Born in New York City in 1903. From 1920-1921 he studied at the Art Students League of New York, after which he traveled in France and Germany for a year. Before his skills had fully developed he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. When he returned, he was one of the most traveled New York Artists. In the mid-1930’s, he became a teacher using his acquired technical and art history knowledge to teach while he painted. In 1935 he was a founding member of The Ten, a group devoted to abstract art, and he became a major exponent of Abstract Expressionism whose painting style is linked to Marc Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnet Newman. A major theme in his painting was the challenge to humans to resolve dualities within the universe, the pressure of opposites: male and female, chaos and order, creation and destruction, order and chaos.
He was a WPA mural artist and from 1937 to 1939 was in Arizona, which influenced his subsequent "pictograph" series that occupied him the remainder of his life. The pictographs involved grid divisions of the canvas, primitive iconography, and imaginary landscapes. For him, the time in the Arizona desert was a time of transition from expressionist landscapes to highly personal still lifes of simple desert items such as gourds and peppers.
During World War II, Gottlieb encountered exiled Surrealists in New York and they added to and reaffirmed his belief in the subconscious as the well for evocative and universal art. This belief led him to experiment with basic and elemental symbols. The results of his experiments manifested themselves in his series “Pictographs” which spanned from 1941-1950. In his painting Voyager’s Return, he juxtaposes these symbols in compartmentalized spaces. His symbols reflect those of indigenous populations of North America and the Ancient Near East. However, once he found out one of his symbols was not original, he no longer used it. He wanted his symbols to have the same impact on all his viewers, striking a chord not because they had seen it before, but because it was so basic and elemental that it resounded within them.
In the 1950 he began his new series Imaginary Landscapes he retained his usage of a ‘pseudo-language,’ but added the new element of space. He was not painting landscapes in the traditional sense, rather he modified that genre to match his own style of painting. He painted simple figures in the foreground, and simple figures in the background, and the viewer can read the depth.
In his last series Burst which started in 1957, he simplifies his representation down to two shapes discs and winding masses. His paintings are variations with these elements arranged in different ways. This series, unlike the Imaginary Landscape series, suggests a basic landscape with a sun and a ground. On another level, the shapes are so rudimentary; they are not limited to this one interpretation. Gottlieb was a masterful colorist as well and in the Burst series his use of color is particularly crucial. He is considered one of the first color field painters and is one of the forerunners of Lyrical Abstraction.
Gottlieb’s career was marked by the evolution of space and universality. Gottlieb had a stroke in 1970, but continued on with his painting and worked on the Burst series until his death in 1974. In 1976 the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation was formed, offering grants to visual artists.