NARRATOR: Everywhere in this painting by Adolph Gottlieb strange eyes are staring out at you. Some are large, some small, some are just dots which might be eyes. Like markings on the wall of a prehistoric cave, they are ambiguous, powerful, and disturbing.
The canvas is divided into four rectangular panels. Look at the second one from the left. It appears as an archaic human figure—head at the top, body and feet at the bottom. Now look at the panel all the way to the right. Notice the thick line that circles down from the top. It’s reminiscent of a river, a path, or even a snake.
Like other artists of the 1940s, Gottlieb turned his back on realism. Yet he chose not to paint pure abstractions. He found inspiration in African tribal art and the ancient pictographs of Native Americans. Primitive art, he said, was in touch with the subconscious. Moreover, he felt that a mood of dread and mystery suited the dark years of World War II. He once said: “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.”
Gottlieb called this painting Vigil.
Director’s tour audio guide stop for Adolph Gottlieb, Vigil, 1948
MAXWELLANDERSON: In 1948, Adolph Gottlieb painted this dark, enigmatic canvas dominated by images of eyes. Titled Vigil, the painting belongs to a body of work the artist called Pictographs. Like many other artists of the postwar period, Gottlieb preferred to work in a semi-abstract mode. In his work, he attempted to tap the world of the subconscious by using images and symbols open to multiple interpretations.
Notice how this canvas is divided into rectangular sections. Look at the one second from the left. An archaic face appears at the top, with the suggestion of a body and feet at the bottom. Now look at the panel on the far right. Notice the thick line that circles down from the top. It suggests a river, a path, or even a snake. Gottlieb found inspiration in African tribal and Native American art. Primitive art, he said, was in touch with the subconscious.
In a 1960s radio program, the artist described his Pictographs:
ADOLPHGOTTLIEB: (Archival audio from Pacifica Archives) I would start by having an arbitrary division of the canvas into rough rectangular areas, and with the process of free association I would put various images and symbols within these compartments. And it was irrational; there was no logical or rational design in the placing of these. It was purely following an impulse, trying to use the method of free association. And then when all of these images and symbols were combined, they could not be read like a rebus. There was no direct connection from one to the other. However, by the strange juxtapositions that occurred, a new kind of significance stemmed from this juxtaposition.
My favorite symbols were those which I didn’t understand. If I knew too well what the symbol signified, then I would eliminate it because then it got to be boring. I wanted these symbols to have a certain kind of ambiguity and mystery.