gottlieb's public presentation of his views on painting. First shown in 1943 at the Third Annual Exhibition of Modern Painters and Sculptors in New York, the canvas was among the paintings that New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell singled out to illustrate the hopeless incomprehensibility of recent modernist art.6 Another work so mentioned was The Syrian Bull by Mark Rothko, a painter with whom Gottlieb had been working closely for several years.7 Wrote Jewell,

You will have to make of Marcus Rothko's 'The Syrian Bull' what you can; nor is this department prepared to shed the slightest enlightenment when it comes to Adolph Gottlieb's 'Rape of Persephone.

Within five days, Gottlieb and Rothko, with the assistance of their friend and colleague Barnett Newman, wrote and signed a response to Jewell, parts of which were published in The Times on 13 June 1943.8

Their by-now famous letter, headed by photographs of The Rape of Persephone and The Syrian Bull,9 offers a compendium of aesthetic and cultural themes and positions that Gottlieb and other New York School painters would continue to put forward throughout much of the 1940s. An espousal of abstract forms which "destroy illusion and reveal truth" and are "the simple expression of the complex thought"; a committment to subject matter "which is tragic and timeless"; "a spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art"; and a belief that the meaning of a painting "must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker" are among their statements.10 The Rape of Persephone is described in the letter as "a poetic expression of the essence of the myth; the presentation of the concept of seed and its earth with all its brutal implications; the impact of elemental truth. Would you have us present this abstract concept, with all its complicated feelings, by means of a boy and girl lightly tripping?"

Despite the letter's expression of a unified purpose, the many differences between The Syrian Bull and The Rape of Persephone reveal the specificity of each artist's concerns as a painter. In its figural focus, the centrality of its (nearly) monolithic form, Gottlieb's Rape of Persephone has the unitary organization and simplified allure of an emblem or icon. By contrast, the ambiguous contours, multiple forms, and varied paint densities in Rothko's work point towards the decentralized, all-over approach to the picture field that would characterize his later work.

A. Kurlander

Work (C) 1998 Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Biography
Among all the Abstract Expressionist painters, Adolph Gottlieb received the most rigorous artistic training. He was also unusually well traveled. In 1919 he enrolled in the Art Students League, New York, where he studied with John Sloan and Robert Henri. In 1921 Gottlieb went to Europe, where he attended drawing classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, and traveled to Berlin and Munich. He returned to New York in 1923, finished high school, and studied at the Parsons School of Design, the Art Students League, Cooper Union, and the Educational Alliance Art School. Throughout the 1930s, Gottlieb's portraits, interior and exterior scenes, and still lifes responded first to contemporary trends in American realism and eventually to Surrealism. In 1935 Gottlieb became a founding member of "The Ten," a group that advocated abstract and expressionist painting; in 1936 he was put on the payroll of the WPA.

The pictograph paintings of 1941 inaugurated the mature phase of Gottlieb's work. The pictographs were first shown in the second annual exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors held in May 1942, at the Wildenstein Galleries. In 1943 he became a founding member of "New York Artist Painters," a group which also included Mark Rothko and John Graham (1881-1961). By the mid 1940s, Gottlieb was already an established painter with a consistent mode of painting. He participated in and chaired public fora on art and culture throughout the 1940s, and won various prizes and significant commissions.

In the late 1950s Gottlieb developed his "Burst" paintings; these usually consisted of two shapes on a neutral field, a red disk above a gesturally painted black mass. Gottlieb's first retrospective was held in 1968 in simultaneous exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Whitney Museums, New York, in 1968. He suffered a stroke in 1971, and continued painting with paralysis in his left side. Gottlieb was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972. He died on 4 March 1974, in East Hampton, New York.

General References
Gottlieb, Adolph, and Marcus (Mark) Rothko. In Edward Alden Jewell, "The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: 'Globalism' Pops into View." The New York Times, 13 June 1943, x9.

Polcari, Stephen. Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience. New Haven, 1991.

