How not to be forgotten | Daily News

How not to be forgotten

On the legacy of Esphyr Slobodkina, one of America’s first abstract artists

There is no biography of Esphyr Slobodkina at the New York Public Library. There is, however, an eleven-hundred-page typewritten manuscript self-published by Slobodkina in the eighties, titled Notes for a Biographer. The manuscript is intended to be raw material—“I wrote Notes for a Biographer so that somebody can pick it up where I have left it and put it into more usable form,” Slobodkina told the now-defunct Long Island Journal in 1999. However, though she was an influential avant-garde artist in the thirties and forties, and a founder of the American abstract art movement, interest in Slobodkina’s work and life has yet to materialize. If you scribble out the call number on a carbon-paper slip at the New York Public Library, you’ll receive the manuscript in five volumes, bound in hardcover. Reproductions of personal photographs on sturdy card stock are pasted onto pages. You can’t check Notes out of the library, and you can’t buy any copies anywhere. Contained within the physical immensity of these pages was a project of legacy making, coping with the author’s acute dread of obscurity.

At a storage facility on Long Island, in a corner unit nested inside a quiet labyrinth of sickly-yellow walls, Ann Marie Sayers, the person closest to Slobodkina at the end of her life, pulled the Bubble Wrap off painting after painting. “I feel like I’m in a candy store. I don’t know what to show you next,” she said. The plastic popped as she revealed Slobodkina’s bright, confectionary-colored abstract paintings. Some were finished pieces, five by five feet, and others were small studies, on canvases the size of printer paper. There were boxes of sculptures made from typewriter parts and boxes of handmade clothes and handbags. A dress mannequin stood in the corner. More boxes, with labels like “polychrome books” and “Hindu embroidery,” were stacked high, beside shelves of the children’s books Slobodkina had written and illustrated—most famously Caps for Sale. The variety and abundance of objects made the storage unit thrum with energy. “She never gave thought to her age, except for what she had to get done. But never frantic, always meticulous,” Sayers said. “She was always engaged in a project, almost how you are if you feel you’re going to run out of time.”

The preface to Notes reads: “Somehow it seems immoral to have lived such a rich and varied life, and die without telling anybody about it.” Slobodkina was born in 1908 to an upper-middle-class family in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the family fled to the Russian enclave in Harbin, Manchuria. As a teenager, she studied architecture, setting the foundations for an interest that would inform her work throughout her life. In 1928, she immigrated to New York to attend the National Academy of Design, taking odd jobs in places such as textile manufacturing shops along the way to support herself. Of the National Academy, she writes about “hating every minute of it of its stupefying, senseless, destructive method of ‘teaching’ art.” She became exhausted by splitting her time entirely between school, work, and the cramped apartments she lived in. One afternoon, she ventured out to Central Park, where she was able to paint “badly, but happily.” She was swiftly given a ticket by a “real, honest-to-goodness, humorless New York cop” for not securing a permit to paint. Because she lacked the resources for studio space or assistants, her artistic aspirations languished. In 1933, she married the Russian-born Ilya Bolotowsky, who would become a leading early-twentieth-century abstract painter. Their marriage was more companionship than romance, but her creativity was sparked in a way it had not been before. Though disinterest in her formal studies had put her out of practice, she tried her hand at painting again in their conjugal studio.

This endeavor, she writes, “did not, almost miraculously, end in a complete fiasco.” In these portions of Notes, there is an intensity to her tone that was not there when she was a frustrated student. “We prepared canvasses, we ground our own paint, and we painted everything, and everybody around us.” In her marriage to Bolotowsky, she gained a mentor who would offer her the instruction and the resources she missed in art school.

Over the years, the two of them spent time in the country with other artists, including a stint at Yaddo in 1934. He would also offer her entrée into the downtown art scene, and Slobodkina would become a founding member, and eventual president, of the American Abstract Artists Group. Many of those artists, like Slobodkina, were also involved with the WPA and the Artists Union, and they rejected the institutional exclusion of the Whitney and MoMA. Slobodkina describes the MoMA as a shameful display of “snobbish discrimination” that preferred to put on display “gilt-edged, 100% secure, thoroughly documented and world renowned exponents of foreign abstract art.” The Whitney earns even harsher words: “They refused to admit that there was such a thing as a Modern Art movement in the U.S.A.” Slobodkina’s milieu—Josef Albers, George L. K. Morris, Balcomb and Gertrude Greene—sowed the seeds of a distinctly American school of abstraction that the Abstract Expressionists would eventually reap in the subsequent decades. Morris wrote of the group’s early years:

There was an honesty of presentation, a sense of fresh discovery, a clearness of color that European visitors were quick to note as something essentially American; a quality that Henry James remarked in his study of Hawthorne: “the very air looks new and young; the light of the sun seems fresh and innocent, as if it knew as yet but few of the secrets of the world and none of the weariness of shining.”

Art historians today recognize the “strong color, tight, controlled brushwork” and “very clean look,” as well as “freshness, directness, and literal quality” as markers of American abstraction.

- Paris Review 


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