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Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002)

Untitled, 1978

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.

By 1936, Slobodkina had fully embraced abstraction as her preferred mode of artistic expression.

Whereas her early style incorporated textural shapes reminiscent of fabric cutouts, reflecting her lifelong fascination with collage and textiles, her later abstractions began to feature industrial motifs, a reflection of her deep-seated interest in architecture and mechanics.

In this particular artwork, the shapes evoke mechanical elements, such as a wheel, set against an industrial background characterized by shades of grey and metallic colors, alongside rigid shapes reminiscent of nails. This choice of subject matter reflects the prevailing trends of the 1970s, and its predominant industrial landscape – particularly the growing emphasis on automation within the machining industries.

x W73,5cm
Signed. Oil on canvas
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.