Barnes, Lucinda. "A Proclamation of Moment: Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the Letter to The New York Times." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 47, no. 1 (1993), pp. 2-13.

Leja, Michael. Reframing Abstract Expressionism. New Haven, 1993.

Hirsch, Sanford. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb. Exh. cat., Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York, 1994.

Provenance
Gift of the artist to Barnett Newman

Collection Annalee Newman (his widow), by whom given in 1991

Exhibitions
New York, Wildenstein Gallery, 1943. Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors with Wildenstein Gallery. 3 - 26 June. No cat.

New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1968. Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage. 27 March - 9 June. Cat. no. 142.

Literature
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Modern Painters Open Show Today." The New York Times, 2 June 1943, p. 28.

Gottlieb, Adolph, and Marcus (Mark) Rothko. In Edward Alden Jewell, "The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: 'Globalism' Pops into View." The New York Times, 13 June 1943, x9.

Barnes, Lucinda. "A Proclamation of Moment: Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the Letter to The New York Times." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 47, no. 1 (1993), pp. 2-13.

Leja, Michael. Reframing Abstract Expressionism. New Haven, 1993, pp. 79, 95.

Technical Data
The work is painted on a canvas of plain tabby weave, prepared (probably by the painter himself) with a smooth, thin, off-white ground.The paint surface has an overall matte appearance, and varies from thin washes, which reveal the canvas texture, to thick layers applied with a spatula. In the central area, design elements have been incised into the wet paint, exposing the ground. This central area of dark paint has also been deliberately rubbed to give the paint a worn appearance. The surface is unvarnished, and is covered by a fair amount of dust and grime. Despite areas of cracking the painting is in good condition, and shows no evidence of restoration.

Footnotes
1. For an outline of Surrealist exhibitions and publications in New York during the 1930s and '40s, see Clair Zamoiski's chronological table in Diane Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, a Retrospective (exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978), pp. 266-71.

2. There is a vast literature on the myth-making project of early Abstract Expressionism. See especially Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism (New Haven, 1993), pp. 49-120; and Anna Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction (New Haven, 1989), pp. 60-104.

3. 1942, 86.4 x 66 cm, New York, Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation; reproduced in Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (New Haven, 1991), p. 160, fig. 94.

4. Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (New Haven, 1991), p. 158. Polcari does not mention the Oberlin canvas, and it is not certain whether there are other Persephone paintings besides these two.

5. As an image that presents a unitary form in a powerfully centralized visual field, The Rape of Persephone might appear to be an unusual example of Gottlieb's pictographs, as the vast majority of these (approximately five hundred) works compartmentalize the picture field, placing numerous signs or hieroglyphs within a linear grid. (A broad range of examples are reproduced in Sanford Hirsch, The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb [exh. cat., Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York, 1994].) Like the compartmentalized Pictographs, however, the Rape of Persephone projects a strong sense of pictorial clarity and controlled organization that distinguishes Gottlieb's work from that of Rothko. See Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism (New Haven, 1993), pp. 76-80.

6. Edward Alden Jewell, "Modern Painters Open Show Today," The New York Times, 2 June 1943, p. 28

7. Rothko and Gottlieb met in 1929 and established a close friendship. See James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko, a Biography (Chicago, 1993), pp. 161-64.

8. Adolph Gottlieb and Marcus (Mark) Rothko, in Edward Alden Jewell, "The Realm of Art: A New Platform and Other Matters: 'Globalism' Pops into View," The New York Times, 13 June 1943, x9.

9. The since-forgotten Trijugated Tragedy by Theoder Schewe was reproduced between The Rape of Persephone and The Syrian Bull; see Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism (New Haven, 1993), p. 28.

10. The Rothko/Gottlieb/Newman letter to the Times is one of the most frequently cited and extensively analyzed document of the New York School literature. For a recent study of the letter and a review of the literature, see Lucinda Barnes, "A Proclamation of Moment: Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the Letter to The New York Times," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 47, no. 1 (1993), pp. 2-13.