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Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)

Untitled, c.1949 gouache on paper 18 x 24 inches /...

Untitled, c.1949
gouache on paper
18 x 24 inches / 45.7 x 61 cm


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Artist Information

“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.


This interest in the juxtaposition of divergent aesthetics has its roots in surrealism,[iii] and Gottlieb’s passion for large-scale abstraction and mythology’s potential to be a living form of expression placed him in the vanguard of American painting. In 1943, Gottlieb, together with Rothko and Barnett Newman wrote a letter to one of their most vocal detractors, New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell, outlining the use of mythic themes and abstract forms that were hallmarks of the New York School. In 1944, Howard Putzel included Gottlieb in the Forty American Moderns exhibition, and in 1950, Gottlieb protested the lack of “advanced” art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s juried exhibition with the group that became known as “the Irascibles.”

Having mastered the pictograph format, Gottlieb sought new challenges, and in the 1950s, he “hit on dividing the canvas into two parts, which then became like an imaginary landscape. However, while this seemed like a great break, it wasn’t . . . because in a philosophical sense what I was doing was the same. In other words, I’ve always done the same thing. That is, I'm interested in certain opposing images.”[iv] This new approach led first to his “imaginary landscape” paintings and the to the “burst” paintings—immediately recognizable for their large round bursts of color placed over dark lines—which distinguish his mature style. 

Gottlieb was a vital force in the history of abstract expressionism, articulating its aims and defining its contours. In 1958, he was included in MoMA’s New American Painting exhibition; the following year London’s Institute of Contemporary Art held a mid-career retrospective of his work; and in 1963, Gottlieb represented the United States at the 1963 São Paulo Biennial. In 1968, he was the subject of a double retrospective held simultaneously at the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Although he suffered a stroke in 1970, Gottlieb continued to work up until his death in 1974. That same year, MoMA held a memorial exhibition of his work, and two years after his death, the Esther and Adolph Gottlieb Foundation was formed to preserve the artist’s legacy and provide financial support for contemporary artists.

[i] Oral history interview with Adolph Gottlieb, 1967 Oct. 25, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. (Accessed September 12, 2011).

[ii] In fact, once Gottlieb realized the significance of the fish to early Christian symbolism, he stopped using its image. See Mary Davis MacNaughton, “Adolph Gottlieb: His Life and Art,” Lawrence Alloway and MacNaughton, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective (Hudson Hill Press, 1995), 38.

[iii] MacNaughton, 29.

[iv] Oral history interview, 1967.