Stories from the Director: Adolph Gottlieb's First Printing Press
The story Esther Gottlieb told me about Adolph’s first press is this: shortly after they moved to Brooklyn Heights, which was in 1932, there were a number of secondhand stores on Atlantic Avenue. Adolph and Esther lived on State Street, Atlantic Avenue was the next block. Adolph went into one of the secondhand stores one day and saw an etching press for sale, and, bear in mind this was the height of the Great Depression so everything was cheap. He asked the store owner about the press. Not indicating what it was, he said ‘How much do you want for this machine?’ and the store owner replied saying ‘oh you wouldn’t be interested in that. That’s a machine for pleating skirts.’
And Adolph said, ‘well ok that’s an odd thing but sure I am interested. How much?” And they agreed on a price and he brought it home. He did not have a studio at that time; he was working out of his apartment. He took the press apart, cleaned up the parts, reassembled it as a press, and began to do prints, which he hadn’t done on a regular basis prior to that. But he must have had some knowledge of processes because we have an example from 1933, which we refer to as the ”Six Artist Print”.
This is an interesting object because there are six artists who participated in making drawings on one etching plate, each artist doing a portrait of another. The artists involved are Adolph Gottlieb, Esther Gottlieb, David Smith, Dorothy Dehner (who was married to Smith at the time), Edgar Levy and Lucille Corcos, who were also husband-and-wife. So, three husband-and-wife artist couples doing portraits of one another. This is what people would do for entertainment in the pre-internet, pre-tv era when nobody had the ten cents to go to the movies.
It’s a wonderful document, and, as you can see we have the records that show the one example that was run in 1933 was run on Adolph’s press. So that helps us document the time. This is the earliest known print that we have and my assumption is, given that this would have taken some knowledge of rudimentary technique, that he probably had taken some printing classes either at the Art Students’ League or, more likely, at an organization called the Educational Alliance where he also took a few classes in the early 1920s.
The Educational Alliance was on the Lower East Side, and it was primarily to help Eastern European Jewish immigrants learn skills and integrate into the mainstream. They had a whole art school, and I know that they taught printing at the Educational Alliance. It’s quite possible that’s where Adolph picked up the technique. It’s also possible that Edgar Levy, who is one of the artists involved in that etching, and who had a printmaking practice at the time, may have shown Adolph at least some of the technique that he used
Adolph went on from that into the 40s, and through the late 40s, making several prints, several kinds of prints; a lot of them on that etching press, a lot of them being unique and unusual kinds of works. Many of the preliminary ideas of what became his pictographs were tried on some of those etching plates early on. There’s a print called Montage which is interesting because it’s based on an earlier print that he made. The original image is of a compartmented box with objects that he found on a beach sitting in the different sections of the box. This image creates an intermediate stage prior to the pictographs, and he refers to those images in later interviews as one of the sources for using the grid in the Pictographs.
What’s interesting about the print that I’m thinking of is he took the plate on which he had the image of one of those box still lifes and balanced a smaller plate with a different image approximately where one section of the box appeared. He then ran the two plates through the press together, actually creating a physical pictograph out of those two images on the sheet.
The press was located in the Gottlieb’s apartment. And the norm for them at that time, when Esther was teaching school, was that they would get up, have breakfast, Esther would go to teach her classes, Adolph would clear the kitchen and set up the printing press in the kitchen.
That’s where the printing was done. That’s my story