In Arizona, he saw examples of archaic wall painting at Indian sites, and the emerging influence of surrealism in New York during World War II led him to rethink his art. In 1941 he began to make his pictographs, images composed of mysterious, invented forms arranged in a grid across the picture plane, suggesting the symbolic communication of prehistoric cultures. Gottlieb’s pictographs also demonstrate his fascination with primitive art; as in the late 1930s, he began to collect African art. He regularly attended exhibitions of African, Native American, and prehistoric art at the Museum of Modern Art. He viewed primitive art as the direct, trenchant expression of unknown forces and a relevant source for meaning amidst the turmoil and injustice of the events leading to World War II and of the war itself.
He was the subject of 36 solo exhibitions in his lifetime, including a 1968 simultaneous retrospective held at both the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He passed away 6 year's later at the age of 71.