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. Robert Knott writes of the fledgling movement as “a combination of styles, as a modification of European abstraction responding to a new, industrialized America.” The majority of these artists were immigrants, and their vision of an artistic community and its role in society was a focus born from their newly American identity.
The marriage to Bolotowsky did not last, but after her divorce in 1938, Slobodkina’s artistic identity developed into her own individual aesthetic. In the cramped Long Island storage space, where one could see the seven decades of work together in one place, it was easy to notice the threads connecting them: how the artist’s architectural eye could flatten space while still being aware of how to lay shapes atop one another. Her motifs—shapes of fingerlike peacock feathers, the clever use of door hinges between shapes—were all there. Sayers referred to an “Esphyrian” color palette; there is, in particular, a ripe-tomato red that one can locate across decades and styles. The diversity was vigorous; the consistencies were those of an assured artist.
The only Slobodkina painting held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Pot Bellied Stove, an oil completed around 1937. In this work, her lines are clean and defined, and her subject is the concrete reality around her. The sculptures I saw were figures of birds made from the prongs of typewriters and old desk fans. The ribs of nautical vessels arch their way across the lithograph titled Boat Building, one of four Slobodkina pieces in the Whitney’s collection. One painting Sayers showed me was made on wood, and sections of the paint had been scratched away to reveal the grain pattern underneath, imbuing the piece with a surprising texture that was somehow at home in that Esphyrian palette. The tangible world was her muse; the practical woman who ran the AAAG was indifferent to rules, working in whatever style or medium she pleased and innovating where she saw opportunity. In terms of influence, Slobodkina is now recognized as a forerunner of hard-edged abstraction, which came into its own in the sixties and seventies.
Notes for a Biographer was a plea to be remembered that has, so far, gone largely unheard. But if it is heard—if there will someday be an audience for a biography—it will be because of Ann Marie Sayers’s stewardship. The project of unearthing the rich lives of forgotten women artists can quickly become personal for their women biographers, and the questions of merit become difficult to parse out from a hunger for retroactive justice. When we do this work as critics, we are hoping to implicitly express how we’ve changed, as a society, by recognizing a previously unacknowledged greatness. Even if you never go to see a Slobodkina painting, the newfound opportunity to do so indicates a change, nearly imperceptible, in the world we live in—one that has made space for her on its gallery walls, next to all the other names we recognize. When we reprint novels by women writers or read histories of women painters, we are making an effort to repay a debt of overdue attention—and maybe in doing so, we assure ourselves that there is a future that will remember, or recognize, us, our peers, the women we admire today. There’s no way to guarantee it, but maybe when we do this work we’re paying it forward while paying it backward, driven by the blind hope that there will be space for what we’ve done after we have ceased to do it.
And yet, a name cannot be rediscovered if there are too few traces of it left in the world. In thinking about this, the New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal wrote, “Without champions and concerted support, even the most breathtakingly original writer will sail into oblivion, her legacy erased or distorted.”
Sayers, a six-foot-four blonde woman with a Long Island accent, met Slobodkina at the University of Hartford in the early nineties, where Sayers had gone back to school at forty to get a degree in music, having toured in rock bands her whole life. Though she had no formal training in art history, Sayers became Slobodkina’s assistant for the next eight years, then moved into the apartment above Slobodkina’s home in Glen Head on Long Island in 1999. Slobodkina would often take her evening tea in Sayers’s apartment and the two would talk. Slobodkina proffered memories of pain and heartache, along with lessons about the history of art and painting, assigning reading and guiding Sayers’s informal education. As we waited for the train in Northport, after our visit to the storage unit, Sayers said simply, “I’m not doing this for me.”
At ninety-two years old, Slobodkina decided she would begin to retype Notes for a Biographer in her native language; Sayers helped her scour Manhattan for a Russian typewriter. After Slobodkina’s death, Sayers once drove with her now-husband from Long Island to Miami with forty-five artworks packed into a minivan to stage an exhibition at the Miami Public Library. Looking around the contents in storage, it would seem that the tireless Esphyr could create anything; in her relationship with Ann Marie, she created an overseer of her life’s work whose tirelessness matched her own.
What Sayers appears to be least interested in is selling the work. When a sale is made, it is, as best as can be, made to buyers who plan to eventually donate collections to arts institutions—as per Slobodkina’s wishes. The final years of her life were spent pursuing any institution that might be willing to take the body of her work out of her small house in Long Island and give it a permanent home. When Slobodkina died in 2002, Sayers became the president of the then newly established Slobodkina Foundation. There are Slobodkina paintings in the holdings at the Met and MoMA, and a smattering elsewhere, but the majority of her work remains in the care of the Slobodkina Foundation. About ten years after her death, a small burst of attention was paid in the form of exhibitions, both in Long Island and in Manhattan. There is a resurgence of interest once more, a noticeable uptick in interest from both buyers and galleries. Sayers is now working on several forthcoming exhibitions; she is getting ready to pack up work to send to out to the LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe for a show set to open in 2020. “I’d like to do this as long as Esphyr did,” she said, “into my nineties.” Sayers, who is in her sixties, is already thinking about who will take over the project when she dies. Nobody will know Slobodkina like Sayers did; perhaps the weight of this stewardship will be lessened by the hands of many, by critics and students and a sprawling show at the Guggenheim. In the meantime, Sayers has recently hired a full-time assistant fourteen years her junior.
Throughout her life, according to Sayers, Slobodkina had a recurring dream: She would wake up in her bed and begin to walk down a hallway, a candle in one hand to light the way. Along the hall, there were rooms with scenes and people; at the hallway’s end was a door; she pushed the key into the lock and just as she was about to open it and pass through, the dream would end. In the storage unit, Sayers unsheathed a study for a painting that depicts the dream. At the far right, a woman’s figure stands in front of that final open door, finally seeing what the viewer cannot, arriving at what is at the end of the hall. There is a larger, finished version of the painting, Sayers told me, but it wasn’t kept in the storage unit. That piece, Slobodkina left to Sayers.
Lauren Kane is a writer who lives in New York. She is the assistant editor at The Paris Review.