Carl Holty was born in 1900 to American parents in Freiburg, Germany, where his father was studying medicine. Carl was still an infant when the family returned to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they lived with his grandparents in a traditional German neighborhood. It was Carl's grandfather who first introduced him to art through visits to a small local commercial gallery.
After showing an interest in being an artist at around age 12, Holty began taking lessons with a local painter. As a teenager he began drawing cartoons and soon set his sights on becoming a poster artist. With that in mind, Holty enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1919. He soon headed to New York and took courses at the Parsons School of Design and then at the National Academy of Design. In 1923 he returned to Milwaukee and opened a portrait painting studio.
Holty married in 1925 and took his bride to Europe, remaining abroad for the next decade. He entered Hans Hofmann's school in Munich in 1926, and exposure to Hofmann's ideas about color, space, and form greatly influenced and transformed his work. In 1927, the Holtys relocated to Switzerland in search of treatment for Mrs. Holty's tuberculosis. Holty and Hofmann remained in touch, and while in Switzerland, Holty increasingly incorporated Hofmann's teachings into his paintings as they grew more abstract in style.
After his wife's death in 1930, Holty moved to Paris for five years where he participated in several exhibitions and his work was well-received. Robert Delaunay invited him to join Abstration-Création, and the group published some of Holty's work in its magazine.
Upon returning to the United States in 1935, Holty settled in New York City where he eventually remarried and had a daughter. He renewed friendships with Hans Hofmann, Vaclav Vytlacil, and Stuart Davis, whom he had known in Paris. A figure in vanguard art circles, Holty was involved in meetings that resulted in the formation of the American Abstract Artists, and in 1938 he served as the group's chairman.
Holty taught drawing and paining at Brooklyn College from 1950 until his retirement in 1970, when he was designated Professor Emeritus. His years at Brooklyn College were punctuated by brief stints as a visiting instructor at the Art Students League, Washington University (St. Louis), and University of Louisville; he served as artist-in-residence at the universities of Georgia, Florida, California (Berkeley), and Wisconsin, and the Corcoran School of Art.
He exhibited widely at major museums throughout the United States including: the San Francisco Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Carnegie Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Holty's work was shown at major New York galleries such as J. B. Neumann, Samuel Kootz Gallery, and Graham Gallery, and is in the permanent collections of many museums including: Addison Gallery of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, Butler Institute of Art, Carnegie Institute, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Carl Holty died March 22, 1973 in New York City, after a short illness.