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Abstract Expressionism: A New Art for a New World

After the atrocities of World War II, many artists felt that the world needed to be reinvented

Man Looking at Woman

Adolph Gottlieb
(American, 1903–1974)

1949. Oil on canvas, 42 x 54" (106.6 x 137.1 cm)

In Man Looking at Woman, Adolph Gottlieb uses a palette of earthy colors and compartmentalizes hieroglyphic-like forms into rectangular areas. The artist called this and similar works Pictographs, a series he started in 1941. Unlike ancient writing systems, these symbols could not be read, but they served as a personal vocabulary from which Gottlieb developed his work.

Gottlieb was influenced by the Surrealists, many of whom, during WWII, relocated to New York, where Gottlieb lived. While he shared with them an interest in mining the subconscious and the archaic, his works had a distinctly American tone. He had lived in Arizona from 1937 to 1938, where he was exposed to Native American art and the desert landscapes. By drawing upon ancient sources and so-called “primitive” art, Gottlieb hoped to create work that had universal resonance, especially in the wake of the atrocities of war: “If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. … All 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.”1

Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, “The Portrait and the Modern Artist,” Broadcast on Radio WNYC, Art in New York program, October 13, 1943. In Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

1. The range of colors used by an artist in making a work of art; 2. A thin wooden or plastic board on which an artist holds and mixes paint.

A term initially used to refer to the arts of all of Africa, Asia, and Pre-Columbian America, later used mostly to refer to art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. By the late 20th century the term, with its derogatory connotations, fell out of favor.

An image or symbol representing a word or a phrase.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

A pictographic communication system, closely associated with the ancient Egyptians, in which many of the symbols are stylized, recognizable pictures of the things and ideas represented.

The shape or structure of an object.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.