Between 1941 and 1953, Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb produced over three hundred paintings that he called the “pictographs.” He divided these canvases into irregular rectangular compartments and then filled each space through free association, inventing symbols and signs,...
Between 1941 and 1953, Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb produced over three hundred paintings that he called the “pictographs.” He divided these canvases into irregular rectangular compartments and then filled each space through free association, inventing symbols and signs, masklike faces, and geometric markings that were reminiscent of primitive art and tribal ornamentation. These paintings emerged during a time of introspection, when Gottlieb struggled to “find out what it was I wanted to express, what it was possible for me to express.” Believing that “a whole ripe new area” for painting awaited “in the inner world,” he chose to focus “on what I experienced within my mind, within my feelings.”  Gottlieb drew upon many sources for the “pictographs”—literature, his own work and that of fellow artists, objects from numerous cultures—and for the suggestive symbols and imagery that fill the compartmentalized canvases. Gottlieb recalled “putting whatever came to my mind very freely. . . . There might be an oval shape that would be an eye or an egg. Or if it was round it might be a sun or whatever. It could be a wriggly shape and that would be a snake—whatever I felt like doing.”  He sought forms that had a personal significance, often arriving at images that might be considered universal and primitive. African sculpture and masks were particularly important sources. With its strong vertical banding, the use of bold surface patterns, exaggerated facial features, and a limited palette of black, brown, ochre, and off-white, Gottlieb’s Alkahest of Paracelsus resembles the plank masks used by a number of peoples in the Western Sudan and modern Burkina Faso. A Mossi mask [2005.1198] in the MFA’s collection includes a panel divided into compartments that are filled with lozenge shapes and crossed X forms similar to those used by Gottlieb. But Gottlieb is not imitating specific masks; he is emulating their visual language—a language he believed was universal and relevant to all humankind—in order to articulate the tragedy and pain of his own war-torn times. The title of this painting points to Gottlieb’s sense that a primal, global visual language could reveal otherwise unspeakable truths. Paracelsus was a sixteenth-century alchemist and physician, and one of the first Western scientists to study the unconscious. He devised the word alkahest to describe a “universal solvent” capable of dissolving all other substances. Paracelsus’s alkahest could supposedly reveal the irreducible form and fundamental truth of nature. In the face of World War II, Gottlieb felt that “primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”  By devising his own primal vocabulary, Gottlieb creates a pictorial alkahest, a visual solvent intended to strip away illusions and expose the truth of a civilization tottering on the edge of self-destruction. Notes 1. Oral history interview with Adolph Gottlieb, October 25, 1967, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 2. Ibid. 3. Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creator and Critics (New York: Harry Abrams, 1990), 211–12. Cody Hartley
Lower center: ADOLPH GOTTLIEB
1945, the artist. By 1973, Marlborough Gallery, New York; 1973, sold by the Marlborough Gallery to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 12, 1973)
Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund
©Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, Licensed by VAGA New York, NY