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Old artists can learn new artistic tricks, or can if they are like Adolph Gottlieb. The Akron Art Museum, a Knight Arts grantee, sets out to show exactly that in its newest exhibition, “Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor.”

Adolph Gottlieb. Photo by Michael Fredericks

I think it’s fascinating that someone who was late in his career and was as established as Adolph Gottlieb would venture forth into pretty uncharted artistic territory – or, really, that he would even want to. Yet Gottlieb, a first-generation abstract expressionist painter, took the chance to learn and test his ideas and technique in another medium, that of sculpture.

Adolph Gottlieb oil painting, “Echo.” Photo from sharecom.ca

Although Gottlieb’s foray into sculpture was brief (covering the 1960s and 1970s), he created a body of work that has been acknowleged as challenging the distinction between painting and sculpture. He used the artistic tools he had developed throughout his long painting career -touch, visual balance, surface quality and more – to make, it is said, his sculpture like his paintings.

Adolph Gottlieb sculpture, “Petaloid.” Photo courtesy of Akron Art Museum

He began with small, cut-and-painted cardboard maquettes (or scale models, of which there are 10 in the exhibit that match most if not all of the 12 larger finished sculptural pieces). He converted the models into templates for metal sculptures made of aluminum or steel, or brass or bronze. Gottlieb used the templates to cut and weld metal in his studio and then completed the works by hand painting them.

Adolph Gottlieb sculpture, “Wall.” Photo courtesy of Akron Art Museum

When looking at sculptures like “Petaloid,” “Wall,” or “Two Arcs,” one can see similar images (such as distended circles, long flat wavy bars or a circular cut out) that appear in the later paintings. The connection – when your eye roves back and forth between sculpture and painting – lets you know that there is something deliberate going on with this artist. It also allows you to understand the changes and further uses of shapes and how Gottlieb used them for composition purposes.

Adolph Gottlieb sculpture, “Two Arcs.” Photo courtesy of Akron Art Museum

This exhibit is a good opportunity to assess the different media the artist worked in and come to some conclusions about how very gifted the artist, the painter, was in his career. The sculptures facilitate great appreciation of the paintings that Gottlieb created in his lifetime.

Adolph Gottlieb sculpture, “Arabesque.” Photo courtesy of Akron Art Museum

When first viewing the exhibit I found myself tempted to say that the sculptures make one really appreciate Gottlieb as a painter, as though the sculptures themselves were somehow not of the same rank. I probably still have that feeling, but have to give the artist his due and say that the metal three-dimensional pieces have a lot going for them.

“Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor” will be on view Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. -5 p.m. (with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays) through February 17 at the Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St., Akron; 330-376-3185; www.akronartmuseum.org. Admission is $7 with discounts for students and seniors.

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