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An abstract painting in black, white, red, and yellow.

The painting is divided in half horizontally, the top is white, the bottom black. On the left side of the white panel is a black pear-shaped object, a dark red oblong with black highlights is off-center to the left, and a gold ellipse with black highlights is on the right. Horizontally across the width of the black panel white paint is applied both thickly and thinly in a large-looped and swirled shape. The white paint is applied over elongated, thick strokes of red on the left and the right, while a loosely formed circle of yellow sits in the lower center of the black panel.

Gallery Text

As a key figure of the New York school, Gottlieb vehemently defended abstraction against critics who saw the work as obscure and befuddling. His oppositional stance — and that of his peers — earned them the nickname “The Irascibles.” In Black Ground (1985.128.A), one of his Imaginary Landscape paintings, Gottlieb presents a mysterious world of symbols and colors that evoke the idea of landscape while not representing a specific place. The unfinished work on the other side (1985.128.B) dates from an earlier moment in his career. The allover pattern of symbols, organized within a grid, reflects Gottlieb’s interest in Jungian psychology, Greek mythology, and the forms of non-Western cultures. At a moment when the United States was emerging from World War II, Gottlieb proposed that the very act of painting was a heroic quest for meaning in an unstable age.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Adolph Gottlieb, American (New York, NY 1903 - 1974 New York, NY)
Black Ground (recto)
Work Type
Creation Place: North America, United States
Persistent Link


Level 1, Room 1200, Modern and Contemporary Art, Mid–century Abstraction I
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Physical Descriptions

Oil on canvas
35.9 x 45.7 cm (14 1/8 x 18 in.)
framed: 38.74 x 48.9 x 3.49 cm (15 1/4 x 19 1/4 x 1 3/8 in.)


Recorded Ownership History
Adolph Gottlieb; to [André Emmerich Gallery, New York, New York], sold; to Mr. and Mrs. Harold Gershinowitz, New York, New York, gift; to Harvard University Art Museums, 1985.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Gershinowitz
© Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Accession Year
Object Number
Modern and Contemporary Art

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Exhibition History

  • Modern Art at Harvard, Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo, 07/31/1999 - 09/26/1999; Takamatsu City Museum of Art, Kagawa, 10/09/1999 - 11/14/1999; Matsuzakaya Art Museum, Nagoya, 12/02/1999 - 12/27/1999; Oita City Museum, Oita, 01/06/2000 - 02/06/2000; Museum of Modern Art, Ibaraki, Ibaraki, 02/11/2000 - 03/26/2000
  • The Spiritual in Art: From the Blue Rider to the Abstract Expressionism, Museum Wiesbaden, 65185 Wiesbaden, 10/31/2010 - 02/24/2011
  • 32Q: 1200 Mid-Century Abstraction I (Painterly Abstraction), Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Related Works

Verification Level

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