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Modern Artist: Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was a central figure of the New York School and one of the first Abstract Expressionist painters. His mature style employed symbols to express universal meaning, and evolved into large abstractions which were at the forefront of Color Field Painting.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Gottlieb's style drew inspiration from Surrealism, primitive art and Greek mythology and used universal symbols that transcend time, place, and language.
  • Gottlieb was a close friend of Mark Rothko, and an important organizer and leader among the New York School.
  • With its focus on simplified form and color, Gottlieb's later style laid the groundwork for Color Field Painting.

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. Much to the chagrin of his parents, Gottlieb developed a passion for painting and began attending weekend art courses while still in high school. In 1919 he dropped out altogether and dedicated himself fully to life as an artist.

Early Training
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 which advocated the realistic depiction of gritty New York over traditional American Impressionism and also the crossover group, The Eight, a diverse group of 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 art, both old and new: he visited the Louvre almost every day to study the Masters and was also exposed to the avant-garde movements of Fauvism and Cubism. He studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere until his lack of visa forced him to leave France, whereupon he traveled widely through Germany and Austria before returning to New York in 1922 to finish his studies at Parsons and Cooper Union. His exposure to Europe's avant-garde convinced him that American painting was by comparison provincial and stagnant, and he strove to incorporate what he had learned abroad into the style he created.

Gottlieb painted throughout the 1920s and also taught art classes to supplement his income. His marriage in 1932 to Esther Dick, who worked to support him, allowed him a financial freedom which few of his contemporaries enjoyed. In the first half of the 1930s his style was heavily influenced by Milton Avery, as was that of his close friend Mark Rothko. Avery's expressionistic landscapes inspired Gottlieb's abstract arrangement of color in compact, simplified shapes. In 1935 Gottlieb and Rothko became founding members of The Ten, a group which protested the realism of American painting. However, Gottlieb was still painting figurative work influenced by Avery, and The Ten, like many artists groups during this period, was short-lived. This was only the beginning of Gottlieb's role as a leader of contemporary movements: he was also a founding member of Stuart Davis' anti-fascist American Artists' Congress, and numerous other organizations throughout his career.

During the Depression Gottlieb, like many artists of later renown, was employed by the Federal Art Project. During this time Gottlieb was exposed to Cubism and Surrealism through his friendship to artist John Graham, and through two major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art: "Cubism and Abstract Art," and "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism." Cubism's simplified shapes and the Surrealist technique of "automatism" would become extremely important concepts in his later work, which was also profoundly influenced by the pure geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian. Graham also nurtured Gottlieb's interest in Primitive art, and he began to collect African Tribal sculpture. Gottlieb relocated to Arizona during 1937-8, where he was awed by the barren desert's earthen tones and painted scenes in a style suggestive of Dalí and de Chirico. These prove that Gottlieb had fully absorbed Surrealism even before the mass influx of the movements' leaders following the rise of the Third Reich, and was on the verge of a breakthrough in his own art.

Mature Period
At the dawn of the 1930s, Gottlieb's style reached maturity as he combined his early interests into a new style that would stake his claim among the American avant-garde. These groundbreaking works, which Gottlieb called "Pictographs," reflect the range of his training, most importantly Surrealism, Primitivism, and geometric abstraction. Working with large-scale canvases, Gottlieb presented a two-dimensional pictorial space devoid of illusion. The canvases are broken into blocks that reflect the influence of both the Renaissance panel paintings he admired at the Louvre, and more importantly the geometric abstraction of Mondrian. In these grids, there is no single focal point. Rather, the works are an early example of the "all-over" painting which would become a unifying characteristic of the often varied Abstract Expressionist style.

The grids create a space to express ideas, and Gottlieb filled them with enigmatic symbols that evoke the biomorphs and automatic writing of Surrealism, and the totems of primitive culture; some appear purely geometrical, others seem drawn from the earth or cosmos, and many are clearly human. While the symbols seem archaic, they are not: Gottlieb invented the symbols and carefully avoided using any with historical precedent. Nor are they a true form of writing. Instead, Gottlieb intended for his images to transcend the barriers of culture, time, and language. He had become interested in the psychology of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and believed that "universal" symbols have the power to unlock the collective unconscious of viewers.

