From abstract painting and sculpture to children’s books and architecture, Esphyr Slobodkina could do just about anything.
Millions of people know Esphyr Slobodkina as the writer and illustrator of the children’s classic Caps for Sale. That book, originally published in 1940 and still in print today, has enchanted generations of children with its mischievous headgear-stealing monkeys and distinctive color palette. Few of its readers, however, have ever learned that the distinctively-named author was also a major contributor to avant-garde art in America, through a career that lasted from the formative years of the abstract movement in the 1930s until her death at 93 in 2002. A selection of work spanning that career will be on view from December 27, 2019 through February 15, 2020, at LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe.
Slobodkina, an immigrant from Russia, was present at the creation of the pioneering American Abstract Artists group and stayed true to her hard-edged vision of abstraction through the vicissitudes of style and taste in the decades that followed. Her vision was a unitary one that spanned media, inspiring her to create not only paintings but sculptures, assemblages, collages, wall hangings, furniture, architectural designs, and even clothes and dolls. Summing up her approach, she wrote, “I just happen to be a very natural person, untrammeled by artificial, arbitrary rules of the games people, in my case people of ‘Art Circles,’ play. Frankly, I never gave a damn what people thought.”
That Rhett Butler-esque independence stemmed from Slobodkina’s legendarily strong personality as well as the formative experiences she went through, first as a refugee from the Soviet Union and then as a woman making her way in a deeply sexist art world. She was born in 1908 in Chelyabinsk, Siberia, then part of the Tsarist empire, to Solomon Aronovich Slobodkin and his wife, Itta. As the manager of a branch of the oil and gas company MAZUT, her father was comparatively wealthy, and when the Bolshevik Revolution came, the family fled eastward, riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Harbin, China. Situated at the edge of Manchuria, right over the border from Russia, the city had been largely built and settled by Russians well before the Revolution, and now, during the civil war between the Reds and the Whites, it became a haven for White Russian exiles and others escaping the Communist regime, including many Jews like the Slobodkins.
Life there was comparatively secure and comfortable. Esphyr wanted to become an architect, so she enrolled in a preparatory school that focused on engineering and architecture. She found the mathematical parts of the course work difficult, which caused her to put aside her ambition—for the time being, at least (much later in life, she was to become an amateur architect, designing houses she had built for herself and her sister, Tamara). On the other hand, she was getting interested in painting, taking lessons from a private tutor, the Impressionist painter Pavel Goost. Her
painting Park Bench in Harbin (1927), shows her early mastery of Impressionist brushwork and realist depiction.
In 1928, at the age of 20, Esphyr decided to try her luck in the United States, joining her brother, Ronya, who had emigrated there in 1923. Landing in New York with a student visa, she enrolled at the National Academy of Design. Tamara, who emigrated along with their parents within the next few years, took courses there, as well. The two sisters, disliked the instruction at the Academy; Esphyr recalled that they hated “every minute of its stupefying, senseless, destructive method of ‘teaching’ art.” Nonetheless, Esphyr stayed at the Academy from 1928–33, and while the teachers (with one notable exception, Arthur Sinclair Covey) were uninspiring and even actively opposed to modernism, a fellow student provided her with life-changing mentorship.
Ilya Bolotowsky, also from Russia, not only taught Slobodkina (at her request) the essentials of color and composition, with examples from art history, but also introduced her to his circle of avant-garde friends. And Bolotowsky was in no way controlling: After Slobodkina painted a particularly good floral still life, he said, “Now you can call yourself an artist,” and, as Slobodkina recalled, “Never again did he give me any advice or criticize my paintings.” In the summer of 1933, Slobodkina and Bolotowsky got married. It was more a marriage of convenience than of romance—for one thing, it made it possible for her to get U.S. citizenship—although the couple cared deeply about each other and remained friends and colleagues long after their divorce in 1938.
In the mid-1930s, Slobodkina and Bolotowsky were both making rapid progress with their art. Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse were their formative influences, but they were experimenting with techniques based on Cubism and Kandinsky-esque “non-objective” abstraction—Slobodkina emphasizing the former and her husband the latter. One of Slobodkina’s works from this period, Cornelia Street Bedroom (1933), shows how she used her simple apartment not only as a studio but as subject matter, compressing and distorting the domestic space and pushing toward what she called “a freer and freer interpretation of the Cubist theory.” Like many out-of-work artists during the Depression, she got a job on the WPA’s Federal Arts Project, making sketches for murals that used biomorphic abstraction and were clearly inspired by the work of Josn Miró.
In 1936, the American Abstract Artists group was founded to promote abstraction at a time when it was widely derided as “decorative” or meaningless. The perilous times seemed to call for an art with easily accessible social content, and American Scene painting and other regionalist movements found favor with the media and the art-critical establishment. Even though it was almost a quarter of a century since the Armory Show, most critics would only accept abstract art if it came from a European source; the work of American abstractionists was dismissed as derivative without getting a serious look. When the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., presented an exhibition titled “Cubism and Abstract Art” in 1936, only one
artist out of over 100 was American. The AAA clearly had its work cut out for it. Both Slobodkina and Bolotowsky joined the group as charter members in 1936 and showed their work in its first exhibition, at the Squibb Galleries in New York in April 1937. Slobodkina also received moral and financial support from Hilla Rebay, the director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later to be renamed the Guggenheim), a major champion of abstraction in the United States.
