Adolph Gottlieb, Untitled, 1973 © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY


The Monotypes of Adolph Gottlieb

By Sanford Hirsch, Executive Director, Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation
Published Wednesday, Aug 31, 2022

The question always is to make the painting come alive, and that is something that happens in the process of working and must be based upon the fresh impulses that one can give to it. So that it's always a matter of trying to start fresh. —Adolph Gottlieb

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974) is widely known as one of the original Abstract Expressionist artists. His professional career spans nearly 50 years, during which time he produced numerous works of art in oil, acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and various graphic media. From his first trip to Europe in 1921 (on his own, at age 17) until his last monotype in 1974, Gottlieb’s main focus was to create art to the highest standard he could achieve. Examples of his art are in the collections of every major museum in the US and several other countries. Among his many honors, he was the co-author, with Mark Rothko, of the first published statement of the aims of the Abstract Expressionists; the first American to receive the Gran Premio of the São Paolo Bienal; and the only artist to have a retrospective exhibition jointly at the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums in New York.

Gottlieb was an intensely proud and independent man who enjoyed working alone in his studio. Those qualities were reflected in his life-long promotion of the direct involvement of the artist’s hand as a central value of his art. A major stroke in 1971 altered that intensely personal connection between the artist and his work. Gottlieb was paralyzed except for his right arm and he had to rely on assistants to prepare canvasses and to move him around in his wheelchair. Despite these challenges, Gottlieb produced many important paintings in the last years of his life.

By the summer of 1973, Gottlieb’s health had worsened and he could only work a few hours a day, with long breaks in between. That summer, Gottlieb was asked to make an edition of lithographs. A press, papers, inks, and an assistant were sent to his studio in East Hampton, New York. Gottlieb rejected the assistant, but kept the press and materials. He never created the lithographs; instead, he created a series of 54 monotypes that stand out as the artist’s re-examination of his career.


Adolph Gottlieb, Untitled, 1974 © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS, NY

Through the process of making monotypes, Gottlieb was able to return to the active, hands-on methods that he prized. His joy at being able to work directly with paint and paper once more gave him a fresh start. The small scale of the works, and his ability to manipulate and complete them in a relatively short time, took Gottlieb back to the challenges and successes he valued most. Working intensely, with the occasional assistance of his wife, Esther, he developed a daily practice of making monotypes.

Monotypes are unique works of art produced with the use of a printing press. An image is painted onto a printing plate then transferred to paper by being run through a press. The form originated in Europe in the seventeenth century but it has a special place in the history of modern art. Artists as diverse as Degas, Gaugin, Matisse, Picasso, and Sargent created important monotypes. John Sloan and Robert Henri, two artists Gottlieb studied with when he was young, made several monotypes in the early 20th Century. Gottlieb’s close friend, Milton Avery, worked extensively in the media when he was recovering from a heart attack in the early 1960s.

Gottlieb made his monotypes on a succession of four different presses – the litho press in East Hampton, a larger and a smaller etching press, and, finally, a large etching press that arrived in Gottlieb’s New York studio just a few weeks before his death.

Gottlieb’s process involved putting ink or paint onto a zinc printing plate to create an image. The image was transferred to paper by running the prepared plate through the press. Gottlieb usually returned to the plate to add another element to the image. Sometimes, he would alter the prepared plate using scraps of cardboard or his fingers to scrape off paint. Occasionally, he created an image whole, in one quick work session. Other images evolved over the course of several sessions.

It was a process similar to the one Gottlieb had used in his paintings for many years but with one important difference. Before his stroke, Gottlieb would come to a blank canvas with a rough idea of an image and

in the process of working [that] I discover what it is that I want and also in the process of painting the paintings that I discover why I am painting and what I am trying to say.

Since the monotypes required that Gottlieb run them through the press to view the result of his efforts, several of them became a record of the unfolding of his ideas. This process of visual thinking had always been an integral part of his paintings, but it was not obvious in the final image since earlier marks were painted over. In this sense, Gottlieb’s monotypes function more like working drawings, as they convey the real-time evolution of the artist’s ideas.

These monotypes offer a viewer the unique quality of witnessing a master painter delight in experimentation. The intimate nature of the monotypes is analogous to a diary – a first for this artist. New images emerged, but at the same time, Gottlieb allowed himself to re-evaluate earlier phases of his art Pictograph images which was an approach he had last used in 1954. In the 9 months, he worked on monotypes Gottlieb unhesitatingly examined his art and career. For example, Gottlieb, who spent his life working against literal interpretation, drew childlike “rays” around the disc image in a couple of the monotypes. These works are an ironic comment on the artist’s inability to control the interpretation of his own work – Gottlieb despised the popular “sun-burst” label that others sometimes attached to his paintings.

The overall impact of the monotypes is profound. They are the personal notes of an artist of long experience who was aware he was nearing the end of his life. He explored virtually every pictorial idea of his long career and reached for new expressions with as much energy as he possessed. His manipulations of paint, inks, image, and surface were as subtle and powerful as anything in his career.

Gottlieb’s final monotype was made the last week of February 1974. That same week he entered the hospital for treatment of emphysema. He died in hospital on March 4. The group of 54 monotypes he made between the summer of 1973 and February of 1974 is a summary of a rich career and a testament to the creativity that propelled this artist throughout his life.

  • Essays — The Monotypes of Adolph Gottlieb, Aug 31, 2022