Modern art was only a part of the extensive and extraordinary collection of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, but the quality and breadth of his modern art was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Masterworks of sculpture by artists such as Arp, Brancusi, Calder, Moore, Giacometti and David Smith kept company with thrilling paintings by Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Mondrian, Miró, Kline, Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and Johns to name just a few of the luminaries represented in Gov. Rockefeller’s collection. Beginning in his college years, Nelson Rockefeller was profoundly influenced by his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and devoted to the institution that she helped to found, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in the late 1920s. His enthusiasm for visits to artists’ studios and galleries with his mother during vacations encouraged Mrs. Rockefeller to share her aspirations for a new museum with her son, commenting “Wouldn’t it be splendid if it would be ready for you to be interested in when you get back to New York to live.” (as quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Museumof ModernArt, Twentieth Century Art from the Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller Collection, 1969, p. 11) While Rockefeller went on to an illustrious career in government, serving as Governor of New York (1959-1973) and as Vice President of the United States (1974-1977), and his philanthropy was wide and varied, his career at the Museum of Modern Art more than fulfilled his mother’s hopes. Upon his college graduation in 1930, Nelson joined the Advisory Committee and rose swiftly to become its chairman before being elected in 1932 as a Trustee of the Museum. By the time of the 1969 exhibition of his modern art at the Museum, Gov. Rockefeller had twice served as its President and as the chairman of the board. In his preface to the catalogue, Gov. Rockefeller paid tribute to the “distinguished staff members who have kept me company and given me advice and assistance”, chief among them the incomparable directors, Alfred H. Barr and René d’Harnoncourt as well as the influential curator, Dorothy Miller, who organized the 1969 exhibition. In responding to the query of what art meant to him, Gov. Rockefeller wrote, “In its nature, art is visionary; even if we fail to understand the artist’s complex mentality, out of which so many disparate forms arise, the ambience of his free imagination stimulates in our minds dreamworlds and utopias of our own.” (Ibid., pp. 8-9) With its graphic power and elemental force, Transfiguration more than fulfills its creators intent and meets its collector’s expectations, as we are enveloped in its scale and vivacious impact.
In 1943, Gottlieb and his friend Mark Rothko co-signed a famous letter to Edwin Jewell in defiant response to a negative review in The New York Times. They asserted, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” (letter to Edwin A. Jewell, June 7, 1943) At this time, Gottlieb was engaged with his “Pictograph” paintings which presented tribal and primitive imagery, with Surrealist overtones, in a modernist grid format. In 1956, Gottlieb’s “Burst” paintings emerged and by 1958 came to full flower in the vitality and boldness of Transfiguration that embodies the lofty goals expressed by the artist in 1943. Quoted at a conference in 1956, Gottlieb clearly reveled in the achievement of his signature style: “… to paint well, to express one’s own uniqueness, to express the uniqueness of one’s own time, to relate to the great traditions of art, to communicate with a small but elite audience, these are the satisfactions of the artist.” (as quoted in Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., Corcoran Gallery of Art and travelling, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, 1981, p. 10) The iconic importance of the Bursts is parallel to Pollock’s “drips”, Newman’s “zips” and Rothko’s floating bands of color. Gottlieb’s unique brand of mark-making, which includes expressive brushwork in the white background as well as the black "burst", incorporated both a sensibility of color and gesture that was tantamount to his illustrious contemporaries.
Abandoning linear composition in favor of color fields, the “Bursts” are a composition steeped in the dualities of sky and ground, heaven and earth, as Gottlieb juxtaposed two fundamental elements afloat in a monochromatic flattened picture plane. Reductive in palette and composition, Transfiguration is the essence of Gottlieb’s achievement, with the black and red elements creating the tension and bold structure that define the explosive effect of his “signs” on the viewer. Simultaneously, the images of the glowing “sun” and the black “burst” are independent of one other in the expansive white ground, yet we feel one cannot exist without the other. Gottlieb’s embrace of this visual contradiction is nowhere more powerful than in his growing gifts as a colorist. The earlier Pictographs exhibited an atmospheric and wide range of subtle and bold colors, but with the Bursts, Gottlieb embraced a tenet of Abstract Expressionism in its predilection for components in their most basic and unadulterated form. Red, white and black have the visual clout of found color and would prove to be Gottlieb’s most effective color palette. Indeed, his 1957 painting titled Burst matches the color palette of Transfiguration just as it matches the scale of this almost 8 foot tall canvas. Just as with the soaring canvases of Rothko, Gottlieb uses color as an expressive agent, stating in 1962, “I want to express the utmost intensity of the color, bring out the quality, make it expressive. At the same time, I would also like to bring out a certain immaterial character that it can have, so that it exists as a sensation and a feeling that it will carry nuances not necessarily inherent in the color, which are brought about by juxtaposition.” (interview with Martin Friedman as quoted in Exh. Cat. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Adolph Gottlieb, 1968, p. 21) The immediacy and intensity of the inky black burst is mirrored by the saturated crimson that embodies the fiery orb of Transfiguration, giving life to a title that references an exalted, almost religious state of emotive transcendence.
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