Adolph Gottlieb was one of America’s earliest abstract expressionist painters. He spent much of his life advocating for acceptance of an art form that was not understood and scorned by many critics, museums and the public. “If it was right for Delacroix and Matisse to travel to far and strange places like Tunis and Tahiti for subjects,” he wrote, “what is wrong with traveling to the catacombs of the unconscious, or the dim recollections of a prehistoric past?”
Early Life and Education
Adolph Gottlieb was born in New York city in 1903. He was the oldest, and only, son of Emil and Elsie Gottlieb, who owned a stationery store. Gottlieb dropped out of high school when he was seventeen. He worked with his father in the stationery store during the day and took classes at the Art Students League in the evening.
Gottlieb traveled to Europe with a high school friend and stayed in Paris for six months, where attended classes at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. He traveled around Europe, visiting galleries and museums. When he returned to New York, in 1923, he finished high school and went on to take classes at Parsons School of Design, the Art Students League, Cooper Union and the Education Alliance Art School.
Career and Family
In the late 1920s, Gottlieb began to show his paintings at the Opportunity Gallery, along with other young artists like Milton Avery and Mark Rothko. Gottlieb had his first solo exhibit at the Duodensing Gallery in New York. The gallery was one of the few, at that time, that showed the works of modern artists like Picasso and Matisse.
Gottlieb married Esther Dick in 1932. Esther was a painter and designer, who supported them through the lean years. She eventually became dean of the High School of Fashion Industries in New York and, until her death in 1988, was the head of the Gottlieb Foundation, which assists older artists in need.
The couple moved to Arizona in 1937, on the advice of Esther’s doctor. During their eight month stay in the desert, near Tucson, Gottlieb began to paint in a more surrealist style. The couple returned to New York, and Gottlieb began his “pictograph” paintings, in which he used forms that were very personal to him and were not necessarily suggestive of recognizable objects.
As Gottlieb refined his style, his work became simpler with much emphasis on color. Still, the world was slow to recognize Gottlieb and his colleagues and, in 1950, he and his fellow artists, who were labeled The Irascibles, wrote an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, criticizing the museum’s American Painting Today exhibit and arranging a boycott. A photograph of The Irascibles appeared in Life magazine and helped to generate acceptance of Abstract Expressionism and the first generation of American AbEx painters. Still, as late as 1952, a trustee of MoMA resigned in anger when the museum purchased a painting by Mark Rothko.
Gottlieb was appointed to The Art Commission of the City of New York in 1967. His success also earned him a retrospective that was organized jointly by the Whitney and the Guggenheim in 1968, the first and only time that such a joint venture has been done. Gottlieb suffered a stroke in 1970 that left him paralyzed on his left side, but he continued to paint and lecture until is death in 1974. MoMA organized a memorial exhibit just a few weeks after his death. Gottlieb’s work can be found in major museums throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Adolph Gottlieb Self Portrait 1948
The Irascibles. Front row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne. November 24, 1950, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images Nina Leen (photographer)
Adolph Gottlieb Mariner’s Incantation. 1945
Adolph Gottlieb Heat Wave. 1964