Monday, 22 September 2014

Esphyr Slobodkina - the 31 Women number 30. Her birthday is 22 September

Russian/American painter, sculptor, designer, illustrator and author
22 September 1908 to  22 July 2002

In the late 1930’s New York artistic circles, a great contest between Abstraction and Surrealism erupted, in the art establishment at least, though this had been running in Europe for more than ten years as a debate amongst friends. The American public were bemused by both. Esphyr Slobodkina was apparently an artist with a foot in both camps. Her left foot was rooted firmly in the camp of abstraction, she was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, a group which began in 1937, and her superbly composed, hard-edged abstract paintings on modern materials (she painted on plywood and masonite, hardly ever used canvas after joining the AAA) epitomise the Modernist, non-objective aims of the group. However one glance at her marvellous found-object sculptures seems to show that her right foot has hopped into the camp of the Surrealists. Many of the artists at the time, from Duchamp, Tanguy and Kay Sage through to Dorothea Tanning, Buffie Johnson and Jean Helion enjoyed both camps, but Slobodkina’s sculptures are more abstract than they might at first appear. Their forms are highly designed, their creation may have been influenced by the Constructivist ideas which followed her out of her native Russia - only her toe was dipped delicately into surrealism.

Esphyr Slobodkina was born in Chelyabinsk, in the Urals, Siberia, the youngest child in a well-to-do Jewish family. Solomon Aronovich Slobodkin, her father, was manager of the MAZUT oil corporation and when his youngest daughter was seven, Solomon’s work took the family from the windswept plains east of the Ural Mountains to the more sophisticated provincial capital of Ufa. Their life in Ufa was comfortable, though Esphyr’s childhood was plagued by illness. Her earliest creative activities were creating cut-out dolls and doilies and, when allowed outdoors, making personal adornments from leaves, acorns and flowers, an inspired extension of the childish art of the daisy-chain.

Esphyr and her brother Ronya and sister Tamara were exposed in Ufa to the cultural heritage of more sophisticated cities, which the Slobodkins and other families had brought with them from the West. Whilst Ronya went to school, Esphyr and Tamara were tutored at home in subjects ranging from mathematics to painting. Creativity was actively encouraged amongst family and friends, including singing, painting, sketching and visits to theatre. Esphyr’s mother, Itta Agranovich, a talented dressmaker and designer, made certain that her daughters were more than competent at these crafts too, a practicality which was to stand Esphyr in good stead a few years later.

The Russian revolution forced the family to move out of harm’s way to Vladivostok and then on to Harbin in Manchuria in 1920. The collapse of the rouble reduced the family to near penury, Solomon Slobodkin took a job on the railroad and Itta Igranovich was compelled to set up a business as a dressmaker, formerly unthinkable for a married woman of her class. Esphyr helped her mother's business, acquiring crucial skills whilst also attending school in Harbin from 1922, studying mathematics and art with an intention to become an architect. She learned technical drawing but was unhappy with the strict regime of the school and transferred to the public commercial school, where she was an excellent student.

Age 19 Esphyr gained a student visa to the USA to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Founded in 1825, the Academy was dedicated to supporting the arts independently of aristocratic patronage. Esphyr arrived in New York in 1928 to join her brother, Ronya had emigrated five years earlier. She found her classes at the Academy stupefying and destructive but dared not quit for fear of being sent back to Russia. The rest of the family arrived one by one, the last being her father in 1931. Money continued to be short, Esphyr took a number of small jobs in the textile and couture trades to supplement her income. That year she also met painter Ilya Bolotovsky, who became her teacher and mentor. They married in 1933, thus securing Esphyr's place in the US.
In the 1930's Esphyr was transformed from a talented, though conventional artist to an out and out abstractionist, who retained a classical eye for composition. Her earliest paintings show expressionist leanings, though always representational. She began experimenting with lithography, collage, assemblage and abstraction, encouraged by Bolotovsky. In 1934 she joined the Artists' Union; in a four month residency at the Yaddo Artist Colony in Saratoga Sprigs she explored Post Expressionism and the following year produced her first cubist painting. She became a WPA artist in 1936, her job was ostensibly to provide assistance to painter Hananiah Harari, though he preferred to work alone, often leaving Esphyr free to get on with her own painting

