The mysterious Apparition is composed of a dense patchwork of tone and texture. Compartmentalized figures and cryptic signs, icons, and symbols occupy flat, rectilinear areas stacked above one another, with the narrow four-tiered shaft to the right of center suggesting totems. Eyes appear on almost every form; a pair dominates center stage and other, more enigmatic, single eyes occur frequently. Not one apparition but multiple manifestations magically reveal themselves at the same moment as we enter a new realm, peopled with fantastical inventions of the artist's subconscious.
This work belongs to a unique type of picture, divided into grids, that Gottlieb called the "pictograph." Taking myth as a subject appropriate to the violence of the time in which they were conceived—the turbulent years of World War II—and finding a sense of primeval spirituality in the arts of Native Americans and other tribal cultures, Gottlieb created these highly evocative compositions spontaneously, letting a visual "stream of consciousness" direct his artistic imagination. In Apparition, the velvety qualities of the soft ground etching technique produce a blurred, dreamlike atmosphere, creating one of Gottlieb's most haunting pictographs.
American painter Adolph Gottlieb was a major force in the Abstract Expressionist movement as it emerged in New York City in the 1940s. Although many of the artists identified with this New York School experimented with printmaking, Gottlieb gave prints a sustained and integral role in his oeuvre. He made approximately eighty-three editions in woodcut, linoleum cut, intaglio, and screenprint. He even kept a small press, purchased at a junk shop, in his studio and, early on, used it to print his own proofs.
In 1943 Gottlieb and painter Mark Rothko sent a letter to The New York Times outlining the tenets of their artistic practice: "There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing . . . [O]nly that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art." Toward the creation of a universally meaningful art, Gottlieb turned to Native American, African, aboriginal, and ancient art, as well as the biomorphic Surrealism of Joan Miró and Paul Klee for visual inspiration. His subjects were sparked by a study of archetypes, myths, and religion; he was also interested in the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
The result of these influences was a body of early work known as Pictographs that included more than three hundred paintings and twenty-five prints created between 1941 and 1952. They feature compartmentalized grids, each segment filled with indistinct totemic signs and symbols resembling eyes, swirling seashells, butterfly wings, and shrouded figures. Apparition, an atmospheric dreamscape, begs to be read like a rebus, yet the forms maintain an air of mystery and resist coming together as an easily readable whole, allowing the viewer to create his or her own personal associations and conclusions.