“The surprise in a painting is not the surprise of discovering some kind of a story or myth, it's the surprise of finding a clear statement about something that you felt and then to see it, to see this feeling become materialized in paint, then it really exists. And until it is materialized, it's not really certain whether this really exists or not. So in a way, I suppose, what I have been doing with my painting is making manifest certain feelings that I have. And also ideas in their intangible form. Then I know that I am actually alive and this is not all a figment of some imagination.”[i]
Adolph Gottlieb was born in New York City to middle-class, educated parents who had both left Austria-Hungary when they were children. Gottlieb developed an early interest in art, but was less enthralled by school and dropped out when he was seventeen in order to travel to Europe. Without passports or money, he and a high-school friend worked their way to Paris, where Gottlieb sneaked into art classes at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière and visited museums daily. In 1923, he returned to New York, where during the day, he worked for his father’s stationery company and at night, finished high school and attended classes at the Art Students League, Educational Alliance, Cooper Union, and Parsons. Around this time, he also began exhibiting at the Opportunity Gallery, an affiliate of the Art Alliance that showcased young painters. Through the gallery, Gottlieb met and befriended Milton Avery and Mark Rothko. In 1930, Gottlieb won first prize in the Dudensing National Competition, and was granted an exhibition at the Dudensing Gallery.
The 1930s were an active time for Gottlieb as he sought his own artistic vision, finding inspiration in a variety of places. The 1935 African Negro Sculpture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ignited a passion for what was then called “primitive” art, and Gottlieb began collecting African and Native American artworks. In 1937, he and his wife moved to Arizona for a year, which enabled him to emerge out from under the strong influence of Avery. He joined the Easel Division of the Federal Art Project (1936-1937) and was a member of the Artists’ Union. In the late 1930s, through a friendship with artist John Graham, Gottlieb became interested in surrealism and the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Despite his growing fascination with the unconscious, Gottlieb had difficulty committing exclusively to a surrealist approach, nor could he entirely abandon surrealism in favor of pure abstraction.
In 1941, Gottlieb found the ideal solution to his attachment to both of American modernism’s dominant styles in his “pictograph” paintings. Dividing his canvas into a freely drawn grid, Gottlieb would use a modified version of automatism to fill the grid with symbolic images. But Gottlieb used these simplified forms as a conduit for his own creativity rather than as a means of narration or allegorical expression. For example, while a squiggly line (such as that in Untitled of 1949) might recall a hieroglyph for “serpent,” Gottlieb used it for its formal qualities rather than as an allusion to snakes and all they represent.[ii] Through the pictographs, Gottlieb brought surrealist spontaneity into dialogue with the structure and discipline of abstract art.