Adolph Gottlieb

American Painter

Born: March 14, 1903
New York, New York
Died: March 4, 1974
New York, New York
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.

Summary of Adolph Gottlieb

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.


Progression of Art



This painting consists of a loose grid structure within which are fragmented and overlapping female forms that have been abstracted into flat lines and shapes. Additional spirals and geometric shapes, as well as squiggles and an arrow (that might suggest male elements or the pathway leading out of the structure and confinement) fill in the remaining picture space. Scholars often point to the pink and brown colors as the remaining influence of the colors the artist had absorbed during his visit to Arizona, although one could as easily point to the pink color and organic shapes of Willem de Kooning's 1945 Pink Angels, or the work of the Surrealist Andre Masson, for example. In 1943 Gottlieb coauthored a letter to the New York Times that 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. Thus, in this painting there is a soft and painterly texture to the surface that humanizes the geometry, communicating to the viewer the significance of our own personal existence within humanity as a whole.

Oil on canvas - Albright-Knox Collection, Buffalo



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


Frozen Sounds Number 1

Gottlieb began his Imaginary Landscapes series in 1951. Here, the artist explored the question of depth by creating a canvas split by an apparent horizon without a true illusion of space. Vestiges of his pictographs, including automatic writing and figures, emerge from the earthy tones of the lower portion of the picture in contrast to the solid block of color inhabited by ovoid and rectangular shapes at the top of the composition. The absence of the grid structure from Gottlieb's previous works draws new focus to color and form over symbols. This stylistic shift is reinforced by the Imaginary Landscapes' addition of brighter tones and colors than the earlier Pictographs. Both expression and content are implied by the frail nature of the barely indicated "pictographs" embedded in the figurative portion of the picture, while the shapes hover in the upper portion, aloof, but insistent.

Oil on canvas - The Whitney Museum of Art


Unstill Life III

The first of Gottlieb's Unstill Life series dates from 1948, but this is a larger and later work from the same series. One can see how the painting relates to his earlier work with its pictographic elements and vestiges of a grid. Here, Gottlieb employs an uncompromising degree of abstraction and modern slickness with its palette of blacks, grays, and reds. Additionaly, the picture's increasingly abstract and gestural line work within the emphatic dividing lines now read more ardently on the surface as a sort of matrix as opposed to a grid. The negative space also comes more into play to contrast and balance the painterly interior sections of the composition. The painting's movement and pulsation, sharply contrasts with the apparent flatness of the painting's design, reflective of the title of the series.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Beginning in 1956, Gottlieb's monumental Burst paintings developed from the Imaginary Landscapes, focusing on a simplification of space and color from the earlier series. Though the more typical palette for these signature paintings consists of reds and blacks, Blues similarly presents a large, vertically oriented canvas in a field of light color, interrupted only by a glowing disc above a twisted solar shape of thick, dark gestural brushstrokes. Depth and horizon are completely eliminated causing color and form to be the sole focus of the picture's field. The polarities of the colors and forms provide the key to the picture -- below, the thick lines that create a moving, "messy," unresolved mass and above, the mesmerizing glow of the pulsating, celestial blues. In 1962, the date of this painting, Gottlieb spoke about the emotional quality of color in his work. Viewing the painting, one is struck by the range of emotional effects that the artist explores through the color blue - progressing outward from the core, the composition's blue builds from subtle and mysterious meaning to an intense and vibrant statement.

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian



Painted just a year before Gottlieb's death, this is one of the last in this series of Burst paintings. The picture's elongated form echoes the vertical composition of his earlier paintings, emphasizing the empty space between the lower and upper portions of the picture. A warm beige and compressed horizontal zone at the very bottom of the composition serves as a ground for the more delicate and complaisant black, gestural marks pushed against the lower edge. An achingly long distance separates this lower area from the hovering, red orb at the top of the composition, which casts an increasingly pink glow. Gottlieb felt that the space of the picture should function as a matter of the scale and size of the painting - as he said, the space of the picture is "the space that we're confronted with.. in relation to your own size."

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation

Biography of Adolph Gottlieb


Adolph Gottlieb considered himself "a born New Yorker," and spent his entire life in the city. Gottlieb was born in the East Village in 1903 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.

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 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 Works Progress Administration, 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.

Mature Period

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.

The Legacy of Adolph Gottlieb

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.

Similar Art

Rooftops (1943)

Oedipus (1944)

Onement I (1948)

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