Born in New York, Adolph Gottlieb entered the Art Students League in 1920, where he studied under Social Realists John Sloan and Robert Henri. From 1921-23, he continued his studies in Paris and in Germany, returning to New York in 1923 to complete his training at the Parsons School of Design. In 1935 he was a founding member of The Ten, a group devoted to abstract art and from 1937 to 1939 Gottlieb became a Works Progress Administration muralist. Working in association with European Surrealists who were exiled from their countries during World War II, Gottlieb created works in the years 1941 to 1953 that reflected his interest in pictographic, primitive art. 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. His paintings consisted of motifs derived from the unconscious world. After drawing grid lines on a canvas, he would fill the space with self-conscious projections of mythic icons, including such subjects as eyes, hands, and weathered objects that could be found in the desert.
In the later 1950s he moved successfully to a monumental scale. His “Imaginary Landscapes” from the early 1950s, presented an intermediary step to the Burst format, which became his signature motif the 1960s and 1970s. In 1968 a retrospective exhibition in New York organized jointly by the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, opened at both museums simultaneously. In 1972 two years before his death Gottlieb became an elected member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.