Adolph Gottlieb
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter.
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Burst (1973)
Adolph and Esther Gottlieb
Foundation, New York.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74)

Contents

Biography
Early Life: Abstract Expressionism
Surrealism
Pictographs (1941-51)
Protest Against the Arts Establishment
Imaginary Landscapes (c.1951-57)
Bursts (1957-74)
Exhibitions and Awards



Burst of the Blue Circle (1967)
Art in Embassies Program,
Washington DC.

Biography

Although a famous exponent of Abstract Expressionism and a founding member of The Ten, Adolph Gottlieb was too schematic to be one of the great painters. Influenced by Surrealism - especially during the early 1940s with the arrival in New York of European surrealists like Max Ernst (1891-1976), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Andre Breton (1896-1966), and Yves Tanguy (1900-55) - he is famous for three series of expressionist paintings: Pictographs (1941-51) comprising loose grids with schematic forms suggesting a face; Imaginary Landscapes (1951-57) consisting of semi-abstract landscapes with celestial shapes floating above loosely painted gestural chaos; and Bursts (1957-74) a freer version of his Imaginary Landscapes. These works placed him among the gestural artists of Abstract Expressionism, such as Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Franz Kline (1910-62), and Robert Motherwell (1915-91). As well as his abstract paintings, Gottlieb also explored printmaking and sculpture, and produced numerous designs for stained glass art, for churches and synagogues.

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Early Life: Abstract Expressionism

Born in New York, Adolph Gottlieb studied at the Art Students League (1920-21) under Robert Henri (1865-1929) and John Sloan (1871-1951), where he met Barnett Newman, before leaving for Europe, where he travelled in France and Germany for a year, studying at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. On his return to New York in 1923 he continued his art studies at Parsons School of Design, and at Cooper Union. In 1930, he held his first one-man show at Dudensing Galleries in New York, which brought him considerable respect from his contemporaries, and thereafter he began showing his painting with other members of the so-called New York School, including Mark Rothko (1903-70), Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. In 1935, along with William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Ben-Zion, Ilya Bolotowsky, Louis Harris, Jack Kufeld, Louis Schanker and others, Gottlieb set up The Ten, a group of painters (who eventually became known as Abstract Expressionists) that exhibited together until 1940. He was also active in helping to establish the Federation of American Painters and Sculptors, a non-political association for modern artists seeking new modes of expression. At about the same time (c.1933-36), he began teaching art and the history of art, to earn a living while he developed his painting.

 

 

Surrealism

After a short stint working for the WPA's Federal Art Project's easel painting division, Gottlieb spent two years (1937-39) on the edge of the Arizona desert, painting barren landscapes with sage brush and cacti. Gradually, by incorporating strange or incongruous items, these bare scenic paintings became more and more Surrealistic: see, for instance, The Sea Chest (1942). Influenced in his use of colour, like Rothko, by the abstract artist Milton Avery (1885-1965) known as the 'American Matisse', Gottlieb's surrealism received a boost in 1940 with the arrival in America of European Surrealists fleeing the German Occupation of Paris. Events organized by Peggy Guggenheim and others brought the emigrant painters into close contact with the New York School.

Pictographs (1941-51)

These contacts strengthened Gottlieb's view that all art had its roots in the subconscious, and as a result led him to experiment with a selection of archetypal, abstract symbols in his new Pictograph series, begun in 1941: see, for instance, Voyager's Return (1946). Typically, The Pictographs featured symbols not unlike those used in African, Aboriginal, Oceanic, and Native American tribal art. However, he wanted his symbols to have an impact because they were so basic and elemental that they really meant something to the viewer, not simply because they were familiar or had been seen before. Thus, he would eliminate any symbol from his vocabulary if he discovered it was not original.

Protest Against the Arts Establishment

Gottlieb became one of the first exponents of abstract expressionist painting to be collected by a major arts institution when, in 1945, New York's Guggenheim Museum bought 11 of his works, followed, in 1946, by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who purchased a single work. Nonetheless, during the 1940s and 1950s, Gottlieb joined forces with his peers to publicize and protest against the prejudices of art curators against avant-garde art. The campaign reached a highpoint in May 1950, when a number of abstract painters and sculptors - "The Irascible Eighteen" - declined to submit works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of Contemporary American Art, in protest at the museum's conservative jury.

Imaginary Landscapes (c.1951-57)

In his second series, called Imaginary Landscapes (c.1951-57) - by now, wholly abstract art - Gottlieb rationalized his principles of composition. He retained his overall pictorial language but added the new element of space, placing his symbols within a defined foreground and background, though without suggesting any particular landscape.

Bursts (1957-74)

In his third and final series Bursts (1957-74), he further simplified his compositions, creating a basic landscape with a sun and a ground. Typically the single sun dominates the upper half of the painting, while its passiveness is in marked contract to the activity of the bundle of brushstrokes laid out in the bottom half. See, for instance, Brink (1959, Private Collection). His Burst series comes closest to Colour Field Painting, though it remains intrinsically gesuralist. Gottlieb worked on the Burst series until his death in March, 1974.

Exhibitions and Awards

During his career, Gottlieb received numerous awards. He was, for instance, the first American painter to win the Gran Premio at the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1963. He had a total of thirty-six one-man shows in his lifetime, including a 1968 retrospective held simultaneously in New York at the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. Other solo exhibitions have been held in some of the world's best art museums including the Jewish Museum (1957); the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1959); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1963); and MOMA, New York (1974). After his death, he was awarded retrospectives by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, (1981); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1981); Tel Aviv Museum (1981); Phillips Collection, Washington DC, (1994); Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York (1994); and many other institutions in America and elsewhere.

• For biographies of other American Abstract Expressionist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of Abstract Expressionism (New York School), see: Homepage.


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