Important Art by Adolph Gottlieb
This painting consists of a loose grid structure within which are fragmented and overlapping female forms that have been abstracted into flat lines and shapes. Additional spirals and geometric shapes, as well as squiggles and an arrow (that might suggest male elements or the pathway leading out of the structure and confinement) fill in the remaining picture space. Scholars often point to the pink and brown colors as the remaining influence of the colors the artist had absorbed during his visit to Arizona, although one could as easily point to the pink color and organic shapes of Willem de Kooning's 1945 Pink Angels, or the work of the Surrealist Andre Masson, for example. In 1943 Gottlieb coauthored a letter to the New York Times that advocated the rejection of depth and illusion in favor of the honesty of two dimensions, and asserted that while geometric abstraction had reduced painting to a purely intellectual exercise, that art should be an expression of thought and the human experience. Thus, in this painting there is a soft and painterly texture to the surface that humanizes the geometry, communicating to the viewer the significance of our own personal existence within humanity as a whole.
This painting is typical of Gottlieb's Pictograph paintings with the geometric compartmentalization of the flat space and its use of seemingly mythic signs and symbols. Though the symbols seem archaic, Gottlieb invented most of his symbols, carefully avoiding specific historical precedent and narrative (although many of his titles refer to Greek mythology). Instead, Gottlieb intended for his images to transcend the barriers of culture, time, and language. He was interested in the psychology of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, believing that "universal" symbols have the power to unlock the collective unconscious of viewers. Vigil confronts us directly with several mask-like faces that suggest Nonwestern sources (African, Sepik e.g.) against a dark background that suggests night, and perhaps the need to be watchful. The disembodied eyes might function as talismen, or, in the context of the Oedipus myth about which Gottlieb painted a series, they could also refer to blindness. The theme of seeing vs. blindness is emphasized by the dark background, and simultaneously augments the meaning of the title suggesting that vigilance counteracts blindness. The added lines and geometry help unify the picture, "mapping out" a possible course of action for the viewer.
Gottlieb began his Imaginary Landscapes series in 1951. Here, the artist explored the question of depth by creating a canvas split by an apparent horizon without a true illusion of space. Vestiges of his pictographs, including automatic writing and figures, emerge from the earthy tones of the lower portion of the picture in contrast to the solid block of color inhabited by ovoid and rectangular shapes at the top of the composition. The absence of the grid structure from Gottlieb's previous works draws new focus to color and form over symbols. This stylistic shift is reinforced by the Imaginary Landscapes' addition of brighter tones and colors than the earlier Pictographs. Both expression and content are implied by the frail nature of the barely indicated "pictographs" embedded in the figurative portion of the picture, while the shapes hover in the upper portion, aloof, but insistent.