In the freeze-dried version of the history of American art, the kind familiar from survey courses and gallery tours, each artist of the New York School is identified with a single signature image: Pollock with an all-over tangle of poured paint, Rothko with stacked blocks of color, Kline with overscaled black-and-white brushstrokes, Newman with the “Zip”—a single narrow line—and so on. The name of Adolph Gottlieb (1903–74) is synonymous with the “Burst”—a large, haloed disc hovering above an exuberant tangle of vigorous strokes. The equation is so neat that even among Gottlieb’s admirers, who should know better, Burst paintings are assumed to represent the artist best; I remember one serious collector telling me, moreover, that only the black, white, and red Bursts were worth considering.

But when Gottlieb made the first of the Burst pictures, in 1957, he was fifty-four and had been...


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