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Adolph Gottlieb Photo

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."
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Adolph Gottlieb Signature
"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."
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Adolph Gottlieb Signature
"I never use nature as a starting point. I never abstract from nature; I never consciously think of nature when I paint."
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Adolph Gottlieb Signature
"I want to express the utmost intensity of the color, bring out the quality, make it expressive."
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Adolph Gottlieb Signature
"I use color in terms of emotional quality, as a vehicle for feeling.. feeling is everything I have experience or thought."
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Adolph Gottlieb Signature
"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."
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Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb
"For roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization." - letter to Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1950."
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Adolph Gottlieb Signature

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.


  • Gottlieb's art employed universal symbols of his own invention that transcended time, place, and language to appeal to the level of the unconscious mind and to offer a pathway of release from a trouble-ridden period in history.
  • As is demonstrated in his groundbreaking Pictographs, Gottlieb believed that new imagery was required in order to respond to the contemporary and subjective experience of the viewer. Rejecting traditional narratives, Gottlieb drew images and materials from many diverse sources, discretely arranging each image in individual compartments on the canvas. Without a clear syntax or narrative, Gottlieb intended for the arrangement of the images and their meaning to communicate and connect with an idea or feeling that already resided within the viewer.
  • Gottlieb employed increasingly abstract symbols and continued to work toward universal meaning during his mature period. The goal of his later works was to use the simplest form in order to convey the complexity of life, exploring the emotional effects of colors and of space directly on the canvas.

Biography of Adolph Gottlieb

Adolph Gottlieb Photo

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.

Important Art by Adolph Gottlieb

Pictograph (1946)

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.

Vigil (1948)

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.

Frozen Sounds Number 1 (1951)

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Adolph Gottlieb
Influenced by Artist
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Friends & Personal Connections
  • Lawrence Alloway
    Lawrence Alloway
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Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Adolph Gottlieb Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Jun 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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