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.” Read More