I recently visited the Adolph Gottlieb show at the Hunter Museum of American Art, A Painter’s Hand: The Works of Adolph Gottlieb. The show is composed largely of monotypes created in the last year of Gottlieb’s life. The monotypes are spare, and the entire show unfolds slowly, rewarding long, repeated looking.
The works demonstrate a dedication to questioning, to building an understanding through the process of making. Smaller, intimate, deliberate marks overtake grand gestures. The visual language that unfolds within the monotypes repeats itself. The shapes and lines subtly shift, providing a foreground for the materiality of the paper and precise colors to show their variety. The beauty and interconnectedness of the work accrue over time, mirroring Gottlieb’s process.
The white cube of the gallery is a stark contrast to the vibrant, sunny, blossoming world outside. Exiting the spring profusion into the contemplative space of Gottlieb’s works makes me think of the context of his work – the turmoil and unrest of the early 1970s, a life that had experienced both World Wars and the Great Depression, a stroke that had limited his mobility. I think about what Gottlieb wrote in 1947:
Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.
In a moment of fractured aspirations, of irreconcilable ideas of directions forward, what, then, is the realism of our time? It is abstraction of a different kind – the abstraction of promises made from the campaign trail and the debate stage – the abstraction of eighteen months of announcements, debates, and endless news coverage – the abstraction of hundreds of millions of dollars flooding into television ads, internet banners, and targeted emails focus grouped to find us all – the abstraction of decades of historical and political maneuvering that has left us feeling small and powerless in the face of what we are told is inevitable.
We live in a world that is unrecognizable in the rhetoric and grand gestures of the election cycle. Sweeping pronouncements about what should have been done during the financial crisis do not change the fact that we have to wake up to take care of children and go to work. Promises about economic growth and schools and healthcare do not help us find more time to learn about the world around us and connect with our neighbors. Our world is dramatically shaped by politicians, the policies and laws they create, and the long-term impacts of their decisions, but the visual language through which we are able to view them attempts to erase the differences between them.
The stage (for debates, concession speeches, victory parties, displays of branded steaks), the giant wall of screens, scrolling red-white-blue corporate logos, and glowing podiums repeat from city to city. Ideas and thoughts are not spoken; speeches are directed at hundreds of audience members and beamed to millions of viewers. It is the aesthetic of stated import, a visual language that is meant to convey gravity and authority without offering specificity. That faceless aesthetic belies the tremendous effect and power these people have and will continue to have over the shape of our daily lives and the seriousness with which we should treat their words. We must recognize the entire political apparatus, from the endless news cycle to the aesthetic of the next debate as a creation of a false normalcy, a stage from which to broadcast widely not connect deeply.
Gottlieb’s abstraction reflected what he saw as the realism of his time. It is time for us to shine the reality of our time onto the abstraction that surrounds us. If we can bridge the gap between the real and the abstract, if we can recognize that the past is as flawed as the present, if we can transform politicians and voters into humans, perhaps we can discover ways to invigorate and enliven the political process into something more than an empty aesthetic, something that reflects the people it serves.