|Sandra Gottlieb: Images
of the Sea
The New York-based photographer Sandra Gottlieb has spent much of her life looking out over the Atlantic Ocean; she has a home at Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. As a result of this proximity to water, seascapes are a favorite theme. Earlier images were made with slide film, while later works were photographed using digital film. While Gottlieb uses computer software to make minimal changes in the image, all colors are natural and never altered or cropped. By slightly underexposing her images, the artist creates luminous studies of the sea, the horizon, and the sky; indeed, the cumulative effect of her photographs is nothing so much as painterly, the bands of color apparently referencing Rothko's series of luminous rectangles, and in the sense that Gottlieb connects with a visionary artist such as Rothko, she is very much in keeping with the grand tradition of the New York School. But at the same time, she understands that her studies are very much photographic works of art; in an artist's statement she emphasizes that her intention is "to explore the remarkable ever-changing beauty of the sea and sky." Because the ocean changes so completely from day to day, at one point turbulent, and in the next moment calm, her ongoing exploration of the water and light's various mutations remain a matter of photographic record of altering moods in the grandness of nature around her.
The artist does not name her pictures image by image; instead, she numbers them in accordance with their orientation, which serves as the organizing principle for her "Horizontal" and "Vertical" images, which form the two parts that make up her "Seascapes 1996 through 2006" series. Working large, in dimensions of thirty by forty inches, Gottlieb effortlessly achieves pictorial effects that seem transfixingly quiet—as if she were attempting to communicate to her audience the calm of a certain esthetic distance. This does not mean that she takes pictures only of tranquil moments in the outdoors; indeed, sometimes she creates images that make the sea seem as if it were boiling as surf. Rather, she is interested in showing the sublime beauty of nature in all its differences, creating a language of remarkable cohesion and even painterly effect. In Horizontal #20 (1999), for example, Gottlieb captures, in the middle band of her tripartite composition, a single cumulus cloud, blurred in its outlines against a very light-blue background. Beneath the central strip is a black ocean, while above it is a slate-blue sky. The sharply defined bands of color reiterate Gottlieb's passion for a structure ordering her views, even when the colors do not actually reflect those seen in nature. In this particular work, the cloud is isolated as the only recognizable object to be found.
Then, in Horizontal #9 (2006), we see a majestic vision of heavy cloud mass through which light seems to pour like rain upon a quiet ocean, illuminating the horizon lines and flat expanses of water. Shot in color, this particular image looks as if it has been taken in black and white, with the dark gray of the sea's foreground reiterated in the dark sky in the top of the paintings. Gottlieb's exploration of atmospheric intensities looks very much like a Turner painting; we must remember that she attacks the cliché of such a view so as to transcend the weight, now more or less banal, of historical treatments of light, sky, and sea. It is hard to imagine a more romantic view of such subject matter, which overwhelms its audience with its restrained, yet powerful radiance.
Vertical #2 (2005) more conventionally incorporates the brilliance of fading light into Gottlieb's compositional expertise; the light creates yellows and reds that momentarily overcome gray clouds. Beneath the colors, a dark mauve atmosphere holds sway, more or less bisected by a thin line of clouds close to the horizon. Again, at the bottom of the image, the water appears nearly black; while it is hard to see this sunset as if we were experiencing for the very first time, the imposing ambience of the Vertical #2 reiterates the grand majesty of nature on its own terms. In another photograph, Vertical #18 (1996), a rose-colored stripe is sandwiched between two equally sized rectangles of luminous blue, the upper part the sky and the lower part the sea. This image is remarkably painterly; it brings the paintings of Rothko very much in mind. The pinkish-red tinge of the horizon band is splendid and mysterious, bracketed by royal blues one assumes are rare in nature. Vertical #18 reveals itself to be an impressive image of a moment in time when the natural world, inherently large, becomes nearly too expansive for words. Gottlieb's vision, while painterly, does not forego the beautiful detail a photographic image can give; streaks of blue punctuate the middle distance. She achieves what she has set out to do: catching the view at its grandest, and making a remarkable art from her observations.
Jonathan Goodman, Art Critic, New York City 2007