A powerful union of radically opposing forms, Bullet is a masterful and paradigmatic example of Adolph Gottlieb’s acclaimed series of Burst paintings. Characterized by two disparate forms—a single, concentrated disc that seems to pull inwards on itself, and a tangled blast of brushstrokes that push outward across the canvas—the bursts evoke a dual response: they stun with their immediacy while inviting slow reflection. In Bullet, the intense depth of the saturated burgundy sphere absorbs the viewer’s gaze like a fathomless pool; an ethereal halo encircles the orb like a shadow as its edges steep slowly into the powdery pink ground. Beneath, a black mass of gestural strokes threatens to break apart in a spatter of frenetic animation. The two forms, eternally suspended on a single canvas in dynamic symmetry, produce a composition that radiates with vibrant energy.
Deeply influenced by his travels through Europe as a student, Gottlieb was particularly impressed by early Renaissance panels and late 18th and 19th Century painting, including works by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet and the Post-Impressionists. He also took an interest in the work of modern artists like Fernand Leger, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In the mid-1920s, having returned to America, Gottlieb enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York, where his instructor, John Sloan, encouraged the young artist to paint directly onto the canvas, without sketching or priming, and to use simplified masses of color. Sloan also instructed Gottlieb to paint those things that were not exactly literal and to work instead from imagination and memory, greatly influencing the artist to begin painting abstractly. His early Pictographs eventually gave way to the Imaginary Landscapes, which in turn developed into the series that would become the apotheosis of his career: the Bursts. Bullet, painted in 1971, exemplifies Gottlieb’s transition into his new, simplified style with its more reductive, vertical composition. In 1973, an article appeared in Art International commenting on the subtle changes in Gottlieb’s paintings featured in an exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, New York. Carter Ratcliff wrote: Gottlieb “continues with his light color fields inflected by central bursts, peripheral bars and scattered marks of color…The range of variation Gottlieb achieves with these seemingly slight changes is extraordinary,” (“New York Letter,” Art International incorporating The Lugano Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, February 1973, p. 38). Bullet, illustrated on the cover of the issue and featured prominently in the exhibition, was deemed Gottlieb’s “finest” painting yet by the journal’s editor-in-chief and publisher, James Fitzsimmons (ibid, p. 38). Bullet revels in the infinite dualities 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 painted 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 maroon 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.
With tremendous graphic force, Bullet epitomizes Gottlieb’s unique brand of markmaking; painted only three years before the artist’s death, this is a confident and distinctive work executed at the peak of his mature practice. Gottlieb identified his direct method with the Renaissance tradition that had so inspired him as a student: “There is a way of painting which in the Renaissance was highly valued; it is called ‘alla prima,’ which means [painting] directly without any revision so that every brushstroke reveals the artist’s thinking and his movements…that is what I am trying to bring out” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Manny Silverman Gallery, Adolph Gottlieb Works on Paper: 1966-1973, 1990, p. 8). Here, the brushstrokes of Gottlieb’s burst explode with such kinetic energy that residual traces of his action project outward beyond the picture plane, revealing the artist’s passionate feeling through his gesture. By engaging these two polar bodies in contentious opposition, Gottlieb creates a composition that crackles with the scintillating possibility of sudden collapse.
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