The AAA (which is still active today) would remain a key presence in Slobodkina’s life. She served it in various capacities, culminating in the presidency of the organization, which she held from 1963–66. She also wrote the official history of the group, which is available on its website. In 1940, the AAA helped Piet Mondrian travel to New York from Holland, and he promptly joined the group. Slobodkina hosted parties for him at her New York apartment, and while she never adopted Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic technique, her work was subtly influenced by his geometric art and specifically his concept of dynamic equilibrium. The 1942 exhibition of the AAA, its sixth annual, was particularly noteworthy. It featured work by European expats including Mondrian, Fernand Léger, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, as well as by the American members. Writing in The Nation, Clement Greenberg (soon to become the champion of the emerging Abstract Expressionists) singled out for special praise the work of Hananiah Harari, Giorgio Cavallon, and Slobodkina. It was also at this show that Slobodkina met her future husband, William L. Urquhart, a married businessman 20 years her senior. They began a clandestine affair that lasted until his wife died in 1963, at which point they married. Though happy, the marriage was brief—Urquhart died in 1966.
During the ’40s, Slobodkina’s style crystallized, and she would change it very little over the course of her career thereafter. Abstract Expressionism, which in many ways developed from of the achievements of the 1930s abstractionists, left her cold; she dubbed it the “drip, splash, and smudge school” and continued on with her hard-edge approach to painting. The early ’40s was a time of increasing recognition for her. Like many of the future Ab-Exers, she had the good fortune of showing at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, although in her case it was in an all-female exhibition, in 1942. Most of the work on view was Surrealist, but three abstract painters were included—Suzy Frelinghuysen, I. Rice Pereira, and Slobodkina, who was recommended for it by none other than Alfred Barr of MoMA. Despite the good notices, Slobodkina was not particularly happy with the situation. She recalled, “That was the only time I allowed myself to be in one of those sexist shows because I don’t believe in that.”
Slobodkina, as a loyal member of the AAA, eschewed Ab-Ex affiliations such as The Club, nor did she exhibit in the Ninth Street Show or the annual Stable Gallery group shows in the ’50s. Gestural abstraction and action painting were not for her; her work continued to be meticulously planned, elaborated sketched out, and executed with an almost industrial polish. In fact, there is something reminiscent of Precisionism in her work. While abstract overall, there are definite representational elements, and when they appear, they are often mechanical or architectural in
nature. In Turboprop Skyshark (1951) planes of color intersect in 3-D space to form an airplane; in Amethyst Mines (1961), purple shapes that connote the semiprecious stone seem to be braced by struts in a dynamic, architectonic structure. Deus Ex Machina (1961) takes a more Cubist approach, and whatever god is abstractly depicted there is indeed emerging from a machine, rendered in what engineers would call an “exploded” view. A much later work, Idiograph (1990) is almost like a two-dimensional diagram of a system of pipes. Looking at these paintings, it is not hard to believe that Slobodkina was fully capable of designing and building a house.
The mechanical approach translated well into three dimensions when the artist took up assemblage. As early as the mid-’30s Slobodkina was making flat wooden mixed-media collages, along with paper collages, and over time she expanded this practice into the third dimension. She used fragments of typewriter innards, leaf springs, gears, and precision-cut pieces of wood and metal to make free-standing and wall-mounted constructions that are wonderfully imaginative, with a space-age verve. To help support herself, she worked as an office manager in Urquhart’s company and would repurpose office supplies and virtually anything that crossed her desk for her assemblages. In these works, which owe something to the Merz pieces of Kurt Schwitters, Slobodkina came as close as she ever would to Surrealism.
Her children’s book endeavors also began as a way to earn extra money but evolved into a very important part of her creative life. It all started in 1937, when she showed her portfolio to an up-and-coming children’s-book editor, Margaret Wise Brown, who 10 years later would write Goodnight Moon. Brown worked for a recently established Greenwich Village-based publishing house called William R. Scott & Company, and she was looking for fresh, new material that drew on the visual vocabulary of modernism. Slobodkina’s first book for Brown (who became a close friend), The Little Fireman, used a cut-out-and-collage technique that was as innovative as it was visually striking.
The book that made her fame, though, used a completely different style. In Caps for Sale, Slobodkina channeled naive representational painters such as Henri Rousseau to create a vivid storytelling atmosphere that proved irresistible to children—and plenty of adults. She went on to produce many more books over a period of decades, which eventually brought her the financial security she needed to pursue her art and other projects. Of Slobodkina’s writing, Brown said, “You write like a painter, creating vivid pictures with very few words.” While the children’s-book art and the abstract art look profoundly different, beneath the surface they both bespeak the same lively mind, self-assured and utterly indifferent to convention.
For more information see https://www.slobodkinafoundation.org
By John Dorfman