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Obituaries

Paul Gottlieb, 67; Art Publisher Made Catalogs Into Bestsellers

June 07, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Gottlieb, whose prescience about the expanding public appetite for art led him to the top of the art publishing world, died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday at his home in New York. He was 67.

Gottlieb spent two decades at Harry N. Abrams, the largest publisher of art and illustrated books in the country. He retired last year as publisher, president and editor in chief but retained his position as vice chairman of its parent company, La Martiniere Groupe.

He resigned the vice chairmanship in May when he became executive director of the Aperture Foundation, which produces high-quality photography books and a quarterly photographic magazine.

Gottlieb left an impressive imprint on the field of art publishing, notably by broadening the mainstream market for opulently produced exhibition catalogs. One of the last of these he shepherded was "Hidden Treasures Revealed," published by Abrams in 1995 to accompany an exhibit of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It sold more than 100,000 copies--at $49.50 each--at a time when sales of 40,000 in the art book world was considered unusually good.

Another legendary publishing figure, Roger W. Straus Jr., told the New York Times recently, "The best thing I can say for him is that Paul is in a very difficult and interesting racket. The kind of books he publishes are very expensive. Not an easy task, and I think there are only two other publishers like him in America."

Another Gottlieb coup involved a series of secret portraits by Andrew Wyeth, which the publisher helped bring to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1987. The Helga series, so called because they concentrated on a blond, blue-eyed neighbor named Helga Testorf who posed for Wyeth over a 15-year period, caused a sensation when Wyeth's wife said she had not known of his obsession with the woman and described the works with one word: "love."

The accompanying Abrams book sold more than 500,000 copies and became the first art book to appear as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

"He had an impresario's flair," Eric Himmel, the current editor in chief of Abrams, said of his predecessor, a towering (6 feet 5 inches) man known for his vast connections and infectious joie de vivre.

His arrival at Abrams in 1979 coincided with a decadelong expansion in museum attendance in America. "Paul was able to see that it was really museums who controlled an enormous amount of popular content that a broad market would be hungry for .... He used his enormous contacts to begin to change the perception of the museum catalog into ... a popular book for an audience that appreciated art," Himmel said.

Gottlieb doubled the company's revenue and number of titles within a decade of joining it. He expanded its textbook program, in particular by rejuvenating H.W. Janson's "History of Art," the best-known and best-selling art survey in the English language. He also launched a children's book division, which has published a number of bestsellers by author and illustrator Graeme Base.

Born just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gottlieb was the son of Russian emigres who exposed him to the cultural riches of the city. His father, an accountant, knew the comic actor Zero Mostel. His mother was a lover of classic Russian literature who worked as a translator and spoke to her son only in Russian, one of three languages he spoke fluently.

His mother, Liza, survives him along with his second wife, Elisabeth Scharlatt; sons Nicholas of New York and Andrew of Los Angeles; stepson Nicholas Scharlatt of New York; a sister, and two grandchildren.

Gottlieb once described himself as a "wastrel" in his youth. He was expelled from Swarthmore College for a semester after a "paralyzingly good time" spent in pursuit of women and wine. The college suggested that he join the Army; instead, he got a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency. He later graduated from the college with a degree in political science.

He briefly considered a career in diplomacy and worked as a Russian interpreter. He eventually abandoned the idea of a foreign service career when he saw that being Jewish was an impediment.

He landed in publishing in 1962 with a job at American Heritage Publishing Co., where he became publisher of Horizon and American Heritage magazines.

He left the company in 1975 as president and publisher, and four years later succeeded Harry Abrams as head of the Abrams publishing house.

One of his first major successes came in 1983 with the publication of the catalog for "The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art" show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Treasures of the Vatican" established the glossy art catalog as a new genre.

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