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The present work emerges from Gottlieb’s later practice, most famous for his series of Bursts, but in its horizontality and plurality of forms, Swing also cleverly references the artist’s previous work. In the early 1950s, at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, Gottlieb followed his Surrealist-inspired Pictographs with the more reductive Imaginary Landscapes. Here he separated the picture plane into two distinct areas with a horizon line; above it, he added colorful geometric shapes, and below it, pictographic scrawls of paint. The resulting canvases suggested an ambiguous relationship between the two forms, with the snarled, complicated, emotional expression of anguish perpetually attracting and repelling the vibrant, simplified, sun-like appearance of calm purity, reflecting the existential and philosophical tensions at the forefront of public consciousness in the Atomic Age. With his Bursts, Gottlieb further simplified this visual vocabulary by eliminating the horizon line, making the ambiguity deliberate and total. Thus, works like Swing, which reference both series, intimate the concept of a symbiotic relationship between some higher and lower consciousness, and invite contemplation on a deeply spiritual and psychological level.
Accordingly, Gottlieb maintained that his subject was not a natural, but an emotional, landscape. As he explained, he was a painter who dealt with feelings, his own feelings. For him, painting was an emotional experience of self-discovery which required an energized state of mind: "When I feel I am fully charged and ready to let go on the canvas, I’m not in a position to analyze and view myself in an objective way. I have to let my feelings go and it’s only afterwards that I become aware of what my feelings really were. And for me this is one of the fascinations and great experiences of painting, that I become aware of myself." (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Manny Silverman Gallery, Adolph Gottlieb Works on Paper: 1966-1973, 1990, p. 9) In Swing, Gottlieb articulates his feelings with forceful dynamism by means of a radical distillation of simplified graphic shapes, suggestive of an interior psychological or spiritual terrain. The three orbs that control the upper portion of the composition– one inky black void and two radiant red and blue suns – exert an opposing gravitational pull on each other from left to right, visually balanced by the smaller ebony and brilliant yellow punctuation marks in the right-hand corner. Together with the snakelike skeins of wide, curved brushstrokes that loop and twist through the lower third of the canvas, accentuated by drips and spatters of black, these juxtaposed forms are seemingly held in an electrically charged field that bespeaks a complex inner psyche brimming with vim and vigor.
Of particular importance in establishing this impression is Gottlieb’s skillful and radically simplified execution of color. As much a Color Field painter as an Abstract Expressionist, Gottlieb explained his use of color thus: "I want to express the utmost intensity of the color, bring out the quality, make it expressive…so that it exists as sensation and a feeling that it will carry nuances not necessarily inherent in the color, which are brought out by juxtaposition." (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Adolph Gottlieb, 1968, p. 21) The vivid colors Gottlieb has chosen for Swing enliven the composition; the bright and vibrant orbs of undiluted primary hues create a sense of brilliant immediacy that is elegantly complemented by shadows of green and orange. Adding depth to the arrangement are the contrastingly muted gray, white, and black that make up the tangled twist of calligraphy that spirals across the surface. As a result of the artist’s masterful engagement of color, Swing’s lively and multilayered surface radiates an elemental power and painterly bravura that illustrates Gottlieb’s influential role as a leading pioneer of twentieth century abstraction.
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