The Whitney

Adolph Gottlieb: The Search for a Visual Language

By Sotheby's
“The role of the artist has always been that of an image-maker. 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 that 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.”

T he artist Adolph Gottlieb (b. 1903) declared this sentiment in 1947, two years after the conclusion of World War II, and six years after the attack on Pearl Harbor – an event marking the United States’ entrance into World War II. Born in New York to Czech émigrés, Gottlieb’s early life was partitioned by moments of political turmoil; the artist turned 11 when Europe was devastated by World War I and was only 26 when the Great Depression overtook the United States.

Portrait of American artist Adolph Gottlieb in his Chelsea studio, New York, February 16, 1962. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

These shifts in Gottlieb's existence affected his art creation greatly. Thanks to new advances in photograph dissemination, the public was now attune to the fact that seemingly advanced societies were capable of mass destruction and murder, and, as a result, the desecration of their own cultural achievements.

Gottlieb noted on a radio broadcast in 1942 that “in times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant… All simple expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

Adolph Gottlieb, Mood, 1969, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

In 1920, the artist, dissatisfied with his traditional preliminary education, left his high school and enrolled in the Art Students League of New York to study painting. Although still young, Gottlieb knew he wanted to evoke the so-called “powerful forces” surrounding him. Soon after, in 1921, he departed the United States in search of inspiration in post-World War I Europe. His first stomping ground was France, where he lived in Paris for six months and visited the Louvre each day – an attempt to learn from European masters of a past time. The European impressionists and avant-garde were now readily accessible to the young American. As he recalls:

There was an exhibition at the Salon d’Automne… and I distinctly remember seeing the Léger painting, which is now in the Museum of Modern Art and it had just been painted and it had a tremendous impact on me. This one of the great thrills in art… I have to try to find this in my own work and this the thing that keeps me going.

Returning to the United States was a difficult transition for the artist, despite his recent training in and exposure to the increasingly popular avant-garde style. Notwithstanding his new visual education, Gottlieb remained insecure in his individual style. It was only in 1937 that the artist broke free and established a particularly unique and recognizable visual idiom. Astonishingly, this transformation occurred neither in New York nor Paris, rather in Arizona – removed from the anxieties and political turbulence of the city.

Adolph Gottlieb, Pictograph, 1944, oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art . Photo by Ed Uthman.

In 1937, Gottlieb and his wife briefly relocated to a rural area outside of Tuscon, Arizona. The cold of New York was too difficult for Adolph's wife Esther (who suffered from bouts of arthritis) to bear and thus, the couple searched for a residence enveloped in sunlight out West. In Arizona, Gottlieb came across a visual dialogue – motifs not common in New York or Paris – as he wrote:

We get the Sunday Times every Wednesday and judging from the reproductions, not to speak of Jewell’s articles... we don’t seem to be missing much. From what I gather is going on (aside from Cézanne and Picasso now and then) I wouldn’t swap all the shows of a month in New York for a visit to the state Museum here which has a marvelous collection of Indian things.


An illustrated example of Gottlieb’s revelation is without title, executed in 1946. The aforementioned influence of Native American art led to his new artistic style – a series of motifs on canvas he coined as “Pictograph” paintings. He desired to illuminate symbols and colors that speak to all individuals, rather than the intellectual elite. As such, Gottlieb sought to create a universal visual language.

Eventually, this exploration led to his experimentation with the simplicity of image and surface. The artist began to seek equilibrium in his art, as illustrated by Mood. Gottlieb was entranced by the conceptions of scale, a canvas’ surface, and painting as an act.

Adolph Gottlieb, Untitled, 1960, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Sotheby's .

The art of Adolph Gottlieb is abundantly represented in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The museum features a myriad of Gottlieb’s later illuminations, the "burst" or "imaginary landscape" series. The so-called burst paintings showcase eruptions of bright orange, ashy purple, and obsidian black paint against a single-toned background. The canvases, like the Pictographs, seek to establish the visual language of the universe. Much like a question that Gottlieb once posed:

I say life and death and destruction are part of what I referred to as the emotional values that we all experience. And if we have feelings of fear, the fear is the fear of death or the fear of destruction or the fear of an injury, and there is this whole range of things, which are like experience so, of course, this is part of painting. But it can’t be so explicit in something which exists purely as visual experience because how can you translate fear visually?


All quotations are cited from Sanford Hirsch, Executive Director at Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, in the essay "Painting Reality: The Art of Adolph Gottlieb" from the exhibition catalogue Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition, Ivan Centre Julio González, February 1 - April 22, 2001.

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