1937 and 1938 were momentous years, Esphyr Slobodkina and her husband were founding members of the American Abstract Artists group, which she continued involvement with, she was the group's first secretary, exhibited with them every year and later would become president. She had her first solo exhibition '15 Abstractions by Esphyr Slobodkina' at the New York School for Social Research and her first illustrated children's book, the Little Fireman, appeared in 38, a precursor to many more successful books including the classic, Caps for Sale. She divorced Ilya Bolotovsky and, though they remained friends, she had outgrown the need for him as a mentor. On the negative side, her father died suddenly and she moved with her mother to East 60th Street, NYC.

Esphyr Slobodkina became associated with the 'Park Avenue Cubists', Suzy Frelinghuysen (the 31 women number 10) George L.K. Morris and A.E. Gallatin, who arranged a major solo exhibition for her at his Museum of Living Art in 1941. Through the AAA she knew many of the European abstractionists, including Joseph Albers, Moholy-Nagy, Fernand Leger and Mondrian, who arrived all in the early 1940's as refugees from the war in Europe.

Influential friends in this period included Alfred H. Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, who recommended Slobodkina to Peggy Guggenheim for the Exhibition by 31 Women in 1943. She was one of three AAA artists to exhibit, the others were I. Rice Pereira and Suzy Frelinghuysen. Slobodkina was unhappy with the exclusive ethos of the show and never again exhibited in an all woman exhibition. She shared this unease about exclusively female exhibitions with a number of the other artists including Dorothea Tanning and Meret Oppenheim.

Slobodkina was increasingly recognised during the 1940's, her work was exhibited at a number of New York galleries including Norlyst, Betty Parsons, Riverside Museum, American Fine Arts and Gallatin's Museum of Living Art. In 1942 she started a printing business, the Art Development Company and became Treasurer of the AAA. In 1944 she became manager of William L. Urquhart's export company. She had met Urquhart in 1940, friendship deepened and they were eventually married in 1960, though he died 3 years later.

The 1950s were not so easy for her career with the rise of abstract expressionism, which she detested, regarding it as slapdash and pointless. Throughout the 1960's she remained resolutely hard edged, her paintings geometric, her assemblages and collage rigorously composed. The 70's were difficult, the death of many friends and family including her brother caused her to become profoundly depressed and there were fewer exhibitions. She began writing her autobiography, 'Notes for a Biographer' (finished in 1983) and in 1978 moved to Florida with her mother and sister Tamara and had an exhibition at the Hollywood Art Museum.

After the death of their mother Esphyr and Tamara moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where she designed and oversaw the construction of the Slobodkina/Urquhart Children's Reading Room. She moved back to the New York State in 1999 when she and Tamara settled in Glen Head, Nassau County. She created the Slobodkina Foundation, in 2000 in Northport NY, which provides educational activities for children and lectures, exhibitions and research facilities for adults. She remained creative for the next few years, until her death in July 2002.

The abstract art of Esphyr Slobodkina has continued to be admired and collected by the discerning and can today be seen in the Metropolitan Museum New York, the Smithsonian, The Whitney Museum and the National Gallery in Washington DC amongst many others.

SOURCES include..

Slobodkina Foundation, P.O. Box 68, Northport, NY 11768, 631-759-7015

Stavitsky, Gail & Wylie, Elizabeth, The Life & Art of Esphyr Slobodkina – (reviewed by Woman's Art Journal vol 15 no 2)

American Abstract Artists

Comments, corrections and further information about Esphyr Slobodkina are very welcome.
You can read about all of the 31 women on this blog, except for Louise Nevelson who is coming soon. And there may even be a thirty second woman to come! Watch this space...


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