While Gottlieb's work considered these modern concepts, it remained deeply rooted in Greek mythology. Gottlieb executed an entire series of Pictographs on Oedipus and his tragic journey towards self-discovery (Eye of Oedipus, 1941); this story was also a major theme in the work of Freud and perhaps even symbolic of the act of painting itself. He shared this heavy reliance on Surrealist automatism and myth with Jackson Pollock, and his Pictographs placed him among the most avant-garde of his contemporaries.

During this period Gottlieb not only broke new stylistic ground, but also gained recognition as a leader among his peers and the larger art community. In 1943 he and Rothko drafted a letter to the New York Times that outlined the position of Abstract Expressionism for the first time; in it, they advocated the rejection of depth and illusion in favor of the honesty of two dimensions, and asserted that while geometric abstraction had reduced painting to a purely intellectual exercise, that art should be an expression of thought and the human experience. In 1950 Gottlieb organized a protest of the Metropolitan Museum's juried selection of contemporary art, feeling that the jurors ignored the true American avant-garde in favor of what he considered antiquated realism. To commemorate this 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 continued to produce Pictographs through the 1940s, before shifting to a new mode of expression called "Imaginary Landscapes," first exhibited in 1952. In these paintings Gottlieb again explored the question of depth by creating canvases split by an apparent horizon, but without a true illusion of space. The bottom often includes vestiges of his pictographs, including automatic writing, while the top is usually another solid block of color inhabited by ovoid shapes. However, the removal of the grid places the focus color and form instead of symbols, a shift reinforced by the Imaginary Landscapes' use of much brighter tones than the earthen Pictographs.

Late Period and Death
Gottlieb's painting was constantly evolving throughout his lifetime. During the late 1950s he developed a style called "Bursts" which occupied him from 1957 until his death in 1974. The monumental Bursts grew out of the Imaginary Landscapes, but simplify the space and color to the greatest degree possible. Signature Burst paintings like Blast I (1957) are huge vertically oriented canvases in a single field of color (usually white), interrupted only by a glowing disc (often red) above a twisted solar shape of thick gestural brushstrokes (often black). Depth and horizon are eliminated completely, and the focus is entirely on color and form. This style places him among the earliest of the Color Field painters of Abstract Expressionism and deeply influenced the movements that followed.

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. He continued to explore the Burst style even after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1970, painting from a wheelchair until his death in 1974.

Gottlieb is perhaps not so well known as his close friend and collaborator Mark Rothko, but he was equally influential within the circle of the New York School. Gottlieb's incorporation of Surrealist ideas like automatic writing would inspire other Abstract Expressionists to explore these techniques, and his leadership in organizing artists' groups helped burgeoning artists find an intellectual common ground and continue their growth. Finally, his groundbreaking work with Pictographs paved the way for Abstract Expressionism, and his Burst series played an important part in the development of Color Field painting and later movements such as Post-painterly Abstraction.


Below are Adolph Gottlieb's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Milton Avery
John Graham
Giorgio De Chirico
Mark Rothko
Barnett Newman
Clement Greenberg
Geometric Abstraction
African Art
Adolph Gottlieb
Years Worked: 1920 - 1974

" We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth." - letter to Edward Jewel, 1943. (Authored largely by Mark Rothko, but co-signed.)

"For roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization." - letter to Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1950.

"Right now I am sick of the idea of all the pretty good pictures and want a picture that is either damn good or no good." - letter to Harold Baumbach, 1938.

Content written by:
  David Kupperberg

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See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective: Lawrence Alloway

The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb

Freudian Gottlieb Turned to the Greeks in His Pictography
November 28, 2004
The New York Observer

Eric Gelber
Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition: October 11, 2002 to March 2, 2003, at the Jewish Museum

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