Gottlieb was born in New York to Jewish parents. 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-1930s, he became a teacher using his acquired technical and art history knowledge to teach while he painted.
After his 1930’s one man show he won respect amongst his peers. In 1935, he and nine others, including Ben-Zion, Ilya Bolotowsky, Louis Harris, Jack Kufeld, Mark Rothko, and Louis Schanker, known as “The Ten” exhibited their works together until 1940. They would come to be known as the Abstract Expressionists.
From 1937-1939, Gottlieb lived in the Arizona desert, and taking the cue from his environment he painted cacti and barren scenery. He transitioned from this into more Surrealist works like the Sea Chest which displays mysterious incongruities on an otherwise normal landscape. He expresses space most fully in his mature works. It is then that he conveys to the viewer the expansiveness he must have felt looking at Arizona desert sky, although he distills this expansiveness into a more basic abstract form.
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 1950s 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. during this period, he also designed a series of 18 windows for the Kingsway Jewish Center.
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.