Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) was one of the founding fathers of the abstract expressionist movement in New York City. Along with close friends Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Milton Avery, he pioneered color field painting and forever changed the way the world perceived picture planes. He was also a key organizer of the 1950 protest against New York’s Museum of Modern Art that earned his group the nickname “The Irascibles”.
Gottlieb was born in New York. By 17 years old Gottlieb knew he wanted to be an artist, and dropped out of high school to work at his father’s company. The job didn’t last long. Gottlieb and his friend hopped a merchant ship in 1921 and worked their way to Europe. Without passports or much money they traveled across the continent for two years.
While he was overseas, Gottlieb took up residence in Paris for six months and began an informal art education. He visited the Louvre every day and audited classes at a prominent arts academy. When he returned home in 1923, he completed high school but continued to visit museums with his friend Barnett Newman. He pursued a formal art education at Parsons School of Design, The Art Students League, Cooper Union and the Education Alliance Art School. Among his teachers at The Art Students League were John Sloan and Robert Henri.
In the late 1920s the artist began exhibiting at the Opportunity Gallery, where he met Milton Avery and Mark Rothko. He worked closely alongside Rothko, Avery and Newman until 1937, when he struck out on his own for Tucson, Arizona.
“I think the emotional feeling I had was that it was like being at sea,” he said of the Desert Southwest. “There’s the tremendous clarity (of light).” Gottlieb only stayed in Arizona for a year, but when he returned to New York his work had drastically changed. When he exhibited paintings and prints composed of geometric shapes on structured grids, his old friends called them simplistic.
Gottlieb distanced himself from his contemporaries and continued to develop his new style. In the early 1940s he did paintings in the Surrealist style, experimenting with automatism and surrealist biomorphism. He began to develop an abstract symbol system that he arranged in stacked grids for a series of paintings he called Pictographs. The idea was to create forms that didn’t previously exist, but that had a familiar quality to the viewer.
“Afterwards it would suggest a snake but when I made it, it did not suggest anything,” Gottlieb said. “It was purely shape.”
In the 1950’s the artist started his Imaginary Landscapes series. He divided the canvas or sheet into 2 registers with a horizon line (lower) and a sun or moon (upper). By 1956, the work had evolved into his “Burst” compositions, featuring discs that hover above dynamic tangled lines.
The two series are Gottlieb's most well-known work, and both are represented in our collection. “Green Foreground” is a radically reimagined view of a pasture, with black gestural strokes in the lower register that may suggest birds or animals. “ Crimson Ground” shows a white and black circle that seem to have risen from a dense monochrome thicket below them.
Gottlieb developed his Imaginary Landscapes and Burst series for the rest of his life, and also experimented with many different mediums and compositional elements. In 1968 the Guggenheim and Whitney museums in New York mounted a joint retrospective of the artist’s work that remains their only collaborative exhibition.
Throughout his storied career Gottlieb held a strong conviction that abstract art touches a special part of modern humanity's soul.
"The role of artist has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images," he said. "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".
Learn more about Adolph Gottlieb on the Matthews Gallery blog