Carl Robert Holty was born in Freiburg, Germany in 1900. While Holty was still an infant, his American-born parents moved to the United States, settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holty's art career began at a young age when he started taking art classes in high-school and drawing cartoons for a local newspaper. In 1919, intending to pursue a career in graphic arts, Holty enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1920 he went to New York City, where he studied at the Parsons School of Design and at the National Academy of Design with H. Bolton Jones until 1921. Holty returned to Milwaukee in 1923 to set up studio as a portrait painter.
In 1926 Holty traveled to Munich to study at the Royal Academy. He was, however, persuaded by friend and fellow artist Vaclav Vytlacil to enroll instead at the Hans Hofmann School. It was here that Holty's interest in abstraction blossomed as he embraced Hofmann's conceptual teachings and began to use shape, color and space as a means of personal expression. He found a voice for this expression in the fragmented forms of Cubism. Holty's abstract style continued to develop when he and his ailing wife moved to Switzerland in 1927. Around this time he began to look to Neoplasticim and Surrealism for inspiration for his art. With the death of his wife in 1930, Holty moved to Paris. Under the sponsorship of Robert Delauney, he attained membership in the Abstract-Création group in 1932 and had his work published in the group's magazine the following year. In Europe Holty was a frequent exhibitor and was rewarded with many positive reviews.
In 1935 Holty returned to New York where he renewed his associations with friends from abroad, including Hofmann, Vytlacil and Stuart Davis. In 1936 he helped found the American Abstract Artists, becoming its chairman in 1938 and exhibiting regularly with the group until his resignation in 1944. Throughout his life as an artist, Holty was constantly developing his vision of abstraction. In the thirties, Holty's art uses Cubist principles to break up the planes of the picture in blocks of color onto which he places readable abstracted forms. By the end of the 1930s Holty's canvases were fully abstracted. Their subject was color with geometric and biomorphic shapes that reference nature using titles to point to the subject or mood he wished to create. By the mid-forties, Holty's paintings were about large and small forms in broken arrangements aiming at a rhythmic movement of color and shapes in different densities. By the 1960s and until his death in 1973, the contours of his forms had disappeared into thinly washed areas of color swimming within a subtly toned space. In his late work, Carl Holty selected a palette keyed on one color with variations on that color arrangement as the theme. These late works by Holty seem like bright rainbows of color within which forms float freely.