During the period of social and political turmoil that followed the Russian Revolution, Esphyr Slobodkina fled with her family to Vladivostok, and then to Harbin, Manchuria. In 1928, she immigrated to New York and the following year entered the National Academy of Design. Although unenthusiastic about the curriculum, Slobodkina’s visa required that she attend school, and she remained at the Academy until 1933. It was fortunate that she did, because through his sister, also a student, she met Ilya Bolotowsky, whom she married in 1933.
Slobodkina remembers her first long conversation with Bolotowsky as a lecture on composition, in which Bolotowsky talked of organization, mass, form, color, space — heady new ideas despite her several years of academic training. Through Bolotowsky, Slobodkina met Byron Browne, Gertrude and Balcomb Greene, Giorgio Cavallon, and others whose conversations roamed from discussions of the cost of canvas to the “latest capers in Picasso’s procession of quickly changing styles.”(1)
Slobodkina still considered herself very much a student when she married Bolotowsky, but, by signing her name to several of his early paintings, he wangled invitations for both of them to go to Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Still wavering between the Impressionist theories she had learned earlier, and Bolotowsky’s modernist ideas (he had not yet ventured into pure abstraction), she painted expressionist still-life and interior scenes during the several months they spent in Saratoga Springs. Her first Cubist-inspired painting — a fractured image of the sink in her bathroom — was created in 1934. Without rejecting more expressionist landscape and still-life paintings, she began in the winter of 1936 – 37 to concentrate seriously on abstraction. Once begun, Slobodkina moved quickly through her Cubist experiments toward a concern with planes and flattened pictorial space.
Financial pressures in the 1930s made it difficult for Slobodkina to concentrate on painting. Her parents had come to New York, but the family’s economic situation was precarious. During the early 1930s she and her mother opened a dressmaking business, designing and creating fine clothing and millinery. Among other short-lived jobs, Slobodkina worked for several textile printing firms, each of which folded. Although her parents still needed her help, her own situation dramatically changed when Bolotowsky joined the Public Works of Art Project and later the WPA: “It gave us bread, it gave us time, and above all, it gave us peace of mind.”(2) When Slobodkina and Bolotowsky separated in 1935, Slobodkina went on relief, and then joined the WPA herself.
She became very active in the Artists’ Union, and when members were asked to make posters for a fundraising event, Slobodkina presented collages. More at ease with scissors and paper than with drawing, Slobodkina’s collages honed her developing abstract style. She did several constructions early in her career, three-dimensional assemblages of wood, wire, and other found objects, and experimented with found-object sculpture. In her paintings of the late 1930s, forms are often flattened and overlaid in spatial configurations associated with collage. She also began experimenting with gesso panels, finding the evenly sanded surfaces especially suited to the linear clarity of her forms.
Slobodkina joined the American Abstract Artists early in the organization’s history. She had not attended the preliminary meetings at Ibram Lassaw’s studio in 1936, but once a member, served the organization in various capacities for several decades. During the early 1940s, with Alice Trumbull Mason, she helped organize an ambitious program of cultural evenings that combined lectures and parties. In her role as hospitality chairman, she introduced socially prominent New Yorkers to the organization.
A change in the direction of her career came in 1937, when Slobodkina first met Margaret Wise Brown, a noted author of children’s books. Hoping to find illustration work, she wrote and illustrated a children’s story to present as an introductory “portfolio”. Still not confident of her ability as a draftsman, Slobodkina cut little figures out of paper and collaged them to make her designs. Brown was charmed by their directness and simplicity and asked Slobodkina to illustrate Brown’s book The Little Fireman, published the following year. This was the first of many children’s tales that Slobodkina was to illustrate, and soon she began writing her own stories as well. Caps for Sale, her best-known book, has become a classic.
By the mid 1940s, Slobodkina had matured as an artist — Albert Gallatin owned two of her paintings, and she was invited to exhibit in the influential “Eight By Eight” exhibition of American abstract art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1945.3 With technical problems well in hand, she developed compositions such as Crossroad #2 and Spring #3, in which she juxtaposed planar shapes to create subtly modulated movement. Often abstractions from objects, the paintings of these years are well-harmonized arrangements of color and form. Her exuberance and energy continued to surface in collages—As Indicated, for example — and she expressed her irrepressible wit in found object sculpture, and jewelry made of old typewriter parts. Inrecognition of her own accomplishment and creative potential, Slobodkina was invited back to Yaddo in 1957, and the following year she went twice to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Since then she has exhibited frequently, and her little books continue to delight children the world over.
1. Esphyr Slobodkina, Notes for a Biographer (privately printed, Urquhart-Slobodkina, 1976), p. 325. The three volumes of Slobodkina’s Notes are a detailed reminiscence of her life, career, family, and friends.
2. Esphyr Slobodkina, Notes for a Biographer (privately printed, Urquhart-Slobodkina, 1976), p. 371.
3. Other exhibitors were George L. K. Morris, Ilya Bolotowsky, Suzy Frelinghuysen, A.E. Gallatin, Alice Trumbull Mason, Ad Reinhardt, and Charles Shaw.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930 – 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)