Standing before Burst II, with its graphic power and elemental force, the viewer cannot resist the hypnotic lure that radiates from the impossible tension between the two suspended forms. All sense of perspective and horizon are eliminated, allowing the two juxtaposed forms, executed in Gottlieb’s archetypal palette of red and black, to become the focus. The luminescent depth of the crimson sphere draws the viewer’s gaze with a siren’s call of saturated color; an ethereal halo encircles the orb in graduated tones as its aura seems to steep slowly into the monochrome ground. In fierce opposition, the gestural strokes of the black mass explode outward in a frenzy of kinetic energy and motion that expands beyond the borders of the canvas. In a departure from his previous works, in which the orb and mass are separated by an expanse of empty space, here they appear to encroach upon each other as though magnetically attracted, yet constantly held apart, met in the center by an explosion of expressive splatters. Lawrence Alloway, the preeminent art critic of the time, described Gottlieb’s Burst paintings as “two forms, roughly equal in area, one above the other; they do not touch, but it feels as if they were bound together, as by planetary forces.” (Lawrence Alloway, “Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Painting,” in Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., Corcoran Gallery of Art (and travelling), Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, 1981, pp. 57-58) By engaging these two polar bodies in contentious opposition, Gottlieb creates a composition that crackles with the scintillating possibility of sudden collapse.
Burst II revels in the infinite dichotomies of its structure: the opposition of stasis and motion, color and shadow, form and stroke, celestial and subterranean. The dramatic mass of black strokes is applied in an emotive, painterly manner reminiscent of the gestural expressionism of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. In contrast, the sublime color and soft, glowing halo of the red orb calls to mind the Color Field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko. While the two schools are often seen as mutually exclusive, Gottlieb combines them with a masterful grasp of multifaceted abstraction, skillfully playing them against each other to enhance the texture of the work. The artist’s practice was also inspired by contemporaneous influences outside the artistic sphere. In the devastating aftermath of World War II and the gnawing threat of nuclear disaster throughout the Cold War, the Burst paintings and their conflicting images represented a powerful expression of the constant tension between West and East, peace and war, hope and fear, existence and destruction – elemental dichotomies placed into dynamic synchronicity within a single frame.
Gottlieb’s fascination with the acute power of binaries was further inspired by the work of philosopher Carl Jung, the dominant psychoanalytic theorist of the age. By casting two such monumental masses in opposition, Gottlieb creates the visual equivalent to Jung’s acclaimed theory of the ego and the unconscious: two mental selves, neither of which can exist without the other. Jungian theory identifies unresolved tension between these two conflicting forces, which must exist in precise balance, as neurosis. Gottlieb noted of his own work, “Subjective imagery is the area which I have been exploring… I reject the outer world… The subconscious has been my guiding factor in all my work. I deal with inner feeling.” (Ibid., p. 49) Like Barnett Newman with his "zip," and Rothko with his floating bands, Gottlieb perfected his "burst," a crucial declaration of his artistic legacy.
The Burst series, which has come to be regarded as comprising some of the most psychologically complex and visually stimulating works of Abstract Expressionism, represents a dramatic breakthrough within Gottlieb’s artistic oeuvre. Before this, Gottlieb had primarily explored themes of symbolism and mythology in his Pictograph and Imaginary Landscape series of the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1957, increasingly drawn to the exhilarating visual force of simple, monumental forms, Gottlieb began reducing his compositions to a radically simplified theme: a white background, emblazoned with a colored orb suspended above a dark, tangled mass. This format, to which he would return until the end of his life, came to represent the ultimate achievement of an artistic language that was at once infinitely universal and deeply personal, allowing the imagery to take on its own meaning in the eyes of the viewer: “I try, through colors, forms, and lines, to express intimate emotions... My paintings can represent an atomic bomb, a sun, or something else altogether: depending on the thinking of whoever is looking at it.” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, 2011, p. 42)
The Burst paintings mark the fulfillment of Gottlieb’s desire to resolve the eternal conflict of the psyche through his compositions, realizing his earlier statement, “I deal with inner feeling.” In powerful, elemental forms, Gottlieb articulates the tension inherent to the natural world, uniting the binary poles of Abstract Expressionism in a single, balanced synthesis. Pulsating with visual and psychic electricity that defies the containment of a frame, Burst II represents the apotheosis of Gottlieb’s career-long pursuit of this goal. As our eye meets the hovering glow of the crimson oculus, suspended above the dark chaos of frenzied streaks, we are drawn into a blissful balance between disparate forms, movements, and selves.
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