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Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002)

The Madly Scrambling Circles of Upward Mobility, 1950

Catalogue essay by Blanche Llewellyn

Over the course of her 70-year career, Esphyr Slobodkina was a pioneer of early American abstraction and thus a significant participant in the avant-garde activities and exhibitions of the 1930s and 40s, which helped achieve recognition for abstract art in the United States. Throughout her artistic journey, Slobodkina remained dedicated to presenting the world as she saw it, geometrically, dimensionally, always in motion and non-linear.

From the 1930s onwards, Esphyr Slobodkina began to make sculptures out of humble everyday objects – typewriters, clothes hangers, pieces of old furniture – giving them a new reality and an independent existence of their own. These works embodied Marcel Duchamps’ specific definition of the “ready-made” as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist” – In this instance, Slobodkina uses a simple fan to create a compelling sculpture, infusing the mundane with artistic significance. Irritated with the contemporary “sloppy” use of the English language, she gave these sculptures humorous and wonderful titles, such as The Saddly Sagging Educational Spiral, or, as with this artwork, The Madly Rushing Circles of Upward Mobility (which reflects her lifetime fascination for architecture and mechanics but also refers to the postwar economy which provided remarkable upward mobility for many Americans).

The Madly Scrambling Circles of Upward Mobility
x W26cm
Signed and titled on a label to the base; Construction, deconstructed pre war fan, and paint
Slobodkina, Esphyr

Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002)

Esphyr Slobodkina was born on September 22, 1908 in Chelyabinsk, Siberia. After the Russian Revolution created an unstable and dangerous climate for the Jews, Slobodkina moved with her family to Vladivostok and then to Harbin, Manchuria. As she wrote, it was a time of “riches to rags.” In 1927, Slobodkina emigrated to America and attended the National Academy of Design in New York. Here she met her future husband Ilya Bolotowsky, who introduced Slobodkina to modern theories of art, particularly in relation to form, color and composition. Associations with Balcomb and Gertrude Greene, Byron Browne and Giorgio Cavallon further exposed Slobodkina to the ideas of these pioneer abstract artists. After a sojourn at the Yaddo artist colony in the early 1930s, Slobodkina began to produce Cubist-inspired work. In 1935 she joined the Works Progress Administration and became active in the Artists’ Union, designing posters for them in paper collage. By 1936 she had fully embraced abstraction, and she also began to create surrealist-inspired sculptures made of wood, wire and found objects. In 1937 she became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists and went on to be the group's president in later years. She exhibited widely, including at ‘Eight by Eight: Abstract Painting Since 1940’ at the Philadelphia Museum (1945). After 1937, Slobodkina also wrote and illustrated many children’s books, most notably Caps for Sale (1938) which won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.