Adolph Gottlieb, long a prominent member of the American avant-garde, was born in New York in 1903. After dropping out of high school in 1919, Gottlieb briefly attended the Art Students League before leaving for Europe in 1921. He traveled to Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, and Munich, and took a life-drawing class in Paris. Soon after his 1922 return, he attended John Sloan’s painting class at the Art Students League (1923–1924) and forged friendships with Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and John Graham. In 1929, Gottlieb exhibited at the Opportunity Gallery in New York where he met Milton Avery, his mentor during the following decade. He had his first one-person show at the Dudensing Gallery in 1930. In 1935 he became one of the founding members of The Ten, a group of artists opposed to the narrow realism of contemporary regionalist painters. After another trip to Europe in 1935, Gottlieb worked on a Federal Arts Project 1936–1937. Like many of his colleagues, he was politically active, joining the Artist's Union in 1936 and becoming a founding member of the American Artist's Congress that same year and the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors in 1940.
A trip to Arizona (1937–1938), where he saw examples of archaic wall painting at Indian sites, and the emerging influence of surrealism in New York during World War II led him to rethink his art. In 1941 he began to make his pictographs, images composed of mysterious, invented forms arranged in a grid across the picture plane, suggesting the symbolic communication of prehistoric cultures. Gottlieb’s pictographs also demonstrate his fascination with primitive art; as in the late 1930s, he began to collect African art. He regularly attended exhibitions of African, Native American, and prehistoric art at the Museum of Modern Art. He viewed primitive art as the direct, trenchant expression of unknown forces and a relevant source for meaning amidst the turmoil and injustice of the events leading to World War II and of the war itself.
In 1947, Gottlieb joined the Kootz Gallery and began associating with Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofmann. Dividing his time between New York and Provincetown, he participated through the early 1950s in discussions and forums on American artistic developments. In his paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, which featured large-scale abstract forms floating on the picture plane, Gottlieb revealed his increasing interest in color-field painting and abstract symbolism.
Several commissions and awards, including a 1968 retrospective held simultaneously at the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums in New York, highlighted Gottlieb’s late career. After suffering a stroke in 1971, Gottlieb died March 4, 1974, in New York.