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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

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

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Adolph Gottlieb
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    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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