Born: March 14, 1903 - New York, New York
Died: March 4, 1974 - New York, New York
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"Different times require different images. 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. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time."
Growing up during the Depression and maturing throughout the interwar period and the rise of Hitler, American painter Adolph Gottlieb staunchly defended the art of the avant-garde -- Abstract Expressionism in particular -- for its ability to express authentic feeling in the face of the trauma of World War II. The themes of Gottlieb's paintings over the course of more than three decades still help us come to terms with both the difficulties -- such as evil, war, violence, and ignorance -- that we as humans encounter, as well as moments of the sublime aspiration and realization.
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This painting is typical of Gottlieb's Pictograph paintings with the geometric compartmentalization of the flat space and its use of seemingly mythic signs and symbols. Though the symbols seem archaic, Gottlieb invented most of his symbols, carefully avoiding specific historical precedent and narrative (although many of his titles refer to Greek mythology). Instead, Gottlieb intended for his images to transcend the barriers of culture, time, and language. He was interested in the psychology of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, believing that "universal" symbols have the power to unlock the collective unconscious of viewers. Vigil confronts us directly with several mask-like faces that suggest Nonwestern sources (African, Sepik e.g.) against a dark background that suggests night, and perhaps the need to be watchful. The disembodied eyes might function as talismen, or, in the context of the Oedipus myth about which Gottlieb painted a series, they could also refer to blindness. The theme of seeing vs. blindness is emphasized by the dark background, and simultaneously augments the meaning of the title suggesting that vigilance counteracts blindness. The added lines and geometry help unify the picture, "mapping out" a possible course of action for the viewer.
Oil on canvas - The Whitney Museum of American Art
Adolph Gottlieb considered himself "a born New Yorker," and spent his entire life in the city. Gottlieb was born in the East Village in 1904 to the children of Czech immigrants and moved to the Bronx soon after his birth, where he was raised in a Jewish household. His father inherited a successful stationery business, and intended for his son to follow in his footsteps. To his parent's chagrin, Gottlieb developed a passion for painting and began attending weekend art courses while in high school. In 1919 Gottlieb dropped out of school and began working as an artist.
Gottlieb's first teachers were among the best-known American painters of their generation. At the Art Students League he listened to lectures by the influential Robert Henri; he also studied drawing with painter John Sloan, a central figure of the Ashcan School that advocated the realistic depiction of gritty New York over traditional American Impressionism, and The Eight, a crossover group formed to strengthen the advance of modern art. Gottlieb departed New York in 1921 to study art in Paris, earning his passage by working aboard a steamer bound for France. In Paris, Gottlieb immersed himself in both classical and modern art traditions: he visited the Louvre almost every day to study the Masters and was also exposed to the avant-garde movements of Fauvism and Cubism. Too poor to come up with tuition money, he attended the open life-drawing classes at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere until, not in possession of a visa, he was forced to leave France. Gottlieb then traveled widely throughout Germany and Austria, as well as Holland, Belgium, Italy, and Prague, before returning to New York in 1922 to finish his studies at Parsons and Cooper Union. In 1923 he met the Ukrainian artist and critic John Graham (born Ivan Dubrovsky) through the Art Students League. Gottlieb's exposure to Europe's avant-garde convinced him that American painting was in comparison provincial and stagnant, and he strove to incorporate what he had learned abroad into a new style. The artist painted throughout the 1920s and also taught art classes to supplement his income.
Gottlieb's marriage in 1932 to Esther Dick, who worked to support him, allowed him a financial freedom that few of his contemporaries enjoyed. In 1933 the artist changed the spelling of his first name Adolf to Adolph in protest against Hitler's election to Chancellor of Germany. In 1935 Gottlieb and Rothko became founding members of The Ten, a group that protested the realism of American painting. At the time, Gottlieb was still painting figurative work influenced by Avery, and The Ten, like many artists groups during this period, was short-lived. That same year, Gottlieb and his wife went back to Europe, making a special trip to Belgium to view artifacts from the Belgian Congo. So taken with Nonwestern objects, Gottlieb and his wife took the money they had saved for their last lunch in Paris and purchased African tribal sculpture. Returning home, Gottlieb became part of the Easel Painting division of the WPA, but because of his wife's ill health, the couple moved to Arizona in 1937, returning to New York the following year. Gottlieb continued his firm stance against Hitler in 1939, when he and eleven other artists resigned from the American Artists' Congress (of which he was a founding member) for its not taking a stand against the Hitler-Stalin pact.
Gottlieb began painting his Pictograph paintings in 1941. In 1943 he and Rothko drafted a letter to the New York Times that outlined the position of Abstract Expressionism for the first time. Gottlieb persisted as a leader in the arts community, becoming a founding member of the New York Artists, Painters, and Abstractionists group and President of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors in 1943-44. He delivered talks at the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Students League in 1948-49, and in 1950 organized a protest of the Metropolitan Museum's juried selection of contemporary art, arguing that the jurors ignored the true American avant-garde in favor of what he considered antiquated realism. In commemoration of their protest, Gottlieb and fourteen major painters of the New York School posed for a now iconic photograph by Nina Leen, and were dubbed "the Irascibles."
Gottlieb's series of "Imaginary Landscape Paintings" began in 1951, followed by the first of his Burst paintings in 1954. Three years later he started teaching at the Pratt Institute of Design and the Jewish Museum mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work. In 1958 he taught at the University of California and, in an important gesture, the Museum of Modern Art included his work in a show entitled "The New American Painting," which then toured Europe, introducing the work of the American Abstract Expressionists to audiences abroad.
Late Years and Death
Gottlieb continued to be active in the arts community into the next decade, appointed to the Art Commission, City of New York in 1967. Gottlieb's reputation was cemented during this period by numerous international exhibitions and a major double retrospective in 1968 at the Whitney and the Guggenheim.
Gottlieb suffered a stroke in 1970, and was confined to a wheelchair. His left side was paralyzed but he continued to paint . He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971, and finally in 1973 began a series of monotypes that he worked on until two weeks before his death on March 4, 1974.
Gottlieb's incorporation of Surrealist practices like automatic writing would inspire other Abstract Expressionists to explore these techniques. His combination of both European and Nonwestern inspiration, in addition to his insistence on the emotional integrity of the "Pictographs" and their "all-over" painting style also contributed to the development of Abstract Expressionism. Additionally, his Burst series, with its focus on form and color, played an important role in the development of Color Field painting.
In addition to his artistic achievement, Gottlieb was a tireless advocate for the professional status of artists -- writing statements, giving talks, and broadcasting on radio vawes. In 1943 the artist co-authored a letter with Mark Rothko, published in the New York Times, which was the first formal statement of the concerns of the Abstract Expressionist artists. This kind of leadership in organizing artists' groups served both to help burgeoning artists find an intellectual common ground and continue their growth, bridging the gap between artist and public.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Adolph Gottlieb
| Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective |
By Lawrence Alloway, Mary Davis MacNaughton
| The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb |
By Sanford Hirsch, Evan Maurer, Lawrence Alloway, Linda Konheim Kramer , Charlotta Kotik
| The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation |
The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation quality website includes significant essays
| Freudian Gottlieb Turned to the Greeks in His Pictography |
By Hilton Kramer
| Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition |
By Eric